Book Review: Detective Story by Imre Kertész

Orwellian. Kafkaesque. Both terms are universally recognized shorthand for certain types of tales. Yet the terms are bandied about all too often. While the title of Detective Story by Imre Kertész calls to mind some noir novel, it is far more faithful to Orwell and Kafka than most other books for which those authors are invoked.

Kertész, an Auschwitz survivor, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, the first Hungarian author to do so. Originally published in Hungary in 1977, Detective Story is actually set in a fictitious Latin American country. Its appearance in the U.S. this year sadly reinforces it is still relevant.

Detective Story actually has three narrators. The main one is Antonio Rojas Martens, a career policeman who transfers into “the Corps,” a secret police outfit. His story, however, is introduced by a defense attorney representing Martens, who has admitted to and been convicted of various counts of murder after the regime he served has itself been overthrown. Essentially, Martens wants to explain his involvement with and what happened to “Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son, proprietors of the chain of department stores that are dotted all over our country, whose deaths so astounded people.” In so doing, Martens quotes extensively from Enrique’s diary, which was confiscated in a search of the Salinas home, making Enrique co-narrator of the memoir (although it beggars the imagination that Martens would have access to the diary while incarcerated.)

The country, led by “the Colonel,” has become a totalitarian society in which surveillance is endemic. “There are these police types everywhere, eavesdropping, sniffing around, and they think nobody is paying any attention to them,” Enrique notes in his diary. “They’re right, too, people don’t pay them any attention. All it has taken is a few months, and already they have grown accustomed to them.” For example, the Corps shoots 120 rolls of film when Enrique spends a bit of time at the beach with a group of college-aged acquaintances Martens calls “shaggy-haired weirdos.”

Enrique’s diary reveals that he is chafing under the government’s state of emergency, particularly since it has closed the universities. But other than what Orwell called “thoughtcrime,” Enrique has done nothing to attract the attention of the Corps, other than to be photographed with the presumably subversive “weirdos.” That matters not. “Any person who was in the records was going to end up a suspect sooner or later, no question,” Martens writes. Moreover, simply being in the records meant “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.”

Thus, Kertész blends the Orwellian world with a Kafkaesque one. Whether Enrique or his father are guilty of treason or trying to overthrow the government is wholly irrelevant. They, like almost anyone else in the country, are powerless to change their destiny. Having been identified as a potential threat to “Homeland security” due only to association, Enrique and, in turn, his father are inexorably entangled in the jaws of the leviathan. Detective Story is, thus, like many detective novels. The story isn’t in the end result, it’s what brought the characters to that end.

At just more than 100 pages, this is more a novella than a novel. It is written in sparse, straightforward prose, something retained in Tim Wilkinson’s translation. In fact, Detective Story was on the longlist for the first annual Best Translated Book Award. Characters are portrayed more from a psychological standpoint than any other. Martens seeks to expiate his conscience, noting that although the Corps “brainwashed” him, it wasn’t enough. Yet he still invokes some bit of excuse, saying that as the “new boy” on his interrogation team, “I was aware that a different yardstick applied here at the Corps, but I thought there was at least a yardstick.”

Enrique’s conscience is similarly plagued by guilt, but guilt over the benefits his family’s status affords him and the perceived complacency of the citizenry, himself included. He expressly takes an existential view of the meaninglessness of life under the current regime and he burns to do something, anything, to bring value to his life. His father’s conscience, meanwhile, will suffer the repercussions of his own deceptions.

Thus, the power of Detective Story is not in its character description but showing how easily it is for evil to be viewed as a temporary necessity until it simply becomes accepted. As the defense attorney says in introducing the story, “Let me add, not in his defense but merely for the sake of the truth, that this horror story was written not by Martens alone but by reality, too.”

The present is just temporary.

Imre Kertész, Detective Story

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