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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Pathseeker

Kertész Imre

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To purchase The Pathseeker

Title: The Pathseeker
Author: Kertész Imre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1977 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Pathseeker - US
The Pathseeker - UK
The Pathseeker - Canada
The Pathseeker - India
Le Chercheur de traces - France
Der Spurensucher - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: A nyomkereső
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Tim Wilkinson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a striking personal-literary experiment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Forward . 16/4/2008 Joshua Cohen
FAZ . 7/12/2002 Hubert Spiegel
The LA Times . 15/6/2008 Andrew Ervin
The Nation . 9/6/2008 Ruth Scurr
The NY Sun . 16/4/2008 Sam Munson
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2009 Robert Buckeye

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Pathseeker is the less surprising but ultimately more impressive fiction. What it lacks in suspense it reparates in emotional acuity." - Joshua Cohen, Forward

  • "Der Spurensucher kündet vom Verlust einer vermeintlichen Selbstgewißheit. Die Titelfigur, auch der "Abgesandte" genannt, will nach Buchenwald fahren und führt zuvor ein Gespräch mit dem DDR-Intellektuellen Hermann. Der Auftrag wird ebensowenig erläutert wie die offenkundig übergeordnete Instanz, in deren Namen der Besuch erfolgt. Mit inquisitorischer Härte und Finesse geht der Spurensucher zu Werk, er erhebt keinerlei konkrete Vorwürfe, läßt indes auch keinen Zweifel daran, daß er Hermann, der sich zunächst durch seine staatlich verordnete antifaschistische Gesinnung gepanzert fühlt, durchaus zum Kreis der Verdächtigen zählt." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Kertész, perhaps as a result of writing The Pathseeker in the intellectual confines of Soviet-era Hungary, is stingy with the particulars, and it can be difficult to discern when or where the story takes place. It's tempting to look to Kertész's own personal history for hints as to what the commissioner might be up to" - Andrew Ervin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Pathseeker can be read as a commentary on, or companion piece to, Fatelessness. But the commissioner is not Kertész the self-examining writer reflecting on the creation of Fatelessness, any more than Köves is Kertész the 14-year-old taken to Auschwitz. To elide those gaps is to deny the novel's freedom and form; subjects that fascinate all novelists to a certain extent, but Kertész more profoundly than most." - Ruth Scurr, The Nation

  • "Mr. Kertész’s prose, recursive and long-breathed, keeps pace with the circular, frustrated action of the plot. Anonymity, elliptical speech, a fluid, almost euphuistic beauty, and an obdurate refusal on Mr. Kertész’s part to concede to even the most usual desires of the reader: The Pathseeker might seem, in a summary treatment, like the colorless, belabored works produced by writers whose sole aim is to toy with narrative convention. But Mr. Kertész places its maddening, permanent, and eerie periphrasis in the highest possible service: moral witness." - Sam Munson, The New York Sun

  • "At no point in The Pathseeker is Auschwitz mentioned, but the weight of it is everywhere, as it was for Kafka, who divined it in what he could see." - Robert Buckeye, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       From the beginning The Pathseeker seems a very precisely presented text, the writing carefully polished, the sentences structured just so. Yet it is also a text that withholds a great deal, circumscribing much even in its close descriptions. The opening sentence is, in a way, typical:

