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The Union Jack by Imre Kertész

The Union Jack (1991)

by Imre Kertész

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English (2)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  All (4)
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This is from “The Contemporary Art of the Novella Series” by Melville House Publishing (www.mhpbooks.com); an interesting series dedicated to those works that fall in-between a short story and a novel, though I think closer to the former than the latter. The Union Jack is an extended stream of consciousness in which Kertesz tries to convey the sense of life in the “disaster era” of communist rule in Hungary, to try to “bridge the chasm, or rather, to be more accurate, schizophrenia, which separates these two worlds…”. These are the external world of controls and fears, where people are imprisoned for the “usual reasons---that is to say for no reason at all”, versus the “unattainably remote notion of a private life”. Kertesz sees glimpses of that unattainable notion in opera and reading but the stress of reconciling the two worlds, or holding the two in your mind, is enormous and many cannot do it. For Kertesz, the solution is in “self-denial as creation” as opposed to passion as the well-spring, and it is also a life of paying witness, as Kertesz did, living poorly and writing in near anonymity until he finally left Hungary after the failed 1956 revolution.

It is almost impossible for those who have not lived it to understand the Alice In Wonderland nature of reality under a communist regime. First, the fear: Kertesz describes the editorial room where he first worked as a journalist, fired with enthusiasm, an office “full of gloomy corridors, dusty crannies, tiny, cigarette-smoked rooms lit by bare bulbs, ringing telephones, yells, the quick-fire staccato of typewriters, full of fleeting excitements, abiding qualms, vacillating moods”, but, later, “the fear, unvacillating and even less vacillating, which seeped out from every cranny, as it were, to squat over everything…”. It is a world of “lies, terror and murder” and the inverse of normality when, for instance, “it never so much as crossed my mind that every single one of those trials might not be lies, that the judges, prosecutors, defending counsels, witnesses, indeed the accused themselves, would not all be lying, and that the sole truth that which was functioning there, and tirelessly at that, was not the hangman’s, and that any other truth would or could function here except the truth of arrest, imprisonment, execution, the shot in the head or the noose.”

And his beloved city of Budapest, beloved in architecture and in life, now destroyed: “all that I found on the site of the alleged erstwhile Budapest was a city that had tumbled into ruins, lives that had tumbled into ruins, souls that had been tipped into ruins, and hopes trampled underfoot amid those ruins.” When I lived in Moscow in the 70s I often thought that the Soviets had perfected instant antiquing because of the terrible construction: a three year old building looked more like thirty plus. Kertesz describes this well: “…the wartime rubble of a ruined building, on a site where today, forty years later, another ruin stands, a peacetime ruin, the wartime ruined building having been replaced by a peacetime ruined building, a decrepit, eight-storey monument to total peace, corroded by premature death, patinated by air pollution, vandalised by every sort of squalor, theft, neglect, infinite provisionality and futureless indifference.” The physical squalor and neglect mirror perfectly the moral, and the struggle for life is fought, by those who will fight, on two levels: constant struggle for food and accommodation, and the more nebulous, more dangerous, more difficult fight of the soul, for dignity, as wonderfully explored here by Kertesz.
  John | Feb 17, 2010 |
Kertész, in the able hands of translator Tim Wilkinson, proves, once again, why he is the best writer of post-WW2 Europe. He can do more in a short work of fiction than any writer I have read, save Kafka.

He won the Nobel Prize in 2002 but remains obscure in this country. I hope these fine editions of his novellas by Melville House will change that.

Melville House is quickly becoming my favorite imprint, by the way. In addition to the Kertész translations, they published a new title by Nanni Ballestrini! ( )
  inaudible | Feb 3, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Imre Kertészprimary authorall editionscalculated
Buda, GyörgyÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schwamm, KristinÜbersetzersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilkinson, TimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zaremba, CharlesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Zaremba-Huzsvai, NataliaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Si qisiera ahora contar la historia de la bandera inglesa, a lo que un grupo de amigos me anima desde hace días o quizá meses, debería mencionar primero la lectura que me enseñó a admirar la bandera inglesa...
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