Detective Story by Imre Kertész
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Hungarians have won their fair share of Nobel Prizes–more than most for a country of Hungary’s size. However, these awards are overwhelmingly in the hard sciences, and so you’ll be forgiven for not being familiar with the country’s sole Nobel Prize winner in Literature to date. If you’ve read Imre Kertész, you probably read Fateless (Sorstalanság.) Fateless (aka Fatelessness) is his semi-autobiographical novel about a boy in Auschwitz.
Detective Story is a short novel (some might call it a novella) whose protagonist is a rookie torturer for the secret police of an unnamed Latin American dictatorship. As the novel begins, we find that the protagonist, Antonio Martens, is on death row. The novel is written as his death row journal of how he came to be in this predicament. It tells how Martens came to have his despicable job, but mostly it describes the one case that was his undoing. That case involved the arrest of the son(Enrique Salinas)of a powerful, wealthy, and well-connected merchant, and the subsequent arrest of the merchant himself (Federigo Salinas.)
Being a Holocaust survivor, Kertész is intimately acquainted with the mixed bag that resides within all of us. It’s hard to imagine a more detestable person than one who would torture confessions out of people who are either political dissenters or who are altogether innocent. Kertész subverts our expectations by showing us a perfectly ordinary and likable chap who has a distaste for his work, but thinks that he is defending his country. As they say, Hitler was probably a likable enough fellow in his own mind. So we see Martens’ rationalizations that allow him to do what he does. We also see how he is trapped by the system. He wants to be reasonable, but, once inside, the system won’t let him be.
This theme of being trapped is not applied to the main character alone. The idea that underlies the entire story-line is that an authoritarian regime’s secret police has one shot to get it right, and that’s before the arrest is made. Once they made the arrest, the men involved (the protagonist’s boss and his boss’s boss)felt compelled to move in one direction, even once they realized that they were wrong and that each additional step was only digging their grave deeper. At one point Martens’ boss’s boss, the Colonel, asks what they should do, and the rookie interrogator unwisely suggests that they should let both the father and son go–even given their tortured appearance. However, a dictatorship is built on a fiction of infallibility, and to admit being mistaken is to become vulnerable.It’s like Machiavelli’s advice to the prince that while it would be nice to be both loved and feared, if one has to make a choice, it’s safer to be feared.
There is another character into which we gain insight, and that is Enrique Salinas. Most of this insight comes from excerpts of Enrique’s journal that Martens presents us. We see that Enrique is badly depressed and is questioning whether there is even a point to living. We find out from the interrogation of Federigo that Enrique’s “suspicious activities” are really just wild-goose chases designed to satiate Enrique’s need for adventure and purpose in a safe manner. We also find out that Enrique longs for the authorities to put him to death–suicide by authoritarian regime, if you will. So the idea that the secret police will be punishing the young heir by putting him to death is just another way in which expectations are turned on their head in this novel.
If you only read one book by Imre Kertész, perhaps it should be Fateless, but I’ll contend you have room for this short work as well.