It’s literally a “detective’s story” that unfolds in this grim novella, published in 1977 and previously untranslated, from the Nobel Prize–winning Hungarian author.
Set in an unnamed Latin American country and prefaced by the remarks of a court-appointed attorney, the book quickly settles into policeman Antonio Martens’s “confession” as he awaits trial for his complicity in torture and murder practiced by “the Corps” (secret police), which served the ill will of dethroned dictator “the Colonel.” Martens chronicles his ascension from “honest flatfoot” to ingenuous “new boy” assigned to monitor the activities of prosperous liberal department-store owner Federigo Salinas and his adult son Enrique, a university student who yearns to join his country’s radical liberal underground. Martens dutifully records his surveillance of both men—on the pretext that “our records had already identified that Enrique was going to perpetrate something sooner or later.” Undaunted by severe headaches and persistent misgivings, Martens intensifies his scrutiny, going so far as to acquire Enrique’s diary, and extend the Corps’ threats to Federigo’s terrified wife Maria and Enrique’s unconcerned girlfriend Estella (aka “Jill”). The expected occurs, and Kertész (Liquidation, 2004, etc.) manages a few chilling moments as father and son, exhausted and unhinged by relentless “interrogation,” meet the fate long since planned for them. Alas, such moments are few. Almost from the first page we feel Kertész straining to stretch this simple, predictable story to novella length. The device of the diary permits Martens to depict scenes and conversations to which he was not privy, and virtually none of these is even marginally credible. And in such “big” moments as a heartfelt climactic father-son conversation, the story collapses into redundancy and dullness.
Perhaps Kertész’s other works justify the Nobel. Not this one: Orwell, Koestler, Solzhenitsyn and many others did it better.