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Authors: Imre Kertész

The Union Jack

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THE CONTEMPORARY
ART OF THE NOVELLA

THE UNION JACK

FIRST PUBLISHED AS
AZ ANGOL LOBOGÓ
. BUDAPEST :
MAGVETŐ, 1995 (ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 1991)

© 2009 IMRE KERTÉSZ

TRANSLATION © 2009 TIM WILKINSON

MELVILLE HOUSE PUBLISHING
145 PLYMOUTH STREET
BROOKLYN, NY 11201

WWW.MHPBOOKS.COM

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

KERTÉSZ, IMRE, 1929-
[ANGOL LOBOGÓ. ENGLISH]
THE UNION JACK / IMRE KERTÉSZ; TRANSLATION BY TIM
WILKINSON.
    P. CM.
“FIRST PUBLISHED AS AZ ANGOL LOBOGÓ. BUDAPEST : MAGVETOÝ,
1995 (ORIG. PUBL. 1991)”—T.P. VERSO.
eISBN: 978-1-61219-328-1
I. WILKINSON, TIM. II. TITLE.
PH 3281.K3815A5413 2009
894’.511334—DC22

2009037830

v3.1

Contents
 

“fog before us,
fog behind us,
and beneath us
a sunken country”
(Mihály Babits)

 

