Kertes returns to Hungary’s dark period in latest novel

Last Impressions by Joseph Kertes (Penguin Canada)

It seems Toronto author Joseph Kertes can’t stay away from the dark side.

Much as he tried to avoid another backdrop of mayhem, Last Impressions (Penguin Canada), Kertes’s fifth novel for adults (he’s written two books for children), is set against the Holocaust in Hungary. But this time, the story is leavened with some genuine light-heartedness and tenderness in contemporary Toronto.

Kertes started things off with laughs. His debut novel, Winter Tulips, won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1989. His second book, Boardwalk (1998), was praised as “an interesting hybrid: Part road novel, part unabashed romance.”

Then came Gratitude (2009) and The Afterlife of Stars (2014), both closely based on his Jewish family’s travails during the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

After those books, “I didn’t want to go back into that dark period,” Kertes told The CJN about his new effort, “and yet, there I was. I guess I can’t really shake it off.”

Writing Last Impressions “was much more difficult than I thought it would be,” but the author confesses to feeling “enormously better” after having completed the book.

“I think there is something really cathartic in doing this.”

Again based on his family’s experiences during the Second World War, the novel traces the trajectory of the war-scarred Zoltan Beck, a larger-than-life figure with an utter disregard for societal norms of manners and decorum, and his devoted but long-suffering sons, Ben and Frank.

The story alternates seamlessly between modern Toronto and the brutality of a Nazi-run labour camp in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, where “Zoli” and his charming older brother Bela stare death in the face daily. Kertes’s father, Paul, who died in 2007, and Paul’s brother, Bela, laboured in such a camp. The real-life Bela, who was just 23, never came home, and no one to this day knows his fate.

In its draft form, the book was “pure comedy,” said the 68-year-old Kertes, whose family came to Canada after the revolution in Hungary in 1956. “But I decided I was unhappy with it, with the way it concluded. Because my own true feelings, and the feelings of others around my father, was deep sadness about his loss, I felt I wasn’t fair to him. In order to do justice to him, and to the protagonists, I wanted to have this whole other subplot.”

Despite that subplot, which Kertes called “dark and tragic,” the author manages to weave a story of lost loves, heroic survival skills, deep father-son connections, and a whopper of a family secret.

Kertes’s method seems simple: “I always begin with real people. The trajectory goes from there. I take enormous liberties, which is why I write fiction rather than non-fiction. This couldn’t have been a memoir. I prefer the liberty of being able to take an adventure with these characters.”

He didn’t take too many liberties with the over-the-top Zoltan. Kertes described his own father as “actually preposterous. I’d like to say I injected a lot (of exaggeration into Zoltan’s character) but I didn’t.”

Among Zoltan’s many quirks is a nugget of wisdom: achievement, ambition, success are overrated. If it’s good enough, it’s perfect. Given what he went through, that makes sense.

The philosophy rings true for Kertes.

As the former dean of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College, Kertes encountered students who were “always striving for enormous goals. I kept telling writing students that although it looks wonderful to hold your book and see it on a shelf, it’s actually not about that. It’s actually about getting it down and that wonderful interior adventure of going through this world in your own mind and trying to make it better and make sense of it. The reward is in the doing of it.”

Ultimately, Kertes strives for veracity, even in fiction.

“One of the reasons I start with real people is that I really do want to know who they were and what made them be who they were,” he said. “I really feel strongly that there’s so much to learn and discover about other people. It’s a wonderful journey to take.”