I haven’t come across the Hungarian Kertesz before, and I picked this up on a whim from the new books section of the London Library. More shame on me, as he is a Nobel laureate in literature (2002), and his writing is much influenced by his Jewish background, including being an inmate of Auschwitz. Detective Story was published this year for the first time in English, translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson. Kertesz’ most famous other books are Liquidation, Fateless, and Kaddish for a Child Not Born, the latter two based on his time in concentration camp. After reading Detective Story, I will be interested to read more, and especially to compare him with Primo Levi, for whom I have a high regard.
This short book is not a detective story, but the story of a detective. It’s really a novel – with a strong element of the crime or thriller genre – and is rather hard to describe. Much happens, but much is only implied, leaving you guessing or uneasy, a feeling which is a major part of the book’s unsettling impact. Somehow I always expect overseas authors to write about their own countries (an absurd and narrow minded assumption) so it was rather a shock to find out that this dark and brooding story of revolution, police corruption and very rough justice was not set among the dirty concrete and faded palaces of Budapest, but in an unidentified Latin American country.
The narrator is a new recruit to a corps of special police, whose duties are unspecified but clearly include internal security and whose license is wide. There is no violence in the book at all, but it pervades the story continually, menacingly and is more frightening because it is taken quite for granted by oppressor, policeman, and victim alike. At the heart of the book is a continuous effort by the narrator to distance himself from what is going forward, though he cannot conceal his pride in being a member of this elite corps, nor his satisfaction at their power and prowess. His complicity is the lesson.
And his victim is a vain young man, rich and unfulfilled, who wants to reject his father’s smug commercial success and political associations with the regime, but cannot be accepted by real revolutionaries – he believes because of his family name, but in fact because he is a dilettante, without motivation or dedication. How he gets involved in covert activity, and his relationship with his father, are the gossamer threads of of steel spun through the story. Reading this book is like visiting an empty building (that's the Noriega police HQ in Panama in the picture) – sun pours in through the windows but this only emphasises the dark deeds which took place there; the rooms are empty, so you populate them yourself with nameless terrors and machines of which even you hardly understand the purpose.
I didn’t exactly enjoy this novel, but it was very compelling, and on this scale, was an impressive achievement in a technique which I suspect is a lot harder to pull off than it looks. In spite of my earlier comments, it does have an indefinably middle European feel, a kind of brooding harshness and pessimism, which is mysteriously attractive.