Detective Story

Imre Kertész, Detective Story
Translator: Tim Wilkinson
2008, 112 pages, paperback, $13.95

stories which verge on the simple often leave room for strange, loud resonances which shake us for days, weeks and beyond.  So it is with Imre Kertész's Detective Story, a lesser known of his works published in 1977 and only recently translated into English by Tim Wilkinson. I wouldn't deign to call a Nobel Laureate's work "simple," but I will say it is unfettered by false grandiloquence. In the hands of a lesser writer, the tale of a former secret policeman from an unknown, Latin, totalitarian state may give license to adventure, tension, and the macabre. However, Detective Story offers a sober assessment of the regime. Antonio Martens's, the agent in question, take as "the new boy" on the events of the death of a prominent businessman, Federigo Salinas, and his son, Enrique, takes surprising and intimate turns. Much more of Kertész's efforts turn towards the psychological, be it the minor-Machiavellian posturing of the chief Diaz or the pages devoted to the son, Enrique's journal, the story is told from within. By Martens's own admission (by proxy--Martens himself is imprisoned and his lawyer hands the document over to us in the first chapter), he had been "brainwashed," and now he has "grasped the logic" which leads him to an approximation of events much closer to the victims than his side of things. And the tragedy of the whole system is revealed at the end, which I won't reveal here, but suffice it to say it is brief, spare, and wrenching: "I understood all right, you bet I did. I understood well enough to be quaking in my boots. But it was not due to the Colonel that I was quaking...I was quaking due to the logic, and nothing else."

Wilkinson, whose translation of Fatelessness earned him a PEN Book of the Month Club Translation Prize in 2005, imparts the starkness of the story with astonishing economy, yet without sacrificing nuance and irony. The translation may appear dry at times--mechanical, plodding, insouciant, complex--but I find it more of a credit to the translator that he's avoided the pitfalls of injecting too much English colloquialism into the work.  There's a relative dearth of literature from Hungary being translated into English, presumably because of a divergent cultural outlook and the vast difference between ours and the Magyar tongue. I don't pretend to know the first thing about the Hungarian and what may or may not have been lost or compromised in translation, but it's clear that Wilkinson's translation evinces the spirit of what is often associated with the prose of Kertész. As the Nobel Foundation puts it: "[. . .] he relieves his readers of the burden of compulsory emotions and inspires a singular freedom of thought."

-John Leslie


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