Thursday, 19 January 2012

Imre Kertész: Detective Story

Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész was born in 1929 and spent his adolescence in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. With the end of World War II, life threw him into a different sort of concentration camp: Soviet-controlled Hungary. To say that Kertész has had a detailed knowledge of 20th century horrors is an understatement.

Well, a writer’s misery and tragedy are a reader’s good fortune. Kertész has managed to turn his life experiences into eerie books about the arbitrariness of power and the powerlessness of the individual trapped in oppressive regimes. Detective Story surprised and fascinated me. Originally published in 1977 (but timely translated into English in 2008), the action takes place in South America but deals with a reality he knew well.

Detective Story is the confession of Antonio Martens, a young police inspector from an unnamed South American regime, currently in jail for murder. Martens used to work for the Corps, a special unit which spied on subversives and cracked down on anyone who could pose a threat to the stability of the regime. In other words, Martens was a torturer and murderer of innocent people. But the regime has been overthrown and Martens no longer has immunity. As the novel opens, he's in a cell waiting for his execution. So these are his last words, not a confession for he feels no remorse, but a statement, as if his matter-of-factly mind has continued to write impersonal reports.

His confession-report focuses especially on the the newsworthy Salinas case; basically Federigo and Enrique, middle-class father and son, were kidnapped, tortured and murdered on suspicions that they were involved with radical groups working to bring down the regime.

Antonio Martens is a cold, nasty piece of work; his impersonal, detached rendering of the events makes him sound like a robot reciting a script and also brings to memory the Nazis’ infamous excuse that they were just following orders. Kertész’ short sentences and sparse vocabulary accentuate Martens’ lack of emotional investment in the crimes he’s narrating. Although I generally dislike minimalism, this style suits the objective, no-nonsense personality of Martens like a pair of tight handcuffs. Marvel at the simplicity of the first paragraph:

I wish to tell a story. A simple story. You may ultimately call it a sickening one, but that does not change its simpleness. I wish therefore to tell a simple and sickening story.

In one short paragraph Kertész has set the tone of the story. No pity, no guilt. Just a statement of facts. Martens describes his transfer from the regular police branch to the special Corps and his growing involvement with torture and violence. It’s a horrible job, but Martens doesn’t carry the responsibility alone. There is Diaz, his boss, and Rodriguez, a colleague fascinated with torture instruments. Whenever Martens has doubts about his actions, the meditative Diaz is always present to lend him support and steer him on the right path of order, discipline and obedience to all authority:

   Another time – I no longer recall what prompted it – he declared out of the blue, “The world would look very different if we policemen were to stick together.”
   So I said, “But we do stick together, don’t we?”
   “Not just here, at home, but throughout the world!” he growled.
   “In every state, you mean?”
   “I do,” says Diaz, elegantly crossing his legs, rocking his stocky, slightly squat body in his armchair, and shrouding his smooth, oily face in an enigmatic cloud of cigar smoke. It was getting into the afternoon; we were just taking a bit of a break, and the mood seemed cordial. At such times, it does one good to chat, even with the boss.
   So I dug a lit further. “You mean the police of hostile states as well?”
   At that he raised a finger. “Nowhere and at no time,” he said, “are the police hostile.”

Martens also describes The Corps’ efficient methodology. The moment peoples’ lives become files at the Corps, it becomes inevitable that they’ll get in trouble with the law, even if they’re innocent. Or as Martens succinctly puts it:

At the time we had done nothing more than open a file on Enrique. We already knew about him. He featured in the records as an abstract piece of data, and we knew that sooner or later he would have to play a part in person.

The law doesn’t create a file on a man because he’s guilty. He becomes guilty because they create a file on him. This Kafkaesque logic is downright terrifying. Some lines later:

In short, our records had already identified that Enrique was going to perpetrate something sooner or later. As far as we were concerned, his fate was sealed, even if he himself had not yet made up his mind.

From this to the inevitable execution of two innocent people is but a short step. I haven’t read such a searing condemnation of totalitarianism in a long time. Detective Story is a slim novel, but packed with ideas that connect it to George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. But imagine if Orwell had written his novel from O’Brien’s perspective; or if Kafka had written his novel from the judge’s perspective who sentences Joseph K. Instead of giving voice to the victim, Kertész lets the executioner speak. Writing from his personal knowledge of human cruelty and obedience without reflection, the author has created a grim parable about the dangers of the police state, a book that uncomfortably resonates with our modern world.

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