The Union Jack
By Imre Kertesz
Originally published in 1991 (but never before translated), the story is in the conditional tense, as if the narrator were going to tell it. This despite the fact that he’s already told this story “a few days—or months—ago” to a group of former students at his birthday party, right around 1989, as the Soviet Empire begins to crumble. This historic collapse, of course, marks the end of Russia’s continuous hold on Hungary since WWII—continuous, that is, save for a couple weeks in 1956… when a student revolution, quickly squelched, became a touchstone of 20th-century Hungarian history. It is a moment during the ’56 revolution that concerns the narrator, with the English flag—the Union Jack—draped across a Jeep that is fleeing Hungary and abandoning her to a quick, decisive counterattack followed by decades of puppet governments and Soviet bullying.
But before that can happen, he must flash back further, to 1948, when as a 20-year-old cub reporter, he is living a life that “ground along,” until he witnesses a Party bigwig carted off to prison in a black limousine. “[T]he person who only yesterday had still been a bigwig there was today fit only to be abused with the names of canine predators.” He can no longer bring himself to pursue journalism in the absurdity of such a “disaster era,” so he spends the next eight years discovering a way to live an authentic life even after reason and truth abandon his society, even after witnessing “how an entire nation could be made to deny its ideals,” as Kertesz put it in his 2002 Nobel Prize acceptance speech.
The prose is difficult—the novella is a single, 80-page paragraph—but the perspective the narrator provides from the losing end of a failed revolution, and the peace he’s found with it, make for a powerful conclusion that is worth the careful read the book demands.