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10 Questions For Imre Kertész

4 minute read
JOHN NADLER | Budapest

In 2002, Imre Kertész, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and author of such novels such as Fatelessness (1975), Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1990), and Liquidation (2003) won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The distinction brought Kertész, now 77, a new platform for his ideas on the impact of 20th century totalitarian politics on the individual. Kertész spoke to John Nadler in Budapest about the Nobel, novels and the threats for the 21st century.

You survived both the Nazi death camps and the Soviet dictatorship in Hungary. Is your life an example of how the human will can flourish even in harsh conditions? Human will always flourishes. But I do not consider my life an example of this. I am a commentator on it.

Did you ever truly believe that Soviet communism would collapse? I expected the collapse of the system every day. Communism wasn’t a natural system or way of life. Such systems always collapse.

With Russian dissidents being murdered in Moscow and London, do you see a new type of Russian totalitarianism? No, but Russia is such a unique creation. It has always been under some form of dictatorship and does not know by experience what democracy is. But Russian politics and society are so complex I don’t dare go into an analysis.

Is the West being tough enough in its response to Moscow over these allegations? The West in general should stand up more for its own values. It is not always worthwhile to compromise.

What are the greatest political threats facing Europe today? Cowardice. Unnecessary compromise that can harm our values. I often think what might have happened if the U.S. had not stood beside Europe and defeated fascism. We must not forget that terrorism has its roots in Europe’s extremist politics. WW I began with an assassination, and after that we saw further terrorist attacks and the creation of terrorist states. This is the threat.

Are you generally positive or negative about Europe’s progress since 1946? There has been a struggle between the negative and the positive, and we are deep in this fight at the moment. The real fight will not be between nations, but a struggle between fanaticism and democracy. Terrorists do not have a common list of demands on which to base negotiations. Fanatical hatred has taken over the world and this phenomenon conflicts with rational politics that is accustomed to negotiation and compromise.

Were you ever tempted to defect to the West during communism? Yes, I was tempted to leave, but I couldn’t. The first opportunity arose in 1956 [during the revolution]. I was 27 at the time. I had a lot of big ideas for a novel. I knew I wanted to write eventually, and I knew that at 27 it was too late to learn to write in another language. This consideration decided my fate. Like the old Hungarian joke, instead of going abroad, I decided to do something more adventurous: I stayed at home.

You now live part of your life in Germany. Isn’t it ironic that a nation that had once tried to kill you was the first to embrace you? The first real and true response to my books came from Germans who for the first time gave me an indication that I had written something worth reading. But you have to stop and think about this phenomenon. The generation of Nazis no longer exists, and the question arises: Shouldn’t one support a young generation in its struggle against the forces of the past, especially when they are reaching out to you?

How does winning the Nobel Prize change your life? You experience the expectations of the world, and also the joy that comes with recognition. For me, I was able to leave behind the chore of earning my daily bread, and devote myself to writing. Of course, as a Nobel laureate I am asked to make speeches, and when these engagements prevent me from writing, I say, I didn’t win the Nobel Prize not to write.

What is your workday as a writer like? If you recorded the day in a life of a writer you would be disappointed. He makes coffee, he looks out the window, he does everything but write. But despite these everyday failures, something still comes out of it.

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