8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
A minor work by a major author, this 1991 novella by Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertész is very short, a mere 76 pages in small format. But its length is not the point. Its weight is the crushing burden of events to which Kertész bears witness. A Holocaust survivor as a Hungarian Jew (the subject of his first great novel FATELESSNESS), he returned to experience a longer and slower oppression in Hungary under Soviet rule. Written as an old man looking back at the one moment of light in those four decades of darkness, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, his subject is not those brief three weeks of hope but the thirty years of numbing repression that followed.
But it is an elliptical testament. The book is at once easy to read and difficult to penetrate. It is easy in that the flow of words, as translated by Tim Wilkinson, carries the reader in a kind of trance through its single unbroken paragraph, occasionally illuminated by brilliant images: "that one-time editorial office full of gloomy corridors, dusty crannies, tiny, cigarette-smoked rooms lit by bare bulbs, ringing telephones, yells, the quick-fire staccato of typewriters, full of fleeting excitements, abiding qualms, vacillating moods and, later, the fear, unvacillating and ever less vacillating, which seeped out from every cranny, as it were, to squat over everything." It is difficult, in that the whole book seems a never-ending prelude to a story that gets told only in a single paragraph towards the very end, and that a tiny peripheral event among many tremendous ones, the departure of the British Ambassador from Budapest in a jeep draped with a Union Jack. The text consists of layer upon layer of clauses and subclauses, shifting, postponing, displacing, parsing words into near-meaninglessness, distancing both writer and reader from events until existence is reduced to sterile formula. No atrocities, just a stultifying numbness. Even the apparent end of the nightmare leaves the writer stunned: "Living, I reflected, is done as a favour to God."
The Nobel Prize often seems to go to authors who have lived through times of political oppression, and who have created challenging literary means to deal with it: Nadine Gordimer (THE CONSERVATIONIST), Günter Grass (THE TIN DRUM), JM Coetzee (WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS), Orhan Pamuk (SNOW), and Herta Müller (THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS) are only a few examples. Kertész is probably more challenging than any of them. In only somewhat lighter literature, I might also mention Kazuo Ishiguro's THE UNCONSOLED whose Eastern European alternative reality is validated by Kertész' picture of a true reality that is no less strange, and Milan Kundera, whose searing picture in THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING of the similar 1968 revolution in Prague seems a feast of light by comparison.