20 July 2009

Imre Kertész, Detective Story, 1977

— Antonio Martens was a torturer for the secret police of a recently defunct dictatorship. Now in prison, he requests and is given writing materials in his cell, and what he has to recount is his involvement in the surveillance, torture, and assassination of Federigo and Enrique Salinas, a prominent father and son whose principled but passive opposition to the regime left them vulnerable to the secret police. Preying upon young Enrique’s aimless life, the secret police began to position him as a subversive and then targeted his father. Once this plan was set into motion, any means were justified to reach the regime’s chosen end—the destruction of an entire liberal class. Inside Martens’s mind, we inhabit the rationalising world of evil and see first-hand the inherent danger of inertia during times of crisis.

As an Auschwitz survivor the study of evil has always been Kertész’s focus and yet this novella, in the form of a prison memoir written by one of the police officers after a civilian government has been restored, focuses more on its banality than its excesses though is no less gripping. The officer shows nothing in the way of remorse and instead tries to show how he was just doing his job, following orders, and the surveillance techniques he uses are straight out of East Germany’s Stasi. This works as an excellent and very accessible piece of writing that serves to illustrate how an untrammeled police force will often be inclined to pursue the wrong leads, and it that respect it helps to cast light on the kind of mindset that results in the death of innocents at the hands of the police. Recommended.  PY


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