Where Auschwitz Starts Logic Stops


Imre Kertész. Photograph by Csaba Segesvári

by K. Thomas Kahn

Dossier K: A Memoir,
by Imre Kertész,
Melville House, 224 pp.

Nobel laureate Imre Kertész is certainly no stranger to controversy. His radical reconceptualization of the term “Holocaust” — in whose “unscrupulous employment” he locates “a cowardly and unimaginative glibness” — to extend beyond the scope of the concentration camps and those who perished therein, rhetorically privileges the survivors over the dead: “the word [Holocaust] actually only relates to those who were incarcerated: the dead, but not the survivors… The survivor is an exception.” And his fictional portrayals of Auschwitz and its repercussions in autobiographical novels like Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Fiasco have been misread as “betray[ing] the Holocaust” — in spite of Kertész having himself been held at Auschwitz, and later Buchenwald, from the age of fourteen — just as they critique the totalitarian dictatorships that ensued in his native Hungary after the end of the Second World War, regimes that Kertész believes were related to the Holocaust at the level of power: “after Auschwitz the virtuality of Auschwitz inheres in every dictatorship.”

In Dossier K. (2006), published by Melville House this month in a fresh English translation by Tom Wilkinson, Kertész departs from his usual terrain of fiction for that of memoir. Structured as a long interview, Dossier K. is Kertész interrogating himself about his life, his work, and how the two are inseparable (“fiction [is] founded on reality”); his memories of the Holocaust and the subsequent regimes under which he lived as a teenager and young man in Budapest; how he entered the Communist Party after his time in the camps; the function of art to address an unspeakable “death factory” such as Auschwitz; and also the mixed reception of his work in his native country. Of the latter, particularly of the reception of Fatelessness (the first in his Holocaust trilogy), he comments on the difficulty involved in finding a publisher for a book that so challenged authority and refused the typical victimized stance of most Holocaust literature:

The sheer impudence that the book denoted through its mere existence, its style, its independence; a sarcasm inherent in its language that strains permitted bounds and dismisses the craven submissiveness that all dictatorships ordain for recognition and art.

Although much of Dossier K. meanders through time, seeing Kertész pose questions to and interrupt himself with tangential queries and questions he cannot fully answer (“I can’t answer your questions, for if I could that would be as much as to say that I had grasped something that goes beyond the mind’s limits”), the first half is largely concerned with his experiences as a child in the “truly fine city” of Budapest prior to the ghettoization of Jews on the brink of World War II and his own imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. However, Kertész never grants the reader of this memoir a picture of what life was life for him in the concentration camps; instead, Kertész mentions his fictional characters’ experiences as a way of reading his own, stating: “I am unable to interpret what happened as reality, only as fiction… [W]hile creating the character, I forgot myself.” While eschewing common critical strains that read his novels as autobiographical, Kertész emphasizes the ways in which life speaks to fiction and how fiction can be a working-through of one’s traumas: “I have written my books, and that has obviously altered my memories.”

Central to this notion is a perpetual reinvention of the self: “being a writer I am constantly working on my identity, and as soon as I come across it I lose it straight away… It’s not always easy to be in full possession of ourselves.” And in spite of the fact that identity for Kertész is never fixed or stable, there is the suggestion that writing as a survivor is in some way speaking not only for himself but for the myriad others who managed to survive the Nazi death camps only to find themselves imprisoned in cultural regimes that effectively dehumanized and effaced individuality altogether: “a mass fate, the stripping away of a human being’s most human essence.” Indeed, although Auschwitz — insofar as Kertész employs this term to encompass life outside and beyond the camps — is integral to how a survivor lives after liberation, Kertész views Auschwitz as a sort of Lacanian nom-du-père: an event that was necessary in how it shaped his subjectivity, and one against which he battles continuously in a psychological desire to achieve autonomy. “I needed Auschwitz,” he writes, juxtaposing it against his earlier writing in Kaddish for an Unborn Child: “Auschwitz manifests itself to me in the image of a father; yes, the words ‘father’ and ‘Auschwitz’ elicit the same echo within me.” He even extends this further, positing Auschwitz as a memory trigger much in the same way Proust’s madeleine was for him:

… it was under the Kádár regime that I clearly understood my Auschwitz ordeals, and I would never have come to understand them if I had grown up in a democracy. And I have already said that a hundred times, comparing the strength of memory to Proust’s petites madeleines, the unexpected taste of which revived the past for him. For me the petite madeleine was the Kádár era, and it revived the tastes of Auschwitz.

Related to this is Adorno’s famous dictum: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This is a concept with which Kertész grapples at some length, calling it “a sick joke” and “a moral stink bomb,” as he questions why silence on traumatic events like the Holocaust is a stance Adorno appears to advocate:

I can’t imagine how as keen an intellect as Adorno could suppose that art would renounce portraying the greatest trauma of the twentieth century. It’s true, though, that the industrialized murder of millions cannot serve as the basis for aesthetic pleasure, as it were, but surely that doesn’t mean one ought to regard the poetry of, say, Paul Celan or Miklós Radnóti as barbaric? … The more you think about that unfortunate pronouncement, the more senseless it becomes. But what I see as truly harmful is the tendency that it reflects: a preposterously misconceived elitism that incidentally runs riot in other forms as well. What I am referring to is the assertion of an exclusive right to suffering, the appropriation, as it were, of the Holocaust.

Instead of survivors maintaining silence and thus refusing to use aesthetic modes in order to fathom the complex network of individual, social, and cultural causes that resulted in the Holocaust, Kertész finds it necessary to shift the focus from the Holocaust itself to how “the world order has not changed even after Auschwitz.” In so doing, Kertész’s work refutes Adorno’s prescribed silence while at the same time rendering Auschwitz “into a universal human experience” so that its tragic consequences can bring light on individuals’ oppression by totalitarian governmental forces long after the camps were liberated in 1945. For Kertész, intellectuals, but especially artists, are better able to remain a sense of individuality under such regimes — even though “educated people had a harder time of it in the death camps” — because dreams and the unconscious are such fertile sources of retreat: “in the concentration camp I lived in my dream world; I learned how to be there yet not present. One can do that in any dictatorship.”

Dossier K. is a harrowing memoir by a writer whose views of the individual and society are unflinchingly accusatory, bringing to mind the work of fellow Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai, not to mention Kafka, to whom Kertész admits several times he is indebted. Kertész’s ruminations on the past are concerned with self-liberation through artistic channels: “Like it or not, art always regards life as a celebration.” He asks each of us to acknowledge our complicity in giving rise to catastrophes like the Holocaust, dictatorships, and other regimes that suppress individuality in favor of mass murder — whether real or metaphorical. As he writes in Fiasco, the individual is always an “accomplice to the unspoken conspiracy against [his or her] life.”

While a survivor of the concentration camps, Kertész’s work can hardly be read as suffused with the survivor’s guilt as much of Celan’s poetry has been read; instead, Kertész uses the medium of fiction to work through his past experiences and to incite fellow survivors (both of the Holocaust and of other totalitarian social regimes) to look at the ways in which individuals have allowed society to manufacture the groundwork for these tragedies to occur. In Dossier K., he remarks that: “Where Auschwitz starts logic stops.” And it is only through the act of writing that one can begin to make sense of logic at all, in particular how it can so horrifically and fatally collapse.

About the Author:

K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, Book Slut, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Music and Literature and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @proustitute.