A Voice Of Conscience

For decades, novelist Imre Kertesz was unknown even in his native Hungary. When he published a semiautobiographical novel in 1975 called "Fateless," it went almost unnoticed. But two weeks ago Kertesz made literary history when the Swedish Academy awarded him this year's Nobel Prize in Literature, primarily for the moving book, in which he chronicles the year he spent as a young Jew in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It is the first work in Hungarian and the first to deal with the Holocaust to win the honor. Kertesz spoke with NEWSWEEK's Stefan Theil after picking up the award. Excerpts:

You've said you feel lucky to have been at Auschwitz. Please excuse me for finding that shocking.

I experienced my most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. You cannot imagine what it's like to be allowed to lie in the camp's hospital, or to have a 10-minute break from indescribable labor. To be very close to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.

Your writing focuses on the Holocaust, which you say is a legacy for all of Europe.

Auschwitz is the ultimate embodiment of a radically new event in European history: totalitarian dictatorship. Europe's 20th-century totalitarianisms [fascism and communism] created a completely new type of human being. They forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator. Even surviving involved collaboration, compromises you had to make if you wanted to bring a bigger piece of bread home to your family. This choice has deformed millions of Europeans.

But didn't Europe's age of totalitarianism end in 1989?

After 1989, no one accepted that they made the choice to collaborate. Overnight everyone became a dissident. One lie replaced the other, and that's a problem all of Eastern Europe still has to deal with.

After decades of being cut off from the West by the Iron Curtain your native Hungary will join the European Union in 2004. Is Europe's long division now over?

We might be growing back together economically, but there are a lot of psychological traumas we haven't dealt with. The old nationalisms that exploded in the Balkan wars are an example of that. And Eastern Europe doesn't trust the EU, which waited much too long after 1989 to reach out. Back then we were all enthusiastic about a reunited Europe, and what happened? Instead we all watched powerlessly as Europe let genocide happen once again. We might have a Europe of financial and economic ties, but a European spirit, an identity that binds us together beyond our individual nationalisms, has yet to be born.

There's a lot of talk these days about Europe's identity and values diverging from America's.

We need to define a European identity that loves America, because Europe stands in America's debt. I will never forget the day the U.S. Army liberated me from Buchenwald. Only America's protection during the cold war made it possible for Germany to find its peaceful place among Western nations and finally make amends with France. And let's not forget that America is built upon the most beautiful of Europe's ideals.

The new century brought us a new kind of horror: terrorism.

In America and the West, democracy was able to outlive Stalinism and the threat of a third world war. We must make sure that it survives terrorism, too. Terror is like totalitarianism in that it can take control of our lives--and then life would get very, very dark. Strangely, we Europeans can no longer imagine blowing ourselves up in a crowded bus, but it was in 19th-century Europe where modern terrorism was born. The conflict not between nations but between rationalism and fanaticism, between cultures that cannot understand each other is very, very dangerous. The whole subject is a jungle of worries and questions, full of thick roots to trip over and wild animals that stare us in the face.

You're the first Hungarian to win a Nobel literature prize. How is it to be getting a hero's welcome?

It's very strange for me because I'm certainly no hero. I've always looked on my writing as a very private matter. For decades I had no audience and lived on the fringes of society.

You've said that it's easier to write literature in a dictatorship than in a democracy.

That was too sweeping a statement, but there's a truth to it. Because I didn't write what the communist government wanted to see, I was cut off and alone with my work. I never thought my book would ever be published, and so I had the freedom to write as radically as I wanted, to go as deep inside as I wanted. In a democracy you have to find a market niche, make sure a novel is "interesting" and "spectacular." That may be the toughest censorship of all.