Fiasco

Imre Kertész

Artwork by Kazunari Negishi

Your manuscript has been assessed by our firm's readers. On the basis of their unanimous opinion we are unable to undertake publication of your novel.

We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experiences does not come off, whereas the subject itself is horrific and shocking. The fact that it nevertheless fails to become a shattering experience for the reader hinges primarily to the main protagonist's, to put it mildly, odd reactions. While we find it understandable that the adolescent main protagonist does not immediately grasp what is happening around him (the call-up for forced labour, compulsory wearing of the yellow star, etc.), we think it inexplicable why, on arrival at the concentration camp, he sees the bald-shaven prisoners as "suspect." More passages in bad taste follow: "Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect."

It is also incredible that the spectacle of the crematoria arouses in him feelings of "a sense of a certain joke, a kind of student jape," as he knows he is in an extermination camp and his being a Jew is sufficient reason for him to be killed. His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader, who can only be annoyed on reading the novel's ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account (e.g. the reproaches he makes to the Jewish family living in the same building). We must also say something about the style. For the most part your sentences are clumsy, couched in a tortuous form, and sadly there are all too many phrases like "...on the whole...," "naturally enough," and "besides which ..."

We are therefore returning the manuscript to you. Regards.

*

"I've written a novel," I announced modestly.

"Aha!" enthused Van de Gruyn.

"And you didn't say a word about it to me?!" Sas gave me an offended look.

"When is it due to be published?" Gerendás put his finger on the practical aspect of the matter.

"That's just it: it won't be published," I said.

"What do you mean?"

"The publisher rejected it."

"Oh, I see, zo," Mijnheer Gruyn remarked with a slight foreign inflection, his face meanwhile assuming a noncommittal expression.

Sas, by contrast, seemed to liven up: which publishing house had rejected it, and why, he wanted to know. I replied that I didn't know the reason, but I had received a preposterous letter from which it was clear that they had either not understood, or not wanted to understand, the novel because, I explained, it seems they ascribed any marks that it hit as down to pure luck, its audacity to clumsiness, its consequentiality to deviation.

"What is the novel about?" Sas asked. Whatever the reason, there was no denying my embarrassment.

"What any novel is about," I said cautiously, "it's about life." Sas was not one to be thrown off so easily: "Let's drop for once the high-flown philosophical expositions you normally give us," he warned. "What I wanted to know is what, specifically, your specific novel is about. Is it set in the present day? "No," I said.

"Then when?" "Oh ... during the war." "Where?" "In Auschwitz," I whispered. Slight silence.

"Of course," Van de Gruyn remarked with grudging commiseration, as if he were speaking to a half-cured leper, "you were in Auschwitz."

"Yes," I said.

"Have you taken leave of your senses?" Sas had recovered from his initial astonishment. "A novel about Auschwitz! In this day and age! Who on earth is going to read that?"

"Nobody," I said, "because it's not going to be published."

"Surely you didn't suppose," he asked, "that they were going to fling their arms round your neck?"

"Why not? It's a good novel," I said. "Good? What do mean by good?" "What else?" I stuttered. "Good means good. A self-explanatory whatsit ... that is to say ... good an und für sich, if I may put it that way."

"An und für sich," Sas glanced at Gerendás, as if he were interpreting my words, then slowly turned his elegant, narrow, sharp-beaked head back toward me, his half-closed eyes and the yellowish sideburns framing his ruddy face reminding me of a sad and sleepy, widely experienced fox.

"An und für sich," he repeated calmly. "But good for whom? What is anybody going to make of it?! Where are you living? Which planet do you think you are on?" he asked with growing distress. "Not a soul in the trade has ever heard of you, and you go and send in a novel, and to top it all one on a subject like that ..."

"That Sas," Mijnheer Gruyn attempted to smooth things over, "he hasn't changed a bit. He was always such a ... what's the phrase ... smart-arse, azes ponem," he gleefully hit upon the words he had been seeking. "Do you remember when ..."

But by now there was no holding Sas back; me neither, for that matter.

"In other words, I'm not entitled to write a good novel!" I heard the angry yelps of my own voice.

"That's it exactly." Sas was jubilant. "I couldn't have put it better myself. No one is looking for a good novel from you, old chap. What evidence do you have that you can write a good novel? Even if we suppose that it really is good, where's the guarantee for it? No expert, my dear chap, is simply going to believe the evidence of his own eyes! Your name is unknown," he kept count of the points on his fingers, "You have no one behind you, the subject isn't topical, no one is going to deal you the ace of trumps. What do you expect?"

"But what if," I asked, "someone were to submit a brilliant novel?..."

"You're obviously talking about yourself," Sas pronounced.

"Let's suppose," I conceded.

"First of all, there's no such thing as a brilliant novel," Sas patiently enlightened me. "Secondly, even if there is, so much the worse. This is a small country; what it needs is not geniuses but honest, hardworking citizens who ..."

