Stockholm, Oct. 10 (Reuters): Hungarian novelist and Auschwitz survivor Imre Kertesz won the 2002 Nobel Literature Prize today for works the judges said portrayed the Nazi death camp as “the ultimate truth” about how low man could fall.
Kertesz, 72, won the $1 million prize for writing that upholds the experience of the individual in the face of a barbaric and arbitrary history, the Swedish Academy said.
As a Jew persecuted by the Nazis, and then a Hungarian writer living under communist rule, Kertesz experienced directly some of the most acute suffering of the 20th century.
Kertesz, conducting research in Berlin for a new book about a woman who lives through the post-war period and the fall of the Iron Curtain after her parents experience the Holocaust, told reporters the award was a happy surprise.
“This should bring something to the countries in eastern Europe,” he said, clutching a bunch of red flowers with his wife, Magda, sitting at his side.
“I hope there’ll be more light shone on the somewhat ignored literature of Hungary... Perhaps a few more people will learn Hungarian and translate the works,” he added.
In his work, Kertesz returns repeatedly to the experience of Auschwitz, the camp in German-occupied Poland, where over one million Jews and other victims of the Nazis died. “He is one of the few people who manages to describe that in a way which is immediately accessible to us, who have not shared that experience,” said academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl.
For Kertesz, Auschwitz is not an exception existing outside Europe’s normal history, the academy said. “It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern existence,” it said.
Kertesz does not see himself as a Jew in religious terms, but has said: “When I am thinking about a new novel, I always think of Auschwitz.”
Kertesz’s first book, Fateless, about a 14-year-old boy taken to a concentration camp who conforms and survives, written between 1960 and 1973, was initially rejected. Fateless was finally published in 1975 but largely ignored on its appearance. Kertesz wrote about this experience in Fiasco (1988), seen as the second volume of a trilogy closed by Kaddish for a Child not Born (1990).
The novel, which takes the reality of camp life for granted, derives its force from the absence of indignation and protest.
Both the perpetrators of atrocities and their victims ignore major issues, preoccupied by practical problems.
BOOKS SELL OUT
”Fateless” was finally published in 1975 but largely ignored on its appearance. Kertesz wrote about this experience in ”Fiasco” (1988), seen as the second volume of a trilogy closed by“Kaddish for a Child not Born” (1990).
Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead, and in that novel, Kaddish is said by the protagonist for the child he refuses to beget in a world that allowed Auschwitz to exist.
The novel, presenting a consistently negative picture of childhood, creates a paradoxical feeling of being at home in a concentration camp, and depicts love as the highest stage of conformism, a capitulation to the desire to exist at any cost.
Kertesz's works have been translated into German and he has himself translated some of the greatest thinkers in the German language Ä Wittgenstein, Freud and Nietzsche.“Fateless” and ”Kaddish for a Child not Born” have appeared in English.
Winning the prize, the most prestigious award for writers, usually guarantees an author increased sales and new translations. Within an hour of the news, copies of Kertesz books had sold out of one of Stockholm's biggest bookshops.
Born in Budapest in 1929, Kertesz was deported as a teenager to Auschwitz in 1944, and from there to the concentration camp of Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in 1945.
He returned to Hungary and worked as a journalist, but lost his job in 1951 when his paper adopted the communist party line.
After that he supported himself as an independent writer and translator. He was able to make more public appearances after communist rule ended in 1989, and his lectures and essays have been collected in three volumes, besides his four novels, fictionalised diaries and stories.
Kertesz is the first Hungarian to win the Nobel literature prize, though Hungarians have won Nobel science awards.
Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy interrupted a local election campaign speech to call Kertesz and congratulate him. “On behalf of the government, I congratulate him with all my heart and express my sincere gratitude to Imre Kertesz for earning his homeland such glory,” he said in a statement.
Kertesz wins the prize in the year that Hungary is expected to be invited to join the European Union with nine other mainly East European countries, healing the division of the continent that followed World War Two.
(additional reporting by Karin Lundback in Stockholm, Philip Blenkinsop in Berlin and Krisztina Than in Budapest)