by Imre Kertész (A nyomkeresö, 1977)
translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (2008)
Melville House (2008)
Over the summer I read Imre Kertész’s Auschwitz trilogy (tetralogy if you don’t rely on English translations): Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation. However, the first Kertész book I bought was The Pathseeker. For some reason, though, I didn’t pick it up until I was reminded of it by John Self’s list of favorite reads of 2008.
Each thing I’ve read by Kertész has been stylistically different, and fairly brilliant. Fatelessness reproduced Auschwitz from an almost nonchalant point of view which led to incredible insights into Georgie. Kaddish for an Unborn Child was a steady declamation of “No!” to the many questions — including one where his wife asked if he’d like to have a child — asked of this Auschwitz survivor, a steady almost end-stop-less rant. Liquidation goes back and forth in time as B., who was a miracle child born in Auschwitz, commits suicide and happens to write all of the conversations his friends would have after his death. Sure, the theme is similar, and the philosophy introduced in one leads to another, but stylistically it would be difficult to pin them all on one writer.
And now I read this little gem, a masterwork in the poignancy of the unsaid.
He leaned forward, very close to the guest, his eyes burning with a strange light, his voice switching to a whisper. “The possibility, you catch my drift? Nothing else, the mere possibility. And that what happens just once, to just one person, has now transcended the frontiers of the possible, is now a law of reality . . .” He broke off, staring ahead, almost crushed, before again lifting his still slightly troubled eyes to the guest. “I don’t know if you understand what I’m getting at . . .”
And truly, it takes a while to figure out what the main character is getting at. We know he is a commissioner, but we don’t know what he is commissioned to do. He is interrogating someone at the beginning of the novel, someone who feels guilty but who is innocent, but we don’t know what for. He is searching for some location, some place hidden in the landscape, but we don’t know what that location is — or why he is searching for it. The air of mystery extends, apparently, to the commissioner’s own wife:
His wife did not respond. What and how much did she suspect, the husband wondered.
As the commissioner gets closer to his goal, the more uncertain even he is about what he is doing and why. He seems to recognize furtive details he can’t quite get his hands on. As much a journey through the landscape of an out-of-the-way train stop, we get a journey into the commissioner’s psyche as he discloses the nature of his assignment. If this sounds like it should be a work by Kafka, that’s completely understandable. In fact, if we look at Kertész’s ability with style, I’d say in this work he reflects Kafka very well. However — and this is something that amazed me — unlike Kafka’s absurdity, this one is “real.” Not that Kafka’s works aren’t real in their essence, but here is no heightened reality exaggerated for effect. As bizzare as it might sound, as ellusive as the author is being, the exercise in silence and inference creates a very realistic piece.
I have done my best not to disclose what is really going on here, who the commissioner is, and what he is doing. Indeed, this is a work best approached with no knowledge of its contents. Here is passage, however, that discloses little but still exemplifies the way Kertész drops little clues while setting up a haunting atmosphere:
These words suddenly confronted him, then they disappeared again in such a way that he could not tell off the top of his head whether he had read them or heard them. He had read them, of course, but right then it seemed as though he were hearing them as well. He turned to his wife, but she seemed to have noticed nothing; she was sitting calmly in her place amid the doomsday that was pulsing all around her.
And, finally, I find this passage articulates my feelings for The Pathseeker (only I think I’d be a bit more praising).
“Odd,” she said quietly.
“Certainly,” the commissioner smiled. “Obviously odd for some. But it contains a truth that is well worth consideration; you just have to decipher it,” he added.