"Yes, all right," Van de Gruyn took pity. "But now that he's gone and finished a novel ... Possibly," he ventured cautiously, "you could give it to me ... I'm staying for another two weeks, I might be able to zip through..."

"That's it!" I said, "You translate it and publish it in Holland!"

Mijnheer Gruyn seemed thunderstruck: "I don't have anything to do with translating," he said, "I sometimes have need of help myself with the language." In his agitation, his Hungarian was deteriorating. "That's a complete ... what's the word ... absurdity!... Anyway," he rallied gradually, "even back in the West it's no pushover for novels. There you have top pros, you see, and they know what's what. To make money with a subject like that, well you need to have something! With Anne Frank the Dutch have already got that particular subject, what d'you call it..."

"Sewn up," I hastened to his assistance.

"Not quite that, but if you can't bring anything new ... add something ... and even back in the West a publisher's rejection slip is hardly a letter of recommendation for a novel ... unless of course," a pensive expression appeared hesitantly on his face, "the author is the sort of personality who just happens ..."

"I'm not going to get myself banged up just for the sake of becoming a five-day wonder where you live!" I said.

"Some hope!" Sas gave speedy reassurance. "These days it's not so easy to get slammed into prison for a book."

"Whereas in the good old days!" Mijnheer Gruyn chortled in relief. "Do you remember when ..."

"Nowadays they deal with those matters in a much more civilized manner here," Sas carried on unruffled.

"Yes, so I hear everyone say," the Mijnheer butted in. "Things are going very well here. The shop window displays are attractive, the people well-dressed ... but where are all those classy Budapest women there were in the old days?" "They're still here," said Sas, "it's just you who doesn't notice them. You're not the dashing hussar of seventeen years ago either, old fellow..." In short, the matter of my novel was finally drawing to a close, like a boring record. Sas offered a few more pieces of advice: I should write short stories and try to get a foothold in the literary magazines; that way they would grow used to me and might even start mentioning my name. Then I should join some literary group or other; it didn't matter which one, he said, because those things were always unpredictable.

"A literary group," he patiently instructed me, "is like a wave: now cresting, then crashing down, but it always carries the alluvium with it, whether on the swell or in the trough, and in the end washes it up in some harbour." He referred to the examples of several authors who had come safely to port that way, some quickly, others more slowly. Some had dropped out of the queue in the meantime, becoming suicides or giving up or ending up in a psychiatric home; but others had made it and, after thirty or forty years, it transpired that they were great writers and, what is more, precisely on account of works to which nobody had paid the slightest attention. From then on, if they were still alive, it was all nicknames, celebrations, and pampering, and there was as little they could do to alter that as they had been able to do about their previous neglect.

"Or else," he continued, "you have to hit the jackpot. In other words," he said, "you have to keep an eye open for the issue, which is, so to say, just breaking the surface at the time. In that case it can happen that a previously unknown writer comes into vogue, because," Sas said, "your book comes along at just the right time for someone, or somebodies, and they can make use of it either pro or contra, as a whipping-boy or a banner."

The Mijnheer related that it was not much different in the West, although there was no question that the market gave a free run to success. But then the tricks one had to devise in order to get it to surrender to "the besiegers." One person had stripped naked at a reception for the queen, others set new speed records, or they were constantly divorcing and then remarrying, or they joined suspicious sects, or had themselves carted off to hospital with a drug overdose—all just to get their names into the newspapers. He himself, Mijnheer Van de Gruyn, was fed up with funny stories and with constantly having to repeat himself. He had a subject for a serious novel and had even announced it to his agent. The agent had not raised a single word of objection but had simply placed two contracts before him.

One was for the usual humorous pieces, except that the fee was one-third higher than usual; the other was for a novel, for starvation wages, and with the additional rider that the agent retained the right, on being shown the first half of the finished manuscript, to break even this miserable contract.

"I'm not saying that I won't sign one day, but right now I can't afford it."

"That's the way it is," Árpád Sas noted, "One can't always do what one would like."

"Or else you have to pay the price," added the Mijnheer. They had stopped speaking to me long ago.

The two clever and worldly-wise men communed agreeably over the head of the mug sitting between them. By then I was no longer paying much attention to them either. The restaurant terrace had filled up, the autumn sunlight seemed just as languid and distraught as my straying concentration. Other scraps of sound began to mingle with the blur of conversation from Sas and Gerendás. Plates clattered, outside on the street a bus roared past now and again. On my left an elderly fellow with a d'Artagnan moustache and a resolutely bright-patterned necktie was sitting opposite a well-preserved lady with a ready smile.

"I like some pictures," the bloke said with a deeply meaningful glance, a sausage sandwich in his hand.

"Ai laik djor myusik," said the lady in fractured English with a smile that went far beyond the content of her utterance.

