Imre Kertész was the most famous Hungarian citizen of the last century. This statement is linked to the fact that he was the only person of that nationality who has obtained a Nobel Prize. Even so, it was not his own country that recognized and supported his talent, but quite the opposite. Hungary was a heavy burden for this impressive writer who, however, made his misfortune a masterpiece of literature.
The universal fame of Imre Kertész is due to his novel Without destiny. Considered the most important literary work about the Nazi holocaust. It has been translated into more than 20 languages and was taken to the cinema in 2005 by the Hungarian director Lajos Koltai, with a script written by Kertész himself. It is worth mentioning that Kertész refused to call this genocide a holocaust, because he considered that this was a way of sanctifying it, instead of denouncing its essence.
The work of Imre Kertész goes far beyond denouncing the atrocities that marked a before and after in the world. His work is oriented, rather, to show that the Second World War was a foreseeable break with the highest values of yesterday’s Europe. And he achieves it through an entertaining, ironic and moving prose. His real life, however, is equal to or more shocking than his own novel. And it is that, as it is frequently affirmed, sometimes, reality surpasses fiction.
“If there is freedom, then, destiny can not exist, therefore, we ourselves are our own destiny.”
– Imre Kertész-
Imre Kertész, early years
The life of Imre Kertész was marked by painful experiences, which began at an early age. He was born on November 9, 1929 in Budapest (Hungary). He came from a family of non-practicing Jews who enjoyed a good economic situation. When he was 5 years old, his parents separated. Later, he was sent to a boarding school, where he did his basic studies.
By 1940, Imre Kertész was starting high school, coinciding with the first phases of World War II. Anti-Semitism was already taking over important sectors of Europe, so the young Kertész was assigned to separate classes, in a space intended only for Jews. In this way, the first years of high school he attended them feeling the weight of discrimination.
In 1944, he was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. At that time, he was only 14 years old. It is said that he himself did not know what that transfer meant. The Nazis forced the young Jews to make a long line before distributing them. Imre Kertész spoke some German and understood that the soldiers referred to him as saying he could be 16 years old. When they asked him, without knowing why, he replied that this was his age. That little lie, that impulse that led him to deceive the soldiers, would save his life, since the minors were sent to the gas chamber.
An indelible imprint
Between 1944 and 1945, Imre Kertész was in Auschwitz and in Buchenland, where he was released after the triumph of the Allies. Most disconcerting of his experience is that he was reduced to the miserable condition of prisoner of a concentration camp, without his family, nor himself, were actually practicing Judaism. When this experience ended, he returned to his homeland, but none of his relatives had survived.
Later, he started working as a journalist and finished high school. However, he was fired from his job and had to work several years in a factory. The Stalinist regime began in Hungary and, once again, it was discriminated against. It was branded as “bourgeois”, by the wealthy background of his family. Therefore, the regime looked at it with suspicion and prevention. Finally, he managed to start working as a translator and this allowed him to have resources to survive without so much haste.
Kertész also composed comedies, texts for commercials and other minor texts; but he was always a passionate writer. In 1975, he published his great novel Sin destino, although he did not have the slightest impact in his native country. For 20 years, Kertész lived in an apartment of 25 square meters and he wrote in a tiny corner of the kitchen. Sometimes, it was also at the Luxor cafe he frequented. In those years, he even said:
“I will always be a second-rate Hungarian writer, ignored and misunderstood.”
For the nineties was rediscovered by German publishers, who knew how to appreciate the great value of his work. Then, his recognition was increased with the obtaining of several international awards. After the fall of the communist regime in Hungary, Imre Kertész became more prolific and reached greater comforts. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, something that partially compensated for all his suffering. Finally, he died on March 31, 2016, in Budapest.
A small lie saved and changed the life of Imre Kertész. In a small instant, our life can take a totally unexpected turn. When we hear stories of holocaust survivors, we are amazed to see how some people managed to survive so many atrocities. Imre Kertész not only survived the holocaust, but he faced difficulties again under a different regime. Its origin was always judged, regardless of who was in power. Nor did he have it easy in his first adventures as a writer, but Kertész did not give up and used the most powerful weapon he knew: the word.