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Flying High

The novella ‘Union Jack’ offers Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész in top form

Joshua Cohen
February 19, 2010
Kertész giving a reading at Budapest's Palace of Arts, 2005.(Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)
Kertész giving a reading at Budapest's Palace of Arts, 2005.(Ferenc Isza/AFP/Getty Images)

Imre Kertész is one of Hungary’s greatest living writers, and yet he is perhaps the writer a certain breed of Hungarian dislikes most—a fact that owes as much to Hungarian anti-Semitism as it does to Kertész’s Jewish anti-Hungarianism. Since winning the Nobel for Literature in 2002, the author has spent much time criticizing his homeland, and even more time living in Berlin. His canonical books, documenting through fiction the war their author spent in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and the bleakness of postwar Budapest, include Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation; slenderer and less read are the works that manipulate by Easternization the conventions of the Western detective story: Detective Story and The Pathseeker.

First published in 1991 as Az angol lobogó, later translated and published—along with a brilliant uncollected text called Sworn Statement—in the Hungarian Quarterly, Union Jack (Melville House) has now been reprinted as “a novella,” that strange summary term for a prosework engineered for psychic impact, to be read not in dutiful daily increments but in a breathless single sitting.

Lacking extras and scenery (Notes from Underground), supernumerary action and subplots (Heart of Darkness), a novella is longer than any story the same author has written but shorter than his shortest novel, and tends to focus on only one thing: one event’s changing (Death in Venice), or one character changed (The Metamorphosis). Henry James called his novellas “tales,” “novelette” remains an antiquated term of derision, a Magyar is a Hungarian—and taxonomy never ceases to bore. Kertész’s Union Jack explodes the extremities of this form, or nonform, as it is both about one thing and nothing at all, and then it is also about everything—everything, however, being circumscribed by Communist Hungary, youth, and frustrated ambition. Kertész begins by announcing not that he is telling the story of the Union Jack, but that he is about to tell the story of the Union Jack—the British flag; that saltired standard of Empire that was also, to a Hungarian under Soviet rule, a fimbriated symbol of freedoms. What follows this declaration, however, is an immediate digression from a digression, an evasion of a lark, as the narrator remembers having told the exact same story at a recent party thrown by former students for his birthday—and so on he goes, remembering and remembering his remembering, by regressus. The single paragraph ensuing flits among the narrator’s—Kertész’s—early career in censored journalism, the operas of Wagner, the verses and sentences (both Nazi penal and prose) of Ernő Szép, and of Goethe and Tolstoy, and the fate of an editorial office superior: “It will come as no surprise to you, mature, cultured people that you are, I said to the friendly gathering, mustered mainly from my former students, which had been continually urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack, to learn where that black limousine took its victim.”

This review will not spoil this book because there is almost no book to spoil: with the narrator’s vexillological intentions vexed, nothing happens besides talk, and the talk says nothing that’s not geopolitically predictable in its malevolence and glorious sadness; still, Union Jack is undeniably a masterpiece. Too often the flaw in Kertész’s previous books was the translation of Tim Wilkinson, a Britisher with tendencies toward both overcomplication and literal rendition. In Union Jack, however, Kertész’s motormouth runs altogether too fast for any translation, with insensible energy outpacing sensible English; and while Wilkinson could have done better at defining different registers of speech, what becomes compelling whether through intention or incompetence is his sheer pileup of clauses:

If I may perchance wish now, after all, to tell the story of the Union Jack, as I was urged to do at a friendly gathering a few days—or months—ago, then I would have to mention the piece of reading matter which first inculcated in me—let’s call it a grudging admiration, for the Union Jack; I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any event our destiny; I would have to tell about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.

Whither, indeed. It’s a question that could well be asked of Union Jack itself, a book that may be Kertész’s finest, one in which he has finally perfected the vehicle he has been working toward for years: the polysemous monologue.

For all its speechifying, Union Jack propels its reader not toward any rhetorical apotheosis, but rather to Hungary’s 1956 Revolution, and, at the very beginning of what Kertész stages as that rebellion’s random and unexpected unrest, to a single image so potent and intimate it has to have been “real”:

A hurtling jeep-like vehicle suddenly appeared, with the British red-white-and-blue colours, a Union Jack, draped over the entire radiator. It was scudding at breakneck speed between the crowds thronging the pavement on either side when, sporadically at first but then ever more continuously, evidently as a mark of their affection, people began to applaud. I was able to see the vehicle, once it had sped past me, only from the rear, and at the very moment when the applause seemed to coalesce, almost solidify, an arm stretched out hesitantly, almost reluctantly at first, from the left-side window of the car. The hand was tucked into a light-coloured glove, and though I did not see it close up, I presume it was a kid glove; probably in response to the clapping, it cautiously dipped several times parallel to the direction in which the vehicle was travelling. It was a wave, a friendly, welcoming, perhaps slightly consolatory gesture, which, at the very least, adumbrated an unreserved endorsement and, by the by, also the solid consciousness that before long that same gloved hand would be touching the rail of the steps leading down from an aircraft onto the runway on arrival home in that distant island country. After that, vehicle, hand and Union Jack—all disappeared in the bend of the road, and the applause gradually died away.

And so the book fulfills its eponymous promise, almost indirectly, with stealth and concision: In these few swift concluding pages, the narrator is studying Italian at Budapest’s Istituto Italiano di Cultura per l’Ungheria when his fellow Hungarians spontaneously attempt to overthrow the legacies of Stalin and Rákosi (Kertész himself was active as a translator not from Italian but from German, which he learned in the camps; he has translated Freud, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein). Later the narrator glimpses this jeep draped with the British flag hurtling in the direction of the airport—probably an official vehicle, helping to evacuate UK nationals or embassy notables to “that distant island country.” Freedom “disappeared in the bend of the road,” then applause, and with it hope, “gradually died away,” to be replaced by the onomatopoeia of Moscow’s tanks. The End. Kertész, nearly 30 years old at the time of the Uprising, would not be allowed to publish in Hungary for another two decades.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.

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