"As I recall, two parcels were packed together," a yapping voice came to my ears. It belonged to a diminutive old man in a circle of primped-up old ladies: with his enormous ears, his withered face, and the thin strands of hair twined into a crest on the crown of his head he resembled an irate hussar monkey.

Meanwhile I overheard just in passing that Sas had invited himself to Amsterdam for the coming spring.

"That may be precisely when I shan't be at home," said the Mijnheer. "Some time in the spring I have to fly to America. But of course one of the guest rooms ..." The d'Artagnan moustache was taking a dip in the foaming white bubble bath of a glass of beer. A shrill cackling rose up at the old ladies' table:

"You always know best!" one of them shrieked, her faced flushed and trembling with indignation.

"Indeed I do, I'm precisely informed about everything!" yelped the aged head male. The old crones suddenly settled down and fell silent. The old codger snorted loudly as he looked around at them, his lower row of dentures popping up threateningly before finding its place again.

At our table, in the meantime, the discussion had passed on to Sas's English minicar, which very likely needed some spare part or other. In the ensuing conversation the suggestion came up that he would try to translate one of Gerendás' non-political humorous volumes and find a publisher for it: "At least I'll learn some Dutch: I've already done translations from Norwegian. If I get stuck, you can help me," he declared merrily.

I looked about. Everything around me was seething and bubbling, a chirping twitter of voices from all sides, as if carried by invisible telegraph wires on invisible telegraph poles; ideas, offers, plans, and hopes jumped across like flashing electric discharges from one head to another. Yes, somehow I had been left out of this vast global metabolism of mass production and consumption, and at that moment I grasped that this was what had decided my fate. I am not a consumer, and I am not consumable.

"I have to go," I stood up. They did not try too hard to detain me.

"Now I sit here at home."

translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson

Used by permission of Melville House. Fiasco is already out in the stores.

Click here for more information about the book.



Read the original in Hungarian

Read translator’s note

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest in 1929. At age fifteen he was deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to a subcamp at Zeitz, to labor in a factory where Nazi scientists were trying to convert coal into motor fuel. Upon liberation in 1945 he worked as a journalist before being fired for not adhering to the Communist party doctrine. After a brief service in the Hungarian Army, he devoted himself to writing, although as a dissident he was forced to live under Spartan circumstances. Nonetheless he stayed in Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising, continuing to write plays and fiction in near–anonymity and supporting himself by translating from the German writers such as Joseph Roth, Freud, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein. He remained little–known until 1975, when he published his first book, Fatelesseness, a novel about a teenage boy sent to a concentration camp. It became the first book of a trilogy that eventually included The Failure and Kaddish for an Unborn Child. Subsequent titles include Liquidation, Union Jack, and, most recently, a memoir, The File on K. In 2002, Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lives in Budapest and Berlin.

Tim Wilkinson (b. 1947) grew up in Sheffield, England, but spent his adult life in and around London as well as on continental Europe. These destinations included Hungary (1970–1973), where he also married his first and still present wife. Apart from published translations of a series of substantial works by distinguished Hungarian historians, he has also worked on a fairly wide selection of Hungarian literary memoirs and prose works by contemporary masters, and has translated most of the fictional works by Imre Kertész: Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation, and Detective Story for Random House, and, more recently, The Pathseeker, The Union Jack, and Dossier K. for Melville House. Fatelessness was awarded the forty-third Annual PEN Club/Book of the Month Translation Prize for 2005.




It will perhaps be clear to the reader that this is a novel in two parts—a tale within a tale—namely, a "real-life" introduction concerning the "Old Boy" (who can't be much older than 40) and his wife (who works as a waitress) and the tiny apartment they were living in, presumably Budapest, and the novel entitled Fiasco that the "Old Boy" eventually settles down to produce. Though only published in 1988, there are clear signs of a much earlier genesis. One should bear in mind that his first novel, Fatelessness had a long gestation before it was eventually published in 1975, while Fiasco, his second full-length novel only saw the light of day in 1988, there are clear reference which position the action of the introductory frame story as occurring a year or two after Fatelessness had been published, and the novel itself being a 'fictional' account of the early Fifties, preceding the 1956 Revolution, as was so memorably captured in The Union Jack.

Corresponding to those two "parts" are two rather different styles: the introduction in many ways, including the rhythmic repetitions of mundane exchanges and seemingly obsessive pedantry in setting out the details of the appearance of things, most graphically the tiny apartment in which the 'Old Boy' and his wife live, as well its furniture. Spiked into both parts are a number of telling quotations, which I refrain from revealing, but anyone who has read the whole must surely agree that it is a masterly account of an existence at the very edge of the tolerated 'fringe' of Hungary in the 'Communist era' (which itself consisted of two if not three parts). Finally, the end of the novel Fiasco quite demonstrably snakes back to the beginning of the "Introduction", which may give rise to more than a few cogitations about the relation between Poetry and Truth, as Goethe might put it (indeed, he did).