In Imre Kertész’s novel Fiasco, Köves describes his experience of being called up to do military duty under the Hungarian regime of János Kádár (1956-1988). He was asked to sign a piece of paper committing him to become a prison guard in the central military prison. Despite not wishing to assume this role, he signed.
‘I’m trying to think why. Whichever way I look at it, I can see only one real reason: time. Yes, and this is something you may find a little curious, but only because, as I say, you are not familiar with the colours of life and don’t know that what we later on view as an event of major significance always appears initially in the guise of little curiosities, but it was mainly due to time that I signed. In the end, no pressing reason came to mind, and I couldn’t just stand there for an eternity, pen in hand. You might say there was no need for me to take it in my hand. Well, yes, but then the whole thing seemed so unreal that I did not feel my signature was any more real. I personally was completely shut out of the moment, if I may put it that way: I took no part in it, my existence went to sleep, or was paralyzed inside me, or at any rate it gave no twinge of unease to warn me of the importance of the decision. And anyway, was it a decision at all, or at least my decision? After all, it wasn’t me who chose the situation in which I had to make a choice, moreover a choice between two things, neither of which I wished to choose: I didn’t wish to become a prison guard, of course, but nor did I wish to be punished, for although it’s true that no one threatened punishment, that is something one takes for granted from the outset and is usually not far wrong about. Then again, there were a few incidental factors which played a part: I have the sort of nature which prefers to try to please people rather than pick a fight, so I would have to say that I was also driven to some extent by courtesy, but maybe also, in some way, but curiosity to see what a prison here is like, though in such a way that I was safe. So you see, any number of reasons relating to the spirit of frivolity and eerie familiarity that I have already mentioned were being impressed on me by my surroundings.’
- How does Köves’s story challenge the notion of a choice?
- If individuals feel compelled to make decisions in a situation not of their choosing, how can they later be judged for their actions?
- What is the relationship between context and personality that Köves describes?
- Köves was a survivor of the Holocaust, then under the Kádár regime he becomes a prison guard in a prison in which executions took place. Many years later, in Dossier K, Kertész states that ‘it was under the Kádár regime that I clearly understood my Auschwitz ordeals, and I would never have come to understand them if I had grown up in a democracy.’ In what ways does this complicate our understanding of complicity and perpetration?
Imre Kertész, Fiasco, translated by Tim Wilkinson (New York: Melville House, 2011), pp. 334-35.