     The host -- a man with a complicated family name, Hermann by Christian name -- was chattering ingenuously; it seems he really did still take his guest to be only a simple colleague, and the latter, puffing on his pipe (a tiresome implement but, it had to be admitted, one that on occasion was quite indispensable) quietly studied his face.
       But while the basic approach is similar to much of what follows -- including giving specific information and going into detail but also withholding what could just as easily be provided, as in the case of this man's first and last name -- it doesn't really set the tone: The Pathseeker is far from a one-note story, and what is perhaps most remarkable about it are the shifts in tone. It is, ultimately, a truly experimental novel, a writer still working out what might work best, unable to settle on one particular style or literary approach to his subject matter. It's all the more striking because a lot of the workmanship still shows in the sentences, Kertész's effort to get it precisely right (and his decisions as to what to leave out ...) just a bit too apparent.
       The Pathseeker is, in a way, a Kafkaesque tale: an unnamed commissioner has travelled with his wife to an unnamed city. He is conducting an investigation, but his brief is never revealed, and he never comes right out and says what he might be after -- or accuses anyone of anything in particular. He travels to a number of sites in the vicinity, but doesn't conduct an investigation in any usual sense of the word. He encounters a number of people but the exchanges he has aren't particularly revealing. Even when the locals might (possibly) be helpful (or just curious), he remains, at best wary:
     "In any case," he asked, "what exactly are you looking for, sir ?"
     What indeed ? A silence fell.
       The French and German translations of the title are more accurate: the commissioner is a seeker of traces, not of a path. A concern he voices before he has really begun his investigation is:
What he would like to know was whether everything was still on hand, intact and untouched ?
       And it turns out that this, more than anything else is what he is after: to see for himself what is left, and what has become of these places. And this very official-seeming investigation is, in fact, a very personal reconnoissance, the commissioner not so much an alter ego of Kertész but rather the instrument Kertész tries to use to try to approach this subject-matter. (It is a very tentative approach: the commissioner is constantly rushed, and has a limited amount of time for his investigation, as he has a vacation planned with his wife and the seaside to get to.)
       There are clues as to what this is about. For one, it is about the past: Hermann hems and haws his way around the subject matter, acknowledging being aware that "something had happened" but falling back on the excuse that, at the time, "he had still been more or less a child". The locales are never named, and of the places the commissioner travels to only one has any sort of designation -- "Z". Still, this ... coyness is problematic, at least presumably for American readers. Readers from Central Europe will readily recognise the city where the commissioner is based, as well as the first site he visits; they will recognise the hotel named after some sort of pachyderm. Others ? Maybe not as readily.
       In his Afterword Tim Wilkinson spells things out more clearly -- though still without naming places. Would it be revealing too much to explain what these places are in full ? Surely in the case of Z and the factory the commissioner tries to visit there it isn't: the mention of the BRABAG factory makes clear that this is Tröglitz, near Zeitz -- the very concentration camp where author Kertész was held during World War II. But even noting the names of the other sites -- the cultural capital of Weimar, and the notorious Buchenwald camp -- seems necessary for a readership so far removed from those times and events.
       The commissioner visits the sites of the concentration camps, looking for their traces. He needs some sort of physical proof, tangible evidence of the horrors that happened here -- as if without that it would just show that such unimaginable occurrences couldn't really have happened:
A displaced sense of implausibility gradually took hold of the commissioner. Had he blundered into the wrong place ? If nothing at all that was supposed to be here was here, then maybe every previous assumption had been mistaken, every piece of evidence false and abstract. Then this place was not just what it was either, just his own stubborn obsession. Then he himself was not who he was, either, and his mission was an error. Space, time, the ground beneath his feet -- nothing was true.
       The contrast of the lovely countryside and what had happened here seem irreconcilable; it's one of the difficulties he has. So also, surely, Weimar as a cultural centre -- though in a rare furious outburst Kertész has his commissioner recount the story of Iphigenia in Tauris to his wife, suggesting that theatre-spectacle wasn't all the inappropriate for the locals.
       Only fairly short parts of the book describe the commissioner's visits to the sites he seeks out. He has little time in each, and is also somewhat unsure in purpose when he's there. The visits are, in a sense, anticlimactic; certainly they don't offer anything like the certainty the commissioner is after.
       Kertész lingers over other parts of the trip -- the wife who tags along, the arduousness of finding transportation and getting to these places, for example. Among the unusual scenes is one of the commissioner looking at the town square, Kertész suddenly much more free and fanciful:
     The square expanded, its center sinking, its perspectives collapsing, so that the hill crest he had traversed that morning, which just before had merely been hazily visible in the distance, now seemed to be growing directly out of the square's end. The sky opened up in the midst of the blinding flash of sputtering refractions of light, and in the flood of flames and sparks from a pitiless sun -- intensified to a fever pitch by a thousand metallic objects, chromium, panes of glass, tiled roofs -- it made ready to come crashing down. Was the horn still singing in its seven corners the grief of the cars, or were the trumpets of the Dies Irae sounding.
       Along with the Iphigenia-scene, such passages stand in contrast to the prevalent tone -- yet they work because the commissioner is, throughout, close to an edge (or abyss): even as he moves forward with determination his footing is obviously always unsure.
       The locals tend to be shown as defensive and wary, unsure about this stranger (and, when they are aware of it, his mission). But one other character plays a significant role, a veiled woman the commissioner encounters. It is she, too, that brings the book and his investigation full circle: even if the other traces are practically lost and forgotten and ignored, here he has tangible proof and here the truth of everything that happened (and its lingering consequences) is undeniable.
       The Pathseeker is a book of seeking out traces, of trying -- to put it far too simply -- to come to terms with an unspeakable past. It also feels very much like an early attempt by an author to approach the subject-matter. Kertész leaves a great detail unsaid and unspecified, as if even the mention of words such as 'Buchenwald' or 'concentration camp' would have touched too raw a nerve. The elliptical approach works quite well here, but familiarity with the subject-matter (and with Kertész's life and oeuvre) is helpful.
       Bit by bit some of The Pathseeker feels over-written, as if Kertész had returned again and again to each sentence, to get it just so; perhaps this is all the more noticeable because the style is also not uniform, with Kertész making a few switches along the way. The text does work rather well, on the whole, but doesn't have quite the easy, natural flow of most of Kertész's other writing, where the precision feels more effortless.
       An unusual work, but certainly worthwhile.

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The Pathseeker: Reviews: Kertesz Imre: Other books by Kertész Imre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Kertész Imre was born in 1929. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature

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© 2008-2013 the complete review

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