When Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2002, he was hardly known in his native Hungary — and much less so outside of it. His first novel, Fatelessness, told the account of a Holocaust survivor named Koves, who mostly mirrord Kertesz's own experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His second, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, furiously railed against the thought of bringing a child into a world that could also create such a holocaust. Fiasco, recently translated into English, revisits Koves, now a young adult returning to Hungary just after a Stalinist government has taken over.
Having written about what he experienced in the prison camps, Kertesz turns to asking why he felt the need to vividly recall those times. Chapter 1 of Fiasco does not begin in earnest until Page 119, after a preliminary untitled section recounts "the old boy," a version of Kertesz himself, mulling around his apartment and parsing through papers from his younger days when he first began to write about his time in concentration camps. Like Kertesz, the old boy lives sparsely under the dictatorship and translates Kafka and Nietzsche for a living — a telling influence on Kertesz's own writing. The section is narrated by a plural, nameless entity that has the sense of a thin-mustached government regulator running his fine-toothed comb through the old boy's actions, thoroughly recording every move with all the necessary qualifying remarks, making sure everything's up to standard.
Koves' story begins when a subject finally crystallizes in the old boy's mind — he will write about the character's return to his home country, disoriented and unfamiliar with the oppressive new society. Koves stumbles through his days in an endlessly exhausted fog, pained to be awake, unaware of most of the conversations he has. He finds the right words, usually to settle the silence, but does not really know what everyone around him talks about at all. Everyone else can't do much to help him understand; at the mere question of anything relating to the trucks that come by to kidnap dissenters at dawn, or the government's strict record keeping of citizens' whereabouts and employment, they simply ask each other, "can anyone know?" to avoid saying anything of substance (which could land them in jail).
But in a cafe called Southern Seas, among a melange of craggy personalities vying for a secret cut of meat or a job with the fire department, Koves meets a writer named Berg. After a winding, guarded conversation, Berg finally wonders aloud when those in charge will cart him away to a prison camp. Koves asks "smilingly, like someone who, purely for the fun of it, of course, was going along with the game," what they will decide for him, but he has it all wrong, Berg says. Instead, it's up to Koves to decide; those in charge "merely ... take cognizance of your decision."
The characters populating Fiasco know exactly what to do to avoid being snatched up by the police, or how to act to stay unnoticed. They're aware of a line that can't be crossed, like a pianist who avoids playing explicitly banned songs, but who doesn't know how to handle other songs that have just a hint of unseemliness and could perhaps put him in jail.
All are trapped by a frightening, trembling kind of prison, masterfully elucidated by Kertesz, where each one knows in advance which human, free and necessary actions will suddenly land them in a prison camp.
The old boy, riffling through his papers, finds a smooth, gray lump of stone with mysterious origins in the back of his filing cabinet "about which there is nothing reassuring we might say," the narrator says. The same could be said for Fiasco — a sense of unease, malaise and horror permeates the story. The novel deals not so much with Kertesz's direct experience in the concentration camps but with his overwhelming need to write about it later, the act of sending manuscripts to publishers, receiving rejection letters that called his recounting of the experience "quite odd" and always needing to write again. Kertesz wrote a truly cyclical kind of novel — in which the old boy struggles to write a novel in which Koves eventually realizes he, too, needs to write a novel — to finally clamor against the confusion and injustice around him, no matter who's listening.