three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
By: 
Imre Kertesz
user_rating: 
0

A-DetectiveStoryIn an unnamed Latin American country, a repressive military junta has given way to a new regime. Antonio Rojas Martens, a member of the secret police and torturer for the old government, will soon face trial for multiple murders, but first he must confess his violent crimes and the methodology that guided him. That confession forms this short novel, which follows Martens’s unrelenting pursuit—and arrest, torture, and assassination—of a wealthy father and son, who find themselves forced to cover up crimes they never committed. Though divorced from any particular time or place, Martens’s story reveals a "logic" of totalitarianism that is relevant to readers anywhere.
Knopf. 128 pages. $21. ISBN: 03077266443

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The story is constructed with a delicate, scientific objectivity, working like a trap. … This short, spare book, a fable about what governments do and the guilt a man tries to stop feeling, can be read in a couple of hours; its bleak, despairing effect will haunt for much longer." Richard Rayner

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kertész underlines the absurd tone by consistently finding humor in the mundane. … Critics have compared Kertész to Kafka and Beckett, as well as novelist-memoirist Primo Levi. Perhaps this novel could have been written only by a survivor of Buchenwald." John Hartl

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Martens’s real subject of investigation is what he calls ‘the logic,’ a term used to describe the elusive forces that govern an authoritarian state. … Unfortunately, in order to get to Kertész’s nuanced exploration of his theme one must overlook a surprising array of tonal miscues and awkward formulations, for which the translator, Tim Wilkinson, surely does not deserve all the blame." Nathaniel Rich

Critical Summary

Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002, is best known for his novels about the Holocaust and the attempt by survivors to reconstruct a life in the aftermath. Since he lived both through concentration camps in Poland (Auschwitz) and in Germany (Buchenwald) and through Communist rule in Hungary, critics were eager to read his further insights into totalitarianism. Though the book was written three decades ago, critics found this new English translation to be relevant not only because of its literary quality but for its bearing on ongoing debates over torture and terrorism. At the same time, no reviewer compared this short novel to Kertész’s better-known books, including Fatelessness (1975), about a child deported to Auschwitz (filmed in 2005 as Fateless). The New York Times Book Review, in particular, cited stylistic distractions that undermined the author’s "difficult, haunting truth." Detective Story, while compelling in its exploration of totalitarianism, might not be the best starting place for readers wishing to explore this laureate’s oeuvre.