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Imre Kertesz: Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate, dies at 86

Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian writer who has died aged 86, was a nervous mess as he took the call from the Nobel Committee in 2002 telling him he had won the most prestigious prize in literature.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2016 23:42 IST
Imre Kertesz,Imre Kertesz dead,Imre Kertesz Nobel Laureate
Hungarian author Imre Kertesz discussing his work on the set of a German TV broadcast at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Hungarian Nobel Literature Prize winner Imre Kertesz has died aged 86 early on March 31, 2016 in Budapest after a long illness, his publisher said. (AFP Photo)

Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian writer who has died aged 86, was a nervous mess as he took the call from the Nobel Committee in 2002 telling him he had won the most prestigious prize in literature.

Yet this was a man who survived not only Nazi camps as a teenager but also the dark and brutal few years of Stalinist dictatorship immediately after World War II.

In this he was not alone, but few could craft their unspeakable experiences into words on the page in the way this tormented and deeply pensive survivor of two dictatorships could.

“I wrote about the Holocaust because it was a unique experience, I had to live through such a defining experience of the 20th century, and I survived it. But I wrote novels, not Holocaust literature,” Kertesz told German newspaper Die Zeit in 2009.

He was, he said, particularly interested in “what happens to language and people among totalitarian dictatorships”.

Kertesz, who died on Thursday after a long illness, was born into a Jewish family in 1929 in Budapest. He was sent to the Auschwitz Nazi death camp aged just 14 and then to Buchenwald. Miraculously he survived.

Returning to Hungary, he was fired from his job as a journalist in 1951 after the paper he worked for was turned into a propaganda organ of the Communist regime.

He decided he wanted to become a writer but it took him 13 years to write his first and key oeuvre, “Fatelessness”, as he struggled to find “a structure, a frame in which words can come to life”.

Hungarian Nobel Prize in Literature winner Imre Kertesz holds his award during a ceremony at the Jewish Museum Berlin in this file picture taken November 15, 2008. (REUTERS)

The book, an emotionless but powerful account of everyday life in Nazi camps through the eyes of a teenager, went almost unnoticed in Hungary when it was finally published in 1975.

The communists “never liked my books because they felt that they contained something explosive: a sort of cry against dictatorship, not just the Nazi dictatorship,” he said later.

He started translating into Hungarian German works -- Nietzsche, Duerrenmatt, Schnitzler and Wittgenstein -- and did not publish another novel until “Fiasco” in the late 1980s.

The dapper writer eventually turned his back on Budapest and moved in 2001 to Berlin where he lived with his wife, until he returned to Hungary in 2013 because of illness.

A ‘thickset hawthorn hedge’

Little known in the English-speaking world, at least until he became Hungary’s first -- and still only -- winner of the Nobel literature award, Kertesz’s works have enjoyed considerable success translated into other languages, particularly German.

In 2002 recognition, and some welcome money, came from the Nobel Committee, who praised “writing that upholds fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”.

His style, it said, was like “a thickset hawthorn hedge, dense and thorny for unsuspecting visitors. But he relieves his readers of the burden of compulsory emotions and inspires a singular freedom of thought.”

Gabor T. Szanto, editor of the Jewish literary magazine Szombat and who interviewed Kertesz, told AFP on Thursday that the author’s “unprecedented suffering helped to give him unprecedented knowledge”.

“He was one of the 20th century’s most influential Hungarian writers, not just through his works but through his thoughts and worldview as well,” his publisher Krisztian Nyary from Magveto Publishing, told AFP.

“He will remain hugely influential on other writers in years to come,” Nyary said.

The Academy of Arts in Berlin, to which Kertesz entrusted his archive of manuscripts and correspondence, called his passing an “enormous loss”.

“He was an exceptional author, a writer who knew how to describe the history of his time in a way that was both poetic and political,” Sabine Wolf, head of the academy’s literary archives, told AFP.

The Holocaust, Kertesz said in 2002, was a “scar on European culture, on the bond between ancient Greece and ourselves. The trauma will always be there.”

First Published: Mar 31, 2016 23:42 IST