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'The Pathseeker' by Imre Kertész
Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson
Melville House: 130 pp., $13 paper
It's amazing what a Nobel Prize will do for an author's career. Imre Kertész's profound and puzzling novella, "The Pathseeker," has finally arrived in English, 30 years after its initial publication in Hungary. In it, a man known only as "the commissioner" travels, along with his wife, to some unnamed Mitteleuropa seaside resort. He decides to take a detour along the way to make some inquiries about an old, unresolved case that involved "the part of universal evil that falls to our lot." Or, it's equally possible that the detour was the point of the vacation all along.
The commissioner begins his research by interrogating a man named Hermann, who, eager to please, offers to chauffeur the couple to the town where the injustice evidently took place. In the morning, with his ill child in tow, Hermann takes them to a seemingly unremarkable town bustling with tourists. There, it becomes clear that the commissioner's interest in the case is more than professional. He has been there before and admits that he has returned "so that I should bear witness to everything I have seen."
Kertész, perhaps as a result of writing "The Pathseeker" in the intellectual confines of Soviet-era Hungary, is stingy with the particulars, and it can be difficult to discern when or where the story takes place. It's tempting to look to Kertész's own personal history for hints as to what the commissioner might be up to: Throughout his career, Kertész has delicately drawn from his own horrific experiences as a survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald. "Universal evil," indeed.
The wife's discovery of an ornate, locked gate on the town's outskirts brings the visit into sharper focus. "[T]hey were standing too far away to make out the three units -- presumably three words -- into which the inscription, which, being imbedded in the center of the gate's pattern, looked from there to be merely one of its curlicues. . . . 'Jedem das Seine. To each his due.' " Those words, you may recall, adorned the entrance to the Buchenwald concentration camp. The commissioner has returned to the scene of the 20th century's greatest crime, and what he finds subtly reveals the various ways the Holocaust continues to haunt him and all Europeans.
The infestation of tourists comes as a shock: "Tourists were like ants, diligently carrying off the significance of things, crumb by crumb, wearing away a bit of the unspoken importance investing them with every word they spoke and every single snapshot they took." The commissioner's own role in the atrocities -- as victim or as perpetrator or as something else entirely -- is never made explicit. Kertész reminds us that some things can never be named. *
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