The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Cerebral and often ethereal, Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack attempts to recount an attempt to recount a simple anecdote, the unnamed author’s epiphanic sighting of a jeep bearing the British flag during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. No, there’s not a typo in the previous sentence: Kertész’s slim novella is more about a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth than it is about a student uprising against an oppressive Stalinist regime. The unnamed narrator (presumably a version of Kertész) is prompted by his former students to tell the story of the Union Jack; he spends most of the novella attempting to tell his readers of that attempt to tell his anecdote. The problem is that to really tell the story of the Union Jack, our narrator tells us:

I would have to tell about the books I was reading at the time, about my passion for reading, what nourished it, the vagaries of chance on which it hinged, as indeed does everything else in which, with the passage of time, we discern what, whether it be the consequentiality of destiny or the absurdity of destiny, is in any event our destiny; I would have to tell you about when that passion started, and whither it propelled me in the end; in short, I would have to tell almost my entire life story.

The narrator then concedes that to tell one’s whole life story is “impossible,” and sets out then instead to build to his story about the Union Jack by first explaining his initial encounter with the opera of Richard Wagner, one of several epiphanies that form the essential plot of the novella. The narrator is an old man looking back on a young man who is somehow the same man but also somehow not. As a way of understanding this disjunction, the old man narrates his tale as a series of the young man’s “formulations” of possibility and identity. These formulations include an early encounter with the Hungarian writer Ernő Szép, a transcendent viewing of Wagner’s Die Walküre, and an obsession with Thomas Mann’s The Blood of the Walsungs. For the young narrator (who surely must be Kertész), these moments offer “a kind of metaphysical solace” amid the horrors of the Stalinist regime, which the narrator calls “the disaster.” He continues: ” . . . put simply, even in the depths of disaster, and in the lowest depths of consciousness of that disaster, I was never again able to carry on living as if I had not seen and heard Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre.” These experiences offer the narrator hope in the form of Platonic aesthetic ideals, vibrantly extant in striking relief against the grim disaster-world of communist Hungary. And yet, despite the literary bent of the narrator’s experiences, he ultimately eschews them in favor of pure, unmediated living, fearing that “literature has fallen under suspicion”:

One should strive for formulations that totally encapsulate the experience of life (that is to say, the disaster); formulations that assist one to die and yet still bequeath something to posterity. I don’t mind if literature, too, is capable of such formulations, but what I see increasingly is that only bearing witness is able to do this, possibly a life passed in muteness without being formulated as a formation.

For the narrator (come on, he’s got to be Kertész!) to bear witness is beyond problematic; it approaches impossible, hence the elliptical layering of his narrative. He spends almost seventy pages spiraling toward telling an anecdote that clocks in at just one page. He admits again and again that the construct of his narrative, “the spirit of formulability,” is “by no means the same thing, of course, as the real spirit of those details” of life during the “disaster.” Kertész writes of the

. . .iron curtain that rises between formulation and being, the iron curtain that rises between the storyteller and his audience, the iron curtain that rises between one person and another, and, in the end, the impenetrable iron curtain that rises between a person and himself, between a person and his own life.

If the problem of witnessing through formulation always rises like an iron curtain, then Kertész does offer some of his own metaphysical solace at the end of The Union Jack, to both his interior audience of former students and his exterior audience of readers. He tells them–and us–that:

. . . anecdotes apart, every story and everybody’s story is one and the same story when it comes down to the essentials, and that these selfsame stories are really essentially all horror stories; that essentially every event is really a horror even, and even history too had long, long ago become, essentially, at best just horror history.

Okay, sure, that seems mighty grim for something I’ve claimed as “metaphysical solace”–but it does speak to an essential connection, an essential ability for formulations to match in a shared “horror history” that might transcend time and place. For Kersétz (or the young narrator, to be fair), there must have been something at the core of Wagner’s opera, something in the spirit of its storm, that connected to–and in some way sublimated–the horror of “the disaster.”

I’ve tried in this review to convey a sense of Kertész’s challenging style. His long, elliptical sentences branch out over pages at a time, often–very often–floating into awfully abstract territory. At times, The Union Jack reads more like a work of continental philosophy than a novella, and it’s not the first place to go to for an account of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. I read the book in two sittings, but one would’ve better matched its breathless rhythm. The book reminds me very much of the work of W.G. Sebald in a number of ways: its philosophical density, its challenging allusiveness, and its melancholy tone. Like Sebald’s stuff, The Union Jack is a personal coming-to-terms, with not just history, but with how one might witness to history. It’s a very rewarding book, and Tim Wilkinson should be commended for his translation, as should Melville House for their continued commitment to bringing under-translated authors to an English-reading audience. Highly recommended.

The Union Jack is new in trade paperback from Melville House. The book is part of Melville House’s continuing series, The Contemporary Art of the Novella.