Imre Kertész on self-imposed exile and writing

In early March the Swedish publisher Svante Weyler and the filmmaker Håkan Pienowski went to Berlin to meet the writer and Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész. The meeting resulted in a short movie, produced by Swedish PEN. Svante Weyler gives us an introduction to the movie. 

July 7 2011 Svante Weyler

I have stemmed the flow of a large number of questions to Imre Kertész from the Swedish media. And those people I have not managed to stop have desisted of their own free will. Imre Kertész is well and truly sick of having to comment on Hungarian national politics. All of those who have met him know full well that he is not exactly someone who avoids speaking his mind – he has, after all, been toughened by forty years of Communist dictatorship and come through it all with honour and decency – but he is also aware of what the Hungarian media can do to his utterances. They twist what he says and misquote him in order to make out that this “Jewish” author is a nest-fouler.

Imre Kertész

Imre Kertész is a Hungarian-Jewish writer, born in 1929 in Budapest, Hungary. 1944, only 15 years old, he was sent to Auschwitz, but shortly after that he was transported to Buchenwald. He was rescued in 1945, after a year in the camp. Kertész gradually returned to Hungary where he began working as a journalist, writer and translator of German-speaking authors.

In 1975 his autobiographical novel Fatelessness was published in Hungary. Kertész was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature by the Swedish Academy in 2002, on the ground: “For writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” Kertész lives and works in Berlin today.

Kertész does make an exception for questions put by myself and Håkan Pienowski, and not only because it is PEN and the Swedish Academy that are putting the questions. This is the same academy that has not only presented him with an award and gained him readers, but has also succeeded in providing him with a thick skin with which to protect himself against primitive attacks by Hungarian nationalists.

He is not in the best of health when we arrive. He has had Parkinson’s disease for many years and it comes and goes. Today it is worse than usual, but he doesn’t want to postpone the interview, although the hour of questions requires some effort on his part. As he habitually does, he alternates between grand historical descriptions that are not always easy to follow, and very concrete opinions of the politics of today. What worries him these days is that he is a rather conservative person by nature, and communism has forever deprived him of any faith in radicalism. Yet the right-wing politicians who are running the country today in no way come up to his ideal. As soon as there is one ounce of anti-Semitism in their statements, his instinct comes into play. Anti-Semites want to kill Jews, says Kertész. Have no illusions about some kind of modern and modified anti-Semitism.

Towards the end of the interview he loosens up. We ask him to read out of his Fatelessness. Now he can be an author, as we are no longer asking him to examine unpalatable political opinions. And when he goes out with his wife Magda onto the balcony, which hovers over sunny Berlin, he looks as young again as he did when we first met in Stockholm, one icy winter week more than a decade ago. Now I can be calm, again.