Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Detective Story" - Imre Kertesz

This novella of 112 pages tells the tale of Antonio Martens, CID detective turned secret policeman in an unnamed Latin American country. Martens transfers to the "Corps" shortly after the coup, joining the interrogation team as a rookie torturer.

In a parallel development, we meet Enrique Salinas, the student son and heir of Federigo Salinas, who owns a national chain of department stores.

The Colonel has closed the universities and Enrique's vaguely left-wing sentiments drive him to revolt. But the real hard-cases of the resistance want nothing to do with this earnest, bumbling amateur. His worried father concocts an elaborate spoof 'resistance group' to keep his son safe.

The secret police, however, can't fail to notice Enrique's hapless 'subversion'. This spoilt child of the bourgeoisie is soon in the "operating theatre" learning some new realities about life in a police state .. soon to be followed by his father.

The story is told by the torturer Martens in flashback - memoirs written in his prison cell during his trial by the new, more liberal regime. Ironically, the scandal of the treatment of the innocent Salinas appears to have precipitated the very revolution in which they avoided participation.

We are meant, I think, to compare and contrast the trajectories of the Salinas family and Antonio Martens as they head towards their identical doom. But what is in common? It certainly isn't character.

The Salinas family are smart (too smart for their own good) but unforgivably naive. The secret police, by contrast, are thoroughly incompetent and Martens, while not irredeemably evil, is pretty stupid.

Still, while writing in his prison cell, Martens concedes that he has finally understood 'the logic'. When the bureaucracy - any bureaucracy - has you in its grip, it will run the process - 'the logic' - in all its institutional idiocy, never, ever penetrating to the truth.


The author, Imre Kertesz, was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald and later saw what the Russian Stalinists did to his native Hungary. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

The translator, Tim Wilkinson, has done an excellent job in capturing the different voices in the text.

Thanks to Adrian for recommending this excellent book.