Friday, August 26, 2011

Imre Kertész's Detective Story

Imre Kertész is a Hungarian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, for his fiction on the Holocaust.  However, he also wrote a book about Latin America, Detective Story, that was originally published in 1977 but translated into English in 2008.  It is narrated by Antonio Martens, a police detective who became involved in torture in an unnamed Latin American dictatorship and now in the postauthoritarian period is on trial for murder.  He was on the trail of Enrique Salinas, the son of a department store magnate, who the police believe has joined the opposition.

The essence of the novel is Martens' totally clinical and hard boiled tone.  He narrates like a Raymond Chandler character, uninterested in others' pain (while complaining about his own headaches).

It's nasty work, I can tell you, but it's part of the job. We take away the offender's mind, shred his nerves, paralyze his brain, rifle through pocket and even his innards. We slam him into a chair, draw the curtains, light a lamp--in short, we go by the book. We didn't make any effort to surprise the offender with some original twist. Everything happened the way those ham-handed films would have prepared him for; everything happened the way he would expect (p. 83).

Martens never wants to mention the violence itself.  Torture simply occurs, because that's the way it is, but he doesn't want to talk about blood or pain very much.

I won't spoil the ending, which has a twist, but suffice it to say the novel also examines what makes people seem guilty to paranoid and dictatorial authorities even when they have done nothing.  The police start going after people, while torture and death pile up almost of their own accord.

I grasped that we had now cast away everything that bound us to the laws of man; I grasped that we could no longer place our trust in anyone except ourselves. Oh, and in destiny, in that insatiable, greedy, and eternally hungry mechanism (p. 103).


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