Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész tells Le Monde literary critic Florence Noiville of his despair at the culture of hatred consuming his country
Imre Kertész receives us in slippers, resting on his walking stick and warning us without humour: "One of the consequences of me taking medication is that I am not dead, as one would expect, but I often have to search for my words." The first Hungarian winner of the Nobel prize for literature – in 2002 – is the author of The Holocaust as Culture, A Breath-long Silence, While the Fire Squad is Reloading Their Guns and A Language in Exile, among others. Now 82, this death camp survivor gave us an exclusive interview.
What do you make of the Hungary of Viktor Orbán?
I have lived in Berlin for the past 10 years, far away from Hungary's political affairs. However if you want to understand it, you'd have to look at the painter Marcel Duchamp, who said: "There isn't a solution, because there isn't a problem." This quote applies to Hungary perfectly. There's nothing new in this country; we are in the same situation as we were during the János Kádár years (1956-1988). Hungary is mesmerised by Orbán the way some were by the pied piper of Hamelin. There is a profound subtext to it, and it brings a huge doubt in me ...
I am wondering whether the country has made a choice between Asia and western Europe. Don't forget that Hungarians are the descendants of Asian tribes who were living at the heart of Europe in the 9th century. At school, Hungarian pupils learn that their ancestors came from the southern steppes of the Ural mountains to develop the Carpathian basin. All Hungarians are therefore confronted with this double-belonging game, this contradiction: the norms of a Christian society are different from those of a clan-based society. If I insist on this double polarity, it is because it resides at the heart of today's situation.
After 70 years of authoritarian regime, from Miklós Horthy (1920-1944) to Kádár, one could have been forgiven to think that Hungarians would fight to defend a democracy which was costly to obtain ...
I am no historian, but Hungary is a country which has never known democray – and by that I mean not a democratic political system, but an organic process which has mobilised the entire country's society. In the case of Hungary, this development was blocked by the growth of the Ottoman empire in the 16th century. This delay was never made up for. In historic terms, to wait for Hungary to suddenly find democracy almost doesn't make any sense.
... which is where your Duchamp surrealist conclusion comes from?
Yes. The question I am asking is: why has Hungary always got it wrong? Remember, when the revolution rumbled
in Europe, Hungary was busy supporting Maria-Theresa! From the 16th century, the country would successively belong to the Ottoman empire, the Habsburg bloc and the Soviet bloc. Each time, it tried to play a game in the bloc it belonged to. It looked good on paper but under Kádár, even when Hungary appeared to be the happiest member of the socialist camp, it was done at the price of the negation of the 1956 revolution, and a debt policy that would come to cost the country dearly. The current situation is nothing but a further illustration of that tendency to choose wrong. The Hungarian state chooses today to go against Europe in the name of its national interests, which can give the impression of a return to sovereignty. But once again, this is wrong. Nothing new – and no problem ... and no solution, as there is no problem in their eyes.
We can sense your irony. Is there nothing to be done, then?
About 10 years ago, I met a young Hungarian student in a plane who had a German passport. He lived abroad but had just spent a semester at the university of Budapest. He explained his contempt towards the many students there who were rightwing activists. Everywhere in the world, he said, students were leftists. It was only in Hungary that we had met a conformist and fascist youth. We tried to find an explanation for this – to no avail. Some things cannot be explained, and sometimes one has to accept the facts. Hungary is a casualty which has no sense of explanation, and is unique in Europe. Hungarians are holding on to their destiny. They will undoubtedly end up failing, without understanding why.
You were deported to Auschwitz at the age of 15. Do you consider Hungarian antisemitism as a fait accompli?
Auschwitz and the Shoah are pages of history that haven't been explored in Hungary. There hasn't been any soul searching. The country never asked itself why it systematically was on the wrong side of history. My writer friend Peter Nadas just published a long analysis in the Hungarian magazine ES (December 2011). He explains that authoritarianism in Hungary comes from the "provincial spirit", with a basis in tribes and lineage. A republic is of no interest – the country rests on a solid clerical network, which enhances a patriarchal spirit. The hatred towards Jewish people (2% of the population) and Roma people (7%) is necessary to impose a tribal and primitive vision of the nation.
Are you suffering from this climate?
Of course, It hurts me. I have a few rightwing friends in Budapest, whom I can only contact in secret. There is a sort of embarrassment between us; I put them at risk. It is not well seen for them to be friendly with me. Remember the unleashing of violence when I won the Nobel prize – people were angry to see me become the only Hungarian Nobel when I was not glorifying "Hungarian-ness". After my novel Someone Other, I was attacked because of my dark portrayal of the country. Some even wondered if I was a real Hungarian writer ...
Don't you wish to write about this in protest?
I am 82. I am sick. My reaction was to move here, to Berlin. I can only act with my writing. But when I do, it doesn't influence things in any way, and only brings me condemnation. With one exception, however. The release in Hungary last year of My Journal has for the first time prompted some sympathy. Does it mean that Hungary is not, in fact, following the pied piper? It made me think of that one-liner by Karl Kraus: "The situation is desperate, but not serious."
• This is an extract of an article published by Le Monde on 10 February. Translation by Jessica Reed