Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian writer who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature for fiction largely drawn from his very real experience as a teenage prisoner in Nazi concentration camps, has died at the age of 86.
Book publishing firm Magveto Kiado said Kertesz died at his Budapest home at 4am on Thursday after a long illness.
Kertesz was only 14 when he was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1944. He survived that camp and was later transferred to the Buchenwald camp from where he was liberated in 1945.
“As a child you have a certain trust in life. But when something like Auschwitz happens, everything falls apart,” he once said.
Yet Kertesz also made a startling confession that he experienced “my most radical moments of happiness” while at Auschwitz.
“You cannot imagine what it’s like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labour,” he told Newsweek magazine in a 2002 interview. “To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.”
After returning to his native Budapest, Kertesz eked out a living working as a journalist and translator.
Distrusted by the communist authorities who ruled Hungary after the Second World War, he spent his time translating into Hungarian the works of Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Elias Canetti in a small apartment overlooking the Danube River.
Influenced by the post-war existentialist novels of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, Kertesz was fascinated by the fate of the individual in an often totalitarian environment, where others decided his destiny.
“I am a non-believing Jew,” he once said in an interview. “Yet as a Jew I was taken to Auschwitz. I belong to those Jews whom Auschwitz turned into Jews.”
Fateless, the novel which, together with other works, won him the 2002 Nobel prize for literature, finally appeared in 1975 after a decade-long struggle to have it published.
It was largely ignored, both by the communist authorities and the public in a country where awareness of the Holocaust remained negligible, despite the murder of around 500,000 Hungarian Jews by the Nazis and their Hungarian henchmen.
According to Kertesz, the quasi-taboo status suffered by Fateless for so long may have been rooted in the fact that, despite its Holocaust theme, the book also reflected Hungary’s totalitarian communist system.
“I wrote Fateless about the Kadar regime,” Kertesz said in an interview with the Hungarian weekly Elet es Irodalom, referring to communist dictator Janos Kadar, who ruled Hungary until shortly before the democratic changes of 1990.
“Whoever lived in the Hungary of the 1970s had to notice immediately that the author (of Fateless) knew the present and despised it,” he said.
To Kertesz, the process of adaptation to the Holocaust described in his book could just as well be applied to what happened to people in Hungary after the failed anti-communist revolution of 1956.
In its citation for the Nobel prize, the Swedish Academy also recognised this element of Kertesz’s writing.
“Kertesz’s message is that to live is to conform,” the academy said. “Individual experience seems useless as soon as it is considered in the light of the needs and interests of the human collective.”
Others said Kertesz’s work could also be seen as a study of all repressive regimes.
“Kertesz’s significance was that in some sense he formulated the essence of totalitarianism,” said Gabor T Szanto, a writer and editor of Szombat, a Jewish cultural magazine.
Numerous other novels, continuing the themes of the Holocaust, dictatorship and personal freedom, appeared throughout the 1980s and 1990s, winning Kertesz professional respect but failing to gain him a wider audience.
All that changed upon his winning the Nobel prize, which suddenly propelled him to domestic and international fame.
His infrequent personal appearances in Hungary in wake of the Nobel prize were a massive success, with hundreds of people queuing for hours to get copies of his books signed.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Kertesz claimed with typical self-irony that he wrote only for himself. “I didn’t have an audience and didn’t want to influence anyone,” he said.
In literary circles, he was regarded as a jovial companion, with a harsh, no-nonsense critical eye. A typical gesture was his refusal to support a statue being raised in his honour alongside that of other Hungarian Nobel winners.
Still, Kertesz’s Nobel victory, making him the first Hungarian to win the literature prize, caused great resentment among some Hungarians who would have preferred that a non-Jewish countryman get the honour instead.
Fateless, however, was later incorporated into Hungary’s high school curriculum and Kertesz was awarded several state honours.
Kertesz described Liquidation, published in 2003, as his “last novel about the Holocaust”.
Set during Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy in 1989, he said it was about “people who did not experience the Holocaust directly – the second generation, who still have to deal with the Holocaust”.
Among his other books were Fiasco (1988) and Kaddish For A Child Not Born (1990) – which formed a trilogy with Fateless – Someone Else (1997), The K File (2006), an autobiographical novel, and Europe’s Depressing Heritage (2008).
Magveto Kiado said that during the last months of his life, even while ill, Kertesz helped prepare The Viewer, a selection of his diary entries between 1991 and 2001 which was published this month in Hungary.
A film version of Fateless, directed by Lajos Koltai and for which Kertesz wrote the screenplay, premiered in Hungary in 2005.
He is survived by his second wife, Magda.