Detective Story by Imre Kertesz

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Continuing along on our tour of novellas about depressing topics translated from another language, next up we have Detective Story by Hungarian novelist and Pulitzer Prize Winner Imre Kertesz. I had not read any of his work previously, but this seemed a perfect fit for Short Book Appreciation week.

It is also in its own way a morality tale, this one disguised as a police procedural. Here is the flap jacket copy which caught my attention:

As readers, we are accustomed to reading stories of war and injustice from the victims’ point of view, sympathizing with their plight. In Detective Story, the tables have been turned, leaving us in the mind of a monster, as Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész plunges us into a story of the worst kind, told by a man living outside morality.

Now in prison, Antonio Martens is a torturer for the secret police of a recently defunct dictatorship. He requests and is given writing materials in his cell, and what he has to recount is his involvement in the surveillance, torture, and assassination of Federigo and Enrique Salinas, a prominent father and son whose principled but passive opposition to the regime left them vulnerable to the secret police. Preying on young Enrique’s aimless life, the secret police began to position him as a subversive and then targeted his father. Once this plan was set into motion, any means were justified to reach the regime’s chosen end—the destruction of an entire liberal class.

Inside Martens’s mind, we inhabit the rationalizing world of evil and see firsthand the inherent danger of inertia during times of crisis. A slim, explosive novel of justice railroaded by malevolence, Detective Story is a warning cry for our time.

Having read the book I am not sure this is an entirely apt description. It, as book flaps are wont to do, oversells the story a bit. The copy seems to indicate much more drama and splash than the novella contains.

What the story offers is a minimalist vision of the crushing weight of totalitarianism. The narrator Martens didn’t set out to oppress and destroy innocent people. He just wanted to be a detective; a “flatfoot.” But saying no in this situation requires moral and physical courage. Martens never is able to reach that point, instead he is swept along almost by inertia and participates in the torture and murder of innocent people.

He tries to tell himself that he is just a pawn – tries to rationalize his involvement. His headaches, and the fact that he bought his victims diary, point to his guilty conscience but without any constraints or counter-pressures outside of himself he simply goes along.

His victims are trapped in a different way. Enrique Salinas is young and full of frustration at the suffocating nature of the regime. He seems to know that leading a normal life without real freedom is somehow a lie – to pretend things are normal when they are clearly not – but as the son of a wealthy businessman he isn’t exactly revolutionary material. But he is tempted by it and yearns for action that might give him meaning.

His father Federigo hopes simply to keep his head down and let this time of troubles pass. He wants to use his wealth and social standing to withstand the political winds. But his son is impatient and out of love he acts to protect his son. It is this act, however that proves his undoing.

The specific actions taken, however, are not important because just by their nature the Salinas’s are suspect in the eyes of the regime. Enrique is a long haired idealist youth who doesn’t believe in the powers that be. He is a danger no matter what he does. His father’s wealth, independent power and status likewise mark him as a threat.

As the story unfolds it is clear that guilt and innocence are irrelevant. The regime believes there is a threat and will act no matter what the circumstances. This determinism pervades the story. Both Martens and the Salinas’s play out the roles they have been given but the end is predetermined.

Kertesz is obviously no stranger to oppression and he skillfully captures the suffocating nature of totalitarianism and the corrupting nature of power without constraints. Despite the minimalist nature of the story the tension is always there in the background; the sense that tragedy is coming and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

But this tension and kernel of insight left me wanting more. The Observer review echoed my feelings:

Ultimately, this slender novel reads like a preliminary sketch, not the Orwellian fable the author had perhaps intended. Something is lacking and that, perhaps, is a sense of plausibility. Martens’s motives for dispensing such horrific violence remain obscure: clearly Kertesz likes the mystery of the unresolved. Translator Tim Wilkinson has rendered the sparse Hungarian into smooth English. It remains a bleak essay on the corrupting tendency of power.

And the New Statesmen also gets at part of the problem:

Martens is an untrustworthy but beguiling narrator, blind to his own moral decline. Kertész is careful not to sentimentalise, making Detective Story very much a two-way piece: the reader is compelled to work with the author in order to gain any kind of fulfilment from the writing. Even then, the sense that something important is missing cannot quite be avoided, despite the novella’s genuinely haunting and lyrical character. It is this delicately evoked moodiness that renders the book a memorable and thought-provoking work, even if it is, in the end, a fundamentally unsatisfying one.

As both these reviews indicate, there was something missing; a sense that this was incomplete or unsatisfying. Perhaps that is the risk in such a short work. I have a hard time describing it exactly myself, but the story just didn’t seem enough.

Perhaps, I should re-read it. That is what Chauncey Mabe recommends in his review:

Detective Story is the kind of short novel that repays rereading. Its effects, wrought with subtlety and craftsmanship, tend to suppress the humanity of its characters the first time through, leaving us little moved by their tragedy. A casual reader might protest that too little care is expended on the police procedural framework for the existential seriousness Kertesz asks it to support.

Reading the novel a second time, however, reveals the necessary elements were present all along. What seemed indistinct and colorless before suddenly sharpens into vivid clarity. Enrique, Federigo and Martens — and, indeed, Rodriguez and Diaz — become more than types, and what happens, or doesn’t happen, to them matters.

It is a short enough work that I may just do that.

I also want to offer an editorial comment. Most of the reviews also note that this book is a warning for our time or some such. And I am certainly not one to play down the dangers of totalitarian regimes or the corrupting nature of power.

But I can’t let the, perhaps to be expected,comparisons to President Bush go unmentioned. The Bookslut review has this to say:

What is the mystery? We start with the bare-bones details of a detective story. We have some documents to piece together. We move backwards, we move sideways, through hardboiled noir, into the dark core of secret police under a Hitler, under a Stalin, under a Pinochet, under George H.W. Bush’s CIA. We end up — somewhere a long time past Auschwitz, somewhere a long way away from “that scummy Europe, in its eastern half” — looking at a Boger swing. We end up with a secret police chief, Martens’s boss, who, under the nameless Colonel, can frame the innocent in less than an hour and a half.

Are educated people now unable to tell the difference between Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, and George W. Bush? Has it really come to that? This is a sign not of political or partisan differences but hyperbolic overstatement or ignorance on a grand scale.

The folks over at Complete Review offer much the same:

A solid little tale that once again finds greater resonance, as these are times (2006) when an American president claims the right to detain suspected (for whatever reason — he refuses to give specifics) ‘terrorists’, with no oversight by any independent authority to ensure that the prisoners are not abused. Sadly, in 2006 Detektívtörténet no longer reads as a novel of what can happen in, say, Argentina or Hungary, but rather of what can and is being done by the governments of powers such as Russia and the United States.

Again, where is any sense of context? Say what you will about any over-reach on the part of President Bush, he is certainly not without constraints. He may claim the ability to do all sorts of things but that doesn’t mean he can actually do them.  The above makes it sound like Bush is running around grabbing innocents off the streets and having them tortured and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

I have no problem with criticisms, but folks should attempt to tether them to some sense of reality and context. President Bush may be horribly wrong but he is a long way from a totalitarian dictator or military strongman. And if critics can’t see that then don’t expect me to take their ominous warnings all that seriously.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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