Fiasco by Imre Kertész – a comedy of errors
Look at the cover. You learn that the author has won the Nobel prize for literature. A series of glum-looking faces peer out from little cells. You turn the book over and read the blurb on the back: ". . . in which a young man returns from a Nazi concentration camp to a homeland taken over by Soviets". You think to yourself: hmm, perhaps something a little lighter?
Well, no one can say Melville House has underprepared you for Kertész's significance. What it has failed to do justice to is his comedy. I seem to write about Kertész every time a book of his gets translated, because they're brilliant and important (he is the most extraordinary and surprising of all writers about the Holocaust); but they tend to be, if not exactly humour-free, for there is the caustic Bernhardian comedy in the very language, not exactly laugh riots either, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Fiasco is going to be more of the same.
But it is not; and don't think that it is essential to read the two other books in this trilogy. You can tell from the first page that this is not going to be a novel which directly addresses the problems of adjusting to postwar Hungarian communist society. What is going to be addressed is the problem of living. We begin with an unnamed "old boy" standing in front of a filing cabinet having a think. ("Around this time the old boy was always in the habit of having a think.") He is thinking about writing a book, "not that the old boy was burning with longing to write a new book". What he wants to do above all is not write any more books, "but in order not to have to write any more books, he would still have to write a few more." Not for nothing is Kertész particularly fond of Camus, and the metaphor of Sisyphus, which recurs with astonishing originality at the very end of the book.
We are in roughly familiar territory: the circular, endlessly self-examining prose of Beckett circa Watt, but with the proviso that we are in a more recognisable human territory, and not some existential limbo largely shorn of referents. There are few specific complaints about the rather dull regime that Hungary was under by the time this book was written, save quality of food (it was written in the mid-1980s; I can vouch for Kertész's sureness of tone, for I was in Hungary around then, and it was like living in a parrot cage with a blanket thrown over it). But the atmosphere of an absurd bureaucracy hovers over everything, and the Beckettian prose style – superbly translated – is entirely appropriate, as if custom-made for dealing with such a kind of life. (I would also like to think Melville House has deliberately chosen the kind of paper I remember from that time: a sort of recycled recycled paper, grey, a little furry, with strange flecks in it.)
And then, on page 118, almost exactly one-third of the way through the book, "the old boy" starts a novel called "FIASCO". (Kudarc, which can also be translated as "setback", "failure", or "fuck-up", among other things.) And then the rest of the book is the story of Köves, Kertész's alter ego, who has stepped off a jumbo jet and begins a picaresque set of adventures in his native land, now strangely unfamiliar to him. We see it with all the baffled ingenuousness of the constitutionally alienated.
But please, this is not an exercise in painful self-regard. This is funny, and funny on every page. People forget that Beckett – and Kafka, Fiasco's other parent – are funny, and this is like all the funny bits of those writers put together and expanded to book length. And being arbitrarily shunted from machine fitter to military prison guard to writer of press releases for a factory, as Köves is, offers plenty of scope for comedy. You will come to love Köves, who will, when asked, describe machine-fitting as "wonderful", "so as to say nothing, but still break the silence". Asked what he thinks, we are told that he is "too lazy to think of anything at all"; but we are not fooled. He is an intellectual Švejk. And Kertész even predicts the collapse of communism, exactly, and with just the right reservations.