Detective Story Hardcover – Jan 22 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
At the start of this subtle look at the price of the war on terror from Hungarian author Kertész (Liquidation), Antonio Martens, a policeman in an unnamed Latin American country, awaits trial for multiple counts of murder after the regime that employed him was toppled. Martens tells how he was transferred from the criminal investigative branch of the police to the Corps, a security unit, where, unfettered by any meaningful restraints, he pursued the case of Federigo and Enrique Salinas, a father and son who operated the country's leading department store chain and were suspected of plotting treason. Kertész, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature, charts Martens's incremental descent into barbarism to chilling effect. This relevant and timely political allegory will remind many of J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. (Jan.)
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“Appealingly meditative. . . . A compelling story, with a clever twist. . . . Kertész writes with characteristic lucidity, grace, and grim-gay humor.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A sophisticated and brilliant dissection of nihilistic power and its servants.”
—Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A timeless, placeless parable. . . . A chilling procedural of moral degradation.”
—New York Magazine
"Hopefulness in the face of tragedy makes Kertesz a joy to read, even when he describes our darkest horrors."
"Kertesz spins a deeply self-conscious web of psychological drama."
—The New York Sun
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Enrique is young and in love, chaffing at the recent political events and his beloved's acquiescence to their country's changed circumstances. He longs for the passion of resistance, for meaning in his life, although he is shunned by the true revolutionaries as bourgeoisie. To offer his son some protection from the inevitable dangers of his impulsiveness, Federigo draws Enrique into an innocent plan that inevitably results in both their deaths. Guilt or innocence is not at issue, as clearly the Salinas' are no threat to the government; but they become pawns, the focus and example of repression in the face of rebellion. Father and son fall helplessly into the jaws of a soulless bureaucracy with a point to make. Three principals are involved: Diaz, the boss who rejects whatever does not fit his ideology; Rodriquez, a flat-eyed man fascinated by the instruments of torture; and Martens, the most enigmatic of all, a patient observer who views the outrage from a distance, consuming Enrique's diary, from which he quotes long passages, as though it is his own narrative, witnessing the pleas of the father and the son and their unhappy fate.
While Enrique struggles against complacency in the face of repression and his father seeks a safe direction, it is men like Martens who destroy society from within, bearing no moral compass or sense of justice to define his life. Like the Germans who turned a blind eye to the extermination of the Jews, Marten is not invested in the actions of the secret police, an ordinary flatfoot doing his job, a true monster. With striking comparisons to today's issues, Detective Story, a small but potent volume, is haunting in its simplicity, a deeply unsettling recognition of a great moral quandary in an age of torture, patriotism wielded as a hammer and a goad. Luan Gaines/ 2008.
from Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon
"Detective Story", Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz's novella is set in a prison in an unnamed South American country. An oppressive regime has just been overturned and the protagonist, former secret police detective Antonio Martens, is sitting in prison after a trial and conviction for the unlawful arrest, torture, and execution of Enrique Salinas and his father Federigo. The story plays out in the form of a prison memoir written by Martens that lays out the series of events that bought Martens and the Salinas family together in a deadly way. Martens' memoir also incorporates excerpts from a diary that had been kept by Enrique and `purchased' by Martens from the regime. Enrique's memoir serves as a counterpoint to Martens' memoir and the reader is able to get a pretty thorough look into the lives of Martens and Enrique. In concept and structure the book bears some resemblance to Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon". However, the book is more notable for its dissimilarity to Darkness at Noon than for its similarity.
In "Darkness at Noon" the prisoner Rubashov was a leader of the revolution and an active participant in the oppression and purges that eventually swept him up. In "Detective Story" Martens is no more than a bit player, a willing participant but not a leader. There is no irony in Martens' being called to account. There is nothing in his account that marks him as an intellectual, a leader, or anything other than a pawn. His participation is not that as a creator of an evil system but that of a cork that is swept along by the tide of repression. To that extent he comes closer to representing Hannah Arendt's vision of the banality of evil than that of Rubashov. As a result, Martens' memoir is noted more for what it does not say than what it actually says. Where Rubashov was insightful and painfully aware of the circumstances that brought him to his cell, Martens is content with a straightforward narrative of events. But although his narrative is almost devoid of emotion it is that very absence that makes the story so chilling. Kertesz does not hit your over the head with the horror of the story but, rather, hits you over the head with the absence of horror in the retelling.
