In 1975, thirty years after his liberation from a concentration camp, the Hungarian author Imre Kertész published his first novel, Sorstalanság, which has been translated into English as both Fateless and Fatelessness. Whichever you prefer—I like Fatelessness, personally—it’s one of those destined-to-be-a-classic books against which everything else he writes, including Liquidation, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and his newly translated Detective Story, will forever be contrasted. That it took him three decades to compose his masterpiece and so matter-of-factly describe a Holocaust-era childhood should come as no surprise. But what can any artist really say about our greatest human atrocities that isn’t self-evident? Both Fatelessness and Detective Story reveal that the answer, for Kertész, has something to do with fate—and the lack thereof. The fact that some among us are capable of such atrocities indicates to Kertész that we, as a whole race, have forsaken the divine. God hasn’t abandoned us, we’ve abandoned God, and in doing so we have, at least temporarily, lost our fates.
Originally published just a year after Fatelessness, Detective Story is a slender volume reminiscent, in terms of style and subject, of Roberto Bolaño’s novellas By Night in Chile and Distant Star. Set in an unnamed Latin American nation shortly after a dictator’s overthrow, it serves as Kertész’s at tempt to understand systematic, government sponsored evil not from the perspective of a victim, as in Fatelessness,but from that of a perpetrator. The story takes the form of a memoir written behind bars by one Antonio Rojas Martens, who worked as an agent of the secret police be fore the regime change. The novel opens with an introduction from his court-appointed defense attorney, who writes: “All I shall say in advance is that, given his scholastic attainments, he evinced a surprising flair for writing, as indeed does anyone, in my experience, who for once in his life steels himself to face up to his fate.” We learn quickly that Martens’s incarceration is due to his complicity in the death of the department store tycoon Federigo Salinas and his son Enrique, whose murders in police custody would ultimately spark the uprising that over-threw the government. Along with two partners (one of whom reads about Auschwitz to inspire his interrogations) Martens was assigned to uncover an intelligence report “about an impending atrocity.” When he puts Enrique under constant surveillance their stories begin to overlap, and the atrocity that gets committed isn’t the one we’ve been led to expect. The sections of Enrique’s private journals that Martens includes demonstrate how inexorably bound are the fates of the torturer and the tortured. Fate in Detective Story, and in Fatelessness for that matter, differs from the traditional, ancient Greek idea in which every man’s destiny is preordained and immutable. Not even Zeus & Co. could influence Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.
But Kertész’s definition allows our destinies some wiggle room. God, he would seem to suggest, can alter our fate if He so chooses, which means we can remain hopeful of some eventual improvement to our de graded conditions. The situation might look bad right now, e.g., when your father is getting shipped out to a brick factory, but things might get better eventually. That hopefulness in the face of tragedy makes Kertész a joy to read, even when he describes our darkest horrors.