The Union Jack
by Imre Kertész (Az Angol Lobogó, 1991)
translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (2009)
Melville House (2010)
80 pp

One of my favorite personal projects has been reading through what is available in English from Nobel Prize laureate Imre Kertész. My wife bought be Detective Story for Christmas, but I saw that Melville House was publishing a newly translated piece for their The Contemporary Art of the Novella series. So, I guess because I like the idea of reading something newly published rather than something a few years old, I put off reading Detective Story to wait for The Union Jack.

Everything I’ve read from Kertész has been about the Holocaust, to one extent or another (since much of his work is still unavailable in English, though, that’s not necessarily saying much). However, after his tragic youth in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Kertész struggled to find a life in post-war Hungary and Communist rule. When reading his later works one can see the influence of this period on his narrative, but it is in The Union Jack that I’ve first seen those formative years described, albeit in a very strange fashion. Here is how the book begins:

If I may perchance wish now, after all, to tell the story of the Union Jack, as I was urged to do at a friendly gathering a few days ago — or months — ago, then I would have to mention the piece of reading matter which first inculcated in me — let’s call it a grudging admiration for the Union Jack; I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any even our destiny; I would have to tell about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.

Kertész’s style in this piece is very roundabout, much more in the vein of Kaddish for an Unborn Child than, say, Fatelessness — you can see that easily in this first, fairly convoluted, sentence where we learn that he has a story about the Union Jack. It turns out that in 1956, in the midst of those struggling post-war years, Kertész spotted the Union Jack on a jeep. However, we only hear his account of this sighting a couple of pages before the book ends. The rest of it, which does not tell his whole life story actually, is focused on a few recollected experiences centered around reading and becoming aware of Wagner’s Die Walküre, all told with a heightened awareness of how intervening years have changed him.

The young man (he would have been about twenty) who, through a sensory delusion to which we are all prey, I then considered was, and sensed to be, the most personal part of myself, I see today as in a film; and one thing that very likely disposes me to this is that he himself — or I myself  — somehow also saw himself (myself) as in a film. This, moreover, is undoubtedly what renders tellable a story that otherwise, like every story, is untellable, or rather not a story at all, and which, were I to tell it in that manner anyway, would probably driver me to tell precisely the opposite of what I ought to tell.

This is an impossible book to summarize, but again it showcases one of the most intriguing aspects of Kertész’s writing: the constant awareness of the arbitrariness of history, a theme I’ve been happy to find in my favorite Roth novels. As in Kaddish for an Unborn ChildLiquidation, and particularly Fatelessness, though Kertész is recounting history, there is a constant awareness of dumb luck.

I had become acquainted with my wife-to-be in the late summer the year before, just after she had got out of the internment camp where she had been imprisoned for a year for the usual reasons — that is to say, no reason at all.

It’s a wonderful reflective piece, complex and rewarding, but I’m not sure how much I would have liked it were I not already interested in Kertész. I like to hope I would have, but I’m not sure I would have followed it well. Still, I do know I didn’t like this one as much as The Pathseeker, Kertész’s other book in Melville House’s series, but that one is a masterpiece.

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