Similarly, the diary excerpts of Enrique Salinas shows us another cork swept along by the tide, this time the tide of unrest and opposition to the regime. Enrique's diary is full of angst and emotion but it is the emotion of a naïve youth, one who struggles for love and desires nothing more than the acceptance from his fellow college students who oppose the regime. He rails against those that do not accept him because he is from a rich family. Yet, he too has no more control over his fate than Martens has (or at least so he claims in the memoir). As the story plays itself out we see certain inevitability, the coincidences of two pawns crossing each others path in a way that neither could predict. To that extent I think Kertesz may owe more to Kafka than Koestler.
Kertesz' work has won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. His earlier works (earlier in the sense of publication in English) Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation are thoughtful and compelling. I've read those books and I think my enjoyment of Detective Story was enhanced because I had read them. However, this novella stands on its own and I recommend it heartily to readers whether or not they have read any other Kertesz. L. Fleisig
Nonetheless, `Detective Story' explores the ability of humans to utterly degrade themselves and others particularly in the service of modern bureaucratic societies. When the liberal democracy in an unidentified Latin American country is overthrown and replaced by a dictatorship, the secret police spy on suspected dissidents, then arrest, torture, and execute them.
Kertesz tells his story retrospectively through the voice of Antonio Martens, a regular cop turned secret police torturer, who now finds himself in his own cell awaiting punishment after the dictatorship has been turned out. Martens reconstructs the case of a prominent father and son Federigo and Enrique Salinas using his memory of the police interrogations and Enrique's own diary. The secret police, the Corps, pursues them and observing their suspicious behavior, arrests Enrique. Federigo then falls into their lap like overripe fruit. While their end seems foreordained, Kertesz throws in an unsettling twist that seems to demand a different outcome. The ultimate fate of the Salinas demonstrates the pointless barbarity and capriciousness of police operating outside the restraints of the rule of legitimate law.
Originally written in 1977 and only just published in English in 2008, Kertesz's short but profound work bears obvious relevance to the dangers unleashed when state authority escapes the bounds of legal and moral restraint. Highly recommended.
The basic story arc of Detective Story is clear as day from the book blurb: a man explains his role in the tracking, arrest, and eventual tortures of two political prisoners in an unknown military-security dictatorship. Many of the small details reminded me of things I've read and heard about Argentina, such as the suspicion of people because of their hairstyles. How Kertesz learned about the internal workings of Latin American dictatorships from his base in Communist Hungary is beyond me.
The book's conceit as a jailhouse memoir is a bit hard to swallow. It serves its purpose, however, by allowing the reader to see the narrator compare his role in the regime with the one keeping him in jail. There are also extensive, pages-long exceprts from the victim's diary which allows Kertesz to show readers extensive scenes that the narrator otherwise would not have access too. These diary excerpts are themselves expertly crafted, concise little story worlds of their own. They may be the most gripping parts of the novel.
It goes without saying that the book has contemporary relevance. Unfortunately, it seemed that the translator tried to bring this parallel to the surface a little heavy-handedly by using the words "Homeland Security," which I doubt appears as such in the Hungarian, but who knows.
Martens provides us with the inside view of the agents of power, enforcers whose sole aim is to maintain order for those in control. Such authority goes beyond the law, beyond the rights of the individual, and beyond morality. As Kertesz, whose story in "Fatelessness" of his time as a young inmate at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, well understands, unchecked power, answerable to no one, will lead to the destruction of the individual and to barbarisms aimed at whole populations. So Kertesz places himself in the mind of what might very well have been that of a typical Nazi agent. Martens is sometimes confused, subject to headaches, and experiences fits of stammering, but he admires the cold logic of his boss Diaz and the regime he serves. He finally understands his mission: "We could no longer place our trust in anyone except ourselves. Oh, and in destiny...."
This story contains an unsettling message for our time, and chillingly reflects today's headlines. Although no country is mentioned in the novella, its setting could be Iran, China, North Korea, somewhere in South America, etc. I can't help but think that Kertesz had the United States in mind as well as he refers to the Homeland Department a number of times. And the facts presented in Chalmers Johnson's "Nemesis" about the worldwide influence of the U.S. military make that possibility all the more plausible.
I strongly recommend this gripping and very well-written work.