Born in a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929, Nobel-prize winner Imre Kertesz is a Holocaust survivor. In 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz, and liberated in Buchenwald in 1945. Part of his work is a reflection of the Holocaust experience, but there is a more general humanist and anti-totalitarian voice that can be felt in his work, a rejection of any ideology that denies human rights.


The history of the creation of Detektivtortenet which I have read as Roman Policier in the French translation of Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba, illustrates this fundamental direction in the work of the Hungarian writer. It is more a novella than a novel, barely exceeding 100 pages, and was written in two weeks in the 1970s. Kertesz was trying to publish another novel in Communist Hungary of the time, and the editor was refusing to accept it because it was too short, below the ‘standard’ number of pages acceptable by the editorial policy. He had the idea and part of a text of what writers in the Communist countries of the time were calling a ‘drawer’ work, one of these texts of protest that had no chance to be published under the Communist censorship, a text about political power taken illegally and about the secret police not only supporting the totalitarian rule, but becoming the essence of it. In order to have his text published he accepts to change the setting of the story to an imaginary South-American country, hinting to Chile or Argentina, at that time under right-wing dictatorship regimes. It was a trick often used by East-European authors, and it worked – the Detective Novel was published.


As said, it’s not a novel, and it is not detective, although the principal hero and story-teller is a detective, one who had put himself at the service of the totalitarian regime, and now expects the punishment in jail, after the fall of his masters. Some of the best passages in the book are the dialogs between policemen, that catch the essence of the totalitarian state with its obsession on antisemitism (among other), and the transformation of the secret police into an autonomous monster that ends by dominating by terror the life of its subjects:

-Ecoute un peu. Descente, arrestation, interrogatoire, liquidation: d’acoord, c’est notre boulot. Mais pourquois est-ce que tu les detestes?

La-dessus il me retorque:

- Parce que c’est des juifs.

- Espece de connard, il y a dans ce grand pays tout au plus quelques centaines de juifs, si ca se trouve!

- Je m-en fous. Tous les mecontents sont des juifs. Et d’ailleurs qui d’autre que les juifs serait mecontents?

(pag. 20-21)

- …bref, a vrai dire je pensais que nous etions ici au service de la loi.

- Nous sommes ici au service du pouvoir, mon garcon …

- Je croyais jusqu’a present que c’etait pareil.

- Si on veut. Mais il ne faut pas oublier les priorites.

Et il m’a repondu avec son sourire inimitable:

- D’abord le pouvoir et ensuite seulement la loi.

(pag. 29-30)

The book is almost written in one breath, and can be read almost in one breath. Beyond decomposing and describing in details the mechanisms as well as the typical characters that can be found in the service of the secret police in a totalitarian state – the  leader with intellectual aspirations who will eventually disappear with the fall of the regime and save his skin, the sadist brute that bad times allow him to put his bestiality in the service of the system, the passive technocrat who does not have the power to resist or to avoid becoming an instrument of evil. It also does include a beautiful story of a failed tentative of survival, a demonstration about how hard it is in times of dictatorship for anybody to stay away from becoming part of at least one of the circles of oppressors or of oppressed.

The advantages of brevity and fast writing are also the disadvantages of the finished work. There is more promise in this book than the quick creation process under the pressure of the time allowed as each one of the six key characters (the three policemen and the three members of the Salinas clan) could have been developed as a strong character in a full-bodied novel. Yet, this novella about times of oppression written in other times of oppression leaves a strong impression and was for me an invitation to continue to explore more of the work of the Hungarian Nobel-prize winner.