If I may perchance wish now, after all, to tell the story of the Union Jack, as I was urged to do at a friendly gathering a few days—or months—ago, then I would have to mention the piece of reading matter which first inculcated in me—let’s call it a grudging admiration for the Union Jack; 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 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. And since that is impossible, in the lack not just of the requisite time but also of the requisite facts, for who indeed, being in possession of the few misleading facts one deems to know about one’s life, could say of himself that he even recognises right away as his life, that process, course and outcome (exit or exitus) which is so totally obscure to himself—himself above all; so probably it would be best if I were to begin the story of the Union Jack with Richard Wagner. And though Richard Wagner, like a persistent leitmotif, would lead us with uncanny sureness, by a direct path, to the Union Jack, I would have to broach Richard Wagner himself at the editorial office. That editorial office exists no more, just as the building in which that one-time editorial office then (three years after the war, to be precise) was for me, for a while, still very much in existence has long existed no more—that one-time editorial office full of gloomy corridors, dusty crannies, tiny, cigarette-smoked rooms lit by bare bulbs, ringing telephones, yells, the quick-fire staccato of typewriters, full of fleeting excitements, abiding qualms, vacillating moods and, later, the fear, unvacillating and ever less vacillating, which seeped
out from every cranny, as it were, to squat over everything, the one-time editorial office that had long since
not
conjured up long-bygone editorial offices, where in those days I was obliged to turn up at some execrably early hour, something like seven o’clock every morning, say. With what sort of hopes, I wonder?—I mused aloud and publicly in the friendly gathering that had been urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack. The young man (he would have been about twenty) who, through a sensory delusion to which we are all prey, I then considered was, and sensed to be, the most personal part of myself, I see today as in a film; and one thing that very likely disposes me to this is that he himself—or I myself—somehow also saw himself (myself) as in a film. This, moreover, is undoubtedly what renders tellable a story that otherwise, like every story, is untellable, or rather not a story at all, and which, were I to tell it in that manner anyway, would probably drive me to tell precisely the opposite of what I ought to tell. That life, that twenty-year-old young man’s life, was sustained solely by its
formulability
; that life ground along, with its every nerve-fibre, every fitful effort, solely at the level of
formulability
. That life strove with all its might
to live
, and in that respect stood in contrast, for example, to
my present striving, hence also my present formulations, these incessantly miscarried formulations, colliding incessantly against the unformulable, grappling—naturally, to no avail—with the unformulable: no, the striving for formulation, then and there, was actually aimed at keeping the unformulable—namely, the essence, which is to say this life, grinding and stumbling along in the dark, lugging along the burden of darkness—in the shadows, because that young man (I) could only live this life in that way. I engaged with the world through reading, that epidermis around the layers of my existence, as through some form of protective clothing. Tempered by reading, distanced by reading, obliterated by reading, that world was my fallacious but sole liveable, indeed, now and again, almost tolerable world. In the end, the predictable moment arrived when I became a lost cause for that editorial office, and thereby a lost cause for … I all but said for society too, had there been a society, or rather if what there was had been a society, then I became a lost cause for what passed for society, for that horde which now whimpered like a whipped dog, now howled like a ravening hyena, always greedy for any provender that it could tear to shreds; I had long been a lost cause for myself, and I almost became a
lost cause for life as well. But even at that rock bottom—at least what, at the time, I supposed to be rock bottom, until I got to know depths that were deeper still, ever deeper, depths that were bottomless—even at that rock bottom the formulability was retained, the camera setting, one might say: the camera lens of a pulp thriller, for example. Where I acquired it, what its title was, what it was about, I have no idea. I don’t read thrillers any longer, ever since, in the midst of reading one thriller, I suddenly caught myself being utterly uninterested in who the murderer might be; that in this world—a murderous world—it was not only misleading, and actually outrageous, but also quite unnecessary for me to fret about who the murderer was: everybody was. That way of formulating it, however, did not occur to me at the time, some forty years ago, perhaps; it was not a formulation that would have seemed of any use to my strivings at that time, some forty years ago, perhaps, as it was merely a fact, one of those simple—albeit obviously not entirely insignificant—facts among which I lived, among which I had to live (because I wanted to live): it was much more important to me that the main protagonist, a man with an exciting job—a private eye, maybe—had the habit, before embarking on one of
his deadly dangerous enterprises, of always “treating himself” to something, a glass of whisky, or occasionally a woman, but sometimes he would make do with an aimless, headlong spin along the highway in his car. That detective novel taught me that a person needs pleasure in those rare intervals in one’s torture sessions: until then I would not have dared to formulate that, or if so, then at best as a sin. In those times, deadly dangers were already menacing in the editorial office, deadly boring dangers, to be quite precise, but no less deadly for all that, ever fresher ones every day, albeit the same ones every day. In those times, after a short and utterly inexplicable temporary hiatus, food coupons were again in use, most notably for meat, though quite unnecessarily as it happened—most especially for meat—since there were insufficient meat stocks to justify the reciprocatory gravity of issuing coupons for meat. Around that time, next-door to the editorial office, they opened, or reopened, the so-called Corvin Restaurant, which is to say the so-called Corvin Restaurant in the so-called Corvin Department Store, where (the store being under foreign ownership or, to be more punctilious, in the hands of the occupying power) they even served meat, and without meat coupons at that, although the meat was
on offer at double price (in other words, they asked double the price that would have been asked for elsewhere, had meat been on offer anywhere else); and around that time, if the prospect of a fresher, deadly boring deadly danger lay in wait for me at the editorial office, usually in the form of one of those otherwise so splendidly styled “staff conferences,” on such occasions I would “treat myself” beforehand to a breaded cutlet in this restaurant (very often out of an advance on my salary for the following month, since the institution of the advance, obviously as the result of some oversight, still remained operative for a while, everything else having long ceased to be operative); and however many and whatever sort of deadly boring dangers to life I might have to confront, the awareness that I had “treated myself” beforehand, the awareness of my foresightedness, my secret, even my
