DETECTIVE STORY, by Imre Kertesz, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, Knopf, 119 pages, $21.

This is a chilling novel, written by Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertesz, who lives in Budapest and Berlin. Kertesz was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth, so the subject of this novel emanates from his experience.

Instead of telling a story of injustice from the victim's point of view, the author gets inside "the mind of a monster," a man named Antonio Martens, a policeman (he calls himself a "flatfoot") in an unnamed Latin American country, who is awaiting trial for multiple counts of murder. The regime for which he worked was toppled, so he is now a prisoner himself.

He asks if he can have permission to write his story in his cell — something he would have never allowed were he in charge. Then he tells how he was transferred from criminal investigation to the Corps, a security unit, where he was expected to interrogate people without restraint.

Soon, he was pursuing a case involving a father and son suspected of treason.

The immediate impression is that he will describe all manner of violent acts — but Kertesz approaches this from an intellectual point of view — if someone is suddenly expected to interrogate or even torture certain people for reasons decided upon by a movement or a strongman leader, how will he react?

Are there things he will refuse to do? Will moral principle interfere with his work? Will it bother him to be cruel to a person who refuses to answer questions? Is it logical to assume that this kind of work will make him less humane? As he sits in a cell reflecting, he realizes he has become a changed person and it is emotionally disturbing to realize it.

So he writes about it as a kind of therapy, analyzing as he goes, commenting on the people, their reactions and why he reacted the way he did. He is ready to accept whatever punishment is meted out to him, but he needs to talk about it.

The effect on the reader is emphatic, jarring, surprising and unpleasant, because he or she is observing a "descent into barbarism." The reason the place and people are not exactly placed in history is that it becomes easier to imagine how such actions would seem if they became part of our own society.

Federigo and Enrique Salinas, the father-and-son team who run a large department store, are the particular victims in this story. When the secret police start watching them, suspecting certain of their activities are subversive, it unnerves them. They react by trying to outsmart the police — and the result is catastrophic.

This is really a firsthand look at evil, the way it develops, the sneaky way it takes over in crises — until it is too late to turn back. Ironically, the writer obtains Enrique's journal and occasionally quotes from it to illustrate what he was thinking. The mood is solemn throughout, then the reader realizes how easily this book could be applied to modern detainees at Guantanamo, CIA prisons in Europe, or other places where people are accused of terrorist acts.

Is waterboarding torture? Is it justified to get information about terrorists?

It is, as the author calls it, "a warning cry for our time."


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