The Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz was pretty much unknown even in his own homeland before he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. As a boy, Kertesz had been interned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, experiences he reworked in his extraordinary first novel, "Fateless" (1975), in which the teenage narrator Gyuri tries to rationalize the cruelty to which he is subjected. Startlingly, when the Germans flee, Gyuri feels nostalgia for the camps, where life had been "clearer and simpler." Only an actual survivor would dare to write such a thought, and this theme -- how systematized cruelty creates its own emotional logic -- is repeated in Kertesz's 1977 novel, "Detective Story," now published in English in an elegant translation by Tim Wilkinson.
"Detective Story" is set in an unnamed South American state in the 1970s, after a junta seizes power. The body of the novel is a confession, written soon after the junta has been booted out, by a detective who awaits trial under the new regime. The man's name is Antonio Martens, and he tells his awful tale with stony indifference though emotion nonetheless leaks through. "I must hurry, as most likely my time is short," Martens writes, assuming that he will be executed. Before he dies, he wants to set the record straight about "Federigo and Enrique Salinas, father and son, proprietors of the chain of department stores that are dotted all over our country, whose deaths so astounded people."
Martens had been transferred from the regular police to an elite group, the Corps, whose job is to track down and prevent insurgency. His boss is Diaz, cool and self-amused, who sees his function as bringing logic to bear on the chaos of creation. "First power, then law," Diaz says. The maniacal Rodriguez, a junior detective, longs to get his hands on suspects so he can hang them from his torture apparatus. Martens spots Rodriguez reading a book about Auschwitz, and soon Rodriguez proposes a way of treating suspects that shocks even Martens: "Anyone who wants something else is Jewish. Otherwise why would they want something else?" In everyday life, we call such thinking crazy; in a totalitarian state it becomes inexorable. Rodriguez is planted like Chekhov's gun on the wall -- at some point, we know he's going to go off.
Martens pieces together the story of the Salinas case, giving us a glimpse of the wealthy Federigo and his slim, attractive wife, anxious in their handsome apartment, wondering how they can make it through troubled times. Martens envies this couple and is even fearful of them, a fear that will be reflected, and redoubled, when they fall into his hands. Martens' creepy fascination, though, is with their son, the dashing and feckless Enrique, who whizzes about town in his Alfa Romeo, bedding girls with ease and abandon. Enrique sparks the plot because, as a bored high-bourgeois student, he has a naive longing to be a revolutionary, one of "those shaggy-haired weirdos," as Martens calls them.
"Enrique's diary lies before me. I am leafing through it. I have long ago cracked his in-places indecipherable lines; I'm familiar with their content. The diary was confiscated in the course of a house search, and I purchased it after Enrique's death," Martens writes, giving details of how he bribed the head of confidential archives with "top-notch liquor" to secure this document, a simple device that takes us into Enrique's thoughts, showing us his youthful existentialism, a seemingly enchanted love affair and his earnest, fumbling attempts to join the student resistance. More important, the diary and the detective's obsession with it become the vehicles through which Kertesz explores the twisted relationship between victim and perpetrator. Enrique is halfheartedly looking for a way to commit suicide; his father wants to save him but fears the worst will happen; the men of the Corps go about their jobs ineptly but thoroughly, seeking and seeing the pattern they want. Tragedy follows, with irony and -- the word Kertesz keeps coming back to -- logic.
Kertesz keeps the violence offstage, but its savageness is undeniable. The Salinas family members become suspects in an arbitrary way, but after that, everything is inevitable. Federigo dooms himself and his son by virtue of a word that neither mentions: love. The story is constructed with a delicate, scientific objectivity, working like a trap, almost like Rodriguez's fiendish instrument of torture. Physical description is kept to a minimum, but the feel for characters' psychology, even -- or perhaps especially -- those of the policemen, is acute. Much happens between the lines, increasing a sense of claustrophobic intensity. In the end, Martens sees the two Salinas men tied to a post, shot, "sagging on their fetters like empty sacks," a painful image that makes vivid the literal removal of humanity.
Yet neither Martens nor the insolent Diaz comes across as a swaggering monster. Diaz is the kind of guy who always escapes responsibility; he's made of Teflon. Martens plods along, "an honest flatfoot," even while Kertesz makes it clear that he's been morally bankrupted by the power the system has given him. This short, spare book, a fable about what governments do and the guilt a man tries to stop feeling, can be read in a couple of hours; its bleak, despairing effect will haunt for much longer.