freedom
, that inhered in the couponless breaded cutlet and in the advance on my salary that I had procured to pay for it, about which nobody besides myself could have known, except perhaps the waiter (but then he knew only about the breaded cutlet), and perhaps also the cashier (but then she knew only about the advance)—that helped me through every horror, every ignominy, and every infamy visited on me that
day. For around that time the everydays, the everydays that stretched from dawn to dusk, were transformed into systematic ignominies that stretched from dawn to dusk, but how they were transformed into that, the formulation—or series of formulations—of that otherwise most certainly noteworthy process no longer figures among the formulations I recollect now and so, most likely, did not figure amongst my formulations at the time either. The reason for that, obviously, may be that my formulations, as I have already noted, served solely for the rehearsal of my life, for the bare sustenance of my life that stretched from dawn till dusk, while they looked on life itself as a given, like the air in which I am obliged to breathe, the water in which I am obliged to swim. Quality of life as an object of formulation was simply left outside the scope of my formulations, as those formulations did not serve to gain an understanding of life but, on the contrary, as I have said, to make life liveable, or in other words, to avoid any formulation of life. Around that time, for example, certain trials were grinding ahead in the country, and to the questions of the friendly gathering that had been urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack, the pressing, badgering questions of this gathering, mustered mainly from among
my former students, and so from people mostly twenty to thirty years younger than I, though by that token no longer quite so young themselves, heedless to the fact that with their very questions they were interrupting and distracting me from telling the story of the Union Jack—so to those questions as to whether I had, as it were, “believed” in the counts of the indictments laid out at these trials, whether I had “believed” in the guilt of the accused and so on, I replied that those questions, and most particularly the question of the credibility or incredibility of the trials, did not even cross my mind at the time. In the world that surrounded me then—the world of lies, terror and murder, as I might well classify that world
sub specie aeternitas
, though that does not even begin to touch on the
reality
, the
singularity
, of that world—in that world, then, it never so much as crossed my mind that every single one of those trials might
not
be lies, that the judges, prosecutors, defending counsels, witnesses, indeed the accused themselves, would not all be lying, and that the sole truth which was functioning there, and tirelessly at that, was not the hangman’s, and that any other truth would or could function here except the truth of arrest, imprisonment, execution, the shot in the head, and the noose. Only
now do I formulate it all so trenchantly, in such decidedly categorical terms—as if then (or even now, for that matter) there had existed (or exists) any solid basis for any sort of categorisation—now that they were urging me to tell the story of the Union Jack, and so I was obliged to tell it all from the viewpoint of a story, to attribute significance to something which has only subsequently acquired significance in the public mind—that bogus awareness raised to the status of generality—but which in the reality of those days, at least as far as I am concerned, had only very slight, or an entirely different, significance. For that reason I cannot assert, for example, that I would have felt morally outraged, say, in connection with the trials that were grinding ahead around that time: I don’t recall that I felt that, and I don’t even consider it very likely, if only because I did not have a sense of any morality whatsoever—either within me or around me—in the name of which I might have been outraged. But all this, as I say, is to massively overrate and overexplain what those trials meant for me—for a self whom I now see only from a great distance, as on some faded, shaky and brittle film—because in reality they barely grazed my consciousness; they signified, let us say, a gelling of the constant danger, and with that, of
course, of my constant disgust, a heightening of a danger that might not yet have been threatening me directly, perhaps, or to express myself poetically, a further darkening of the horizon, in spite of which, however, it was still possible to read, if there happened to be something to read (
Arch of Triumph
, for example). What affected me was not so much the morality of the trials that were grinding ahead then, but rather the influences that ground along at the level of sensibility; hence, the reflexes evoked from me were not moral, but rather those acting at the level of sensory organs and neurological paths—mood reflexes, one might call them, like the aforementioned disgust, then alarm, indignation, fleeting scepticism, general disconcertment and the rest. I recall it being summer at the time, for instance, and that summer had announced itself from the very onset with an almost unbearable heat. I recall that during that unbearably hot summer it had occurred to somebody in the editorial office that the “young colleagues,” as it was phrased, ought to partake of some higher, theoretical indoctrination, as it was phrased. I recall that on one especially hot evening of that very hot summer, a bigwig in the editorial office—a Party first-something, a Party bigwig, a bigwig held in general terror, a bigger
and more senior bigwig than the senior editor-in-chief himself, though, as far as his authority went, one who was held in a fair degree of hiddenness, if I may be allowed the Heideggerian paraphrase—imparted to us “young colleagues,” as it was phrased, this theoretical indoctrination, as it was phrased. I even recall the room in which the lecture was held, the now no longer existing room, the vanished site of which is itself now built over, the so-called “typing pool,” by which is to be understood the typewriters, the female typists who operated those typewriters with a furious clatter, the writing desks and ordinary tables, chairs, commotion, countless telephones, countless colleagues, countless sources of sound, all of which, that evening, had already been silenced, removed, tidied away, and transformed into a pious audience, duly seated on the chairs, and the lecturer who was indoctrinating them. I recall that the double-leafed balcony door was wide open, and how much I envied the lecturer for the frequency—by the end, virtually every minute—with which, as if by way of punctuation marks to the lecture, he was able to step outside to cool off on the vast balcony, not stopping until he reached the balustrade, where, leaning out over the parapet, he would look down each time into the

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