Imre Kertész: Kaddish for an Unborn Child

Since I finished Fatelessness and Liquidation, I did a little bit of research on Kertész. He is the first Holocaust survivor to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize). And it is incredible, relatively, that he has survived the survival. Most other writers who survived the Holocaust eventually took their own lives: Paul Celan, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Améry, Piotr Rawicz, Tadeusz Borowski, and debatably Primo Levi. Kertész is reportedly a very pleasant fellow, with a nice smile — though Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem szvületett, 1990; tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, 2004) would not lead one to think that. This is the third book in Kertész’s Auschwitz tetralogy (Fatelessness, Fiasco, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation). I read them out of order but would recommend starting from the beginning because they build upon one another. Once again the translation is by the incredible Tim Wilkinson, whom I respect more and more with each Kertész translation. He has a fluid style and an excellent vocabulary. I hope he keeps up the work because there are plenty of books in Kertész’s oeuvre that are not yet available in English — like Fiasco.

A Kaddish is a Jewish prayer of mourning, and that insight makes this one of my favorite titles of all time. It evokes such a devestating statement: here the narrator speaks to the child that he could not bear to bring into this world.

The first word in the book is “No!” — this in response to a philosopher who asks the narrator if he has any children. On the next page, we also learn that “No!” was the response the narrator gave to his wife when she asked him if he wanted any children. But the existence of the book, this Kaddish, shows that the narrator’s unbudging stance is not simply jaded apathy or cynicism; it is also full of regret and sorrow:

“No!” something within me bellowed, howled, instantly and at once, and my whimpering abated only gradually, after the passage of many long years, into a sort of quiet but obsessive pain until, slowly and malignantly, like an insidious illness, a question assumed ever more definite form within me: Would you be a brown-eyed little girl, with the pale specks of your freckles scattered around your tiny nose? Or else a headstrong boy, your eyes bright and hard as greyish-blue pebbles? — yes, contemplating my life as the potentiality of your existence.

But this is not just a book about sorrow or cruelty, about not wanting to subject a child to this world. It is a great meditation, a philosophy even, on the Holocaust, particularly Auschwitz. The narrator, in case you haven’t guessed, is a survivor of Auschwitz. In fact, the narrator is B., whose story continues, sort of, in Liquidation. Since Auschwitz, B. has looked death in the face, not with fear, not with yearning, but more with a foggy stupor of someone who fails to understand why he isn’t dead. It can be said of B. (by B. himself) what Elie Wiesel said about Primo Levi upon Levi’s death: “[He] died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”

. . . the continued digging of the grave that others had begun to dig for me in the air and then, simply because they did not have time to finish, hastily and without so much as a hint of diabolical mockery (far from it: just like that, casually, without so much as a look around), they thrust the tool in my hand and left me standing there to finish, as best I could, the work that they had begun.

Taking his rant a few steps further, Kertész also goes back and forth with a very difficult question: why did Auschwitz occur? Interestingly, that Auschwitz occurred is not that surprising to B. On the contrary, B. thinks that Auschwitz not happening is the true conundrum. After all,

. . . Auschwitz has been hanging around in the air since long ago, who knows, perhaps for centuries, like dark fruit ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable disgraces, waiting for the moment when it may at last drop on mankind’s head . . .

So for a part of the book, B. stops questioning the nature of evil, which he says is rational, makes perfect sense, and looks at the nature of good, something “truly irrational and genuinely inexplicable.”

But the book does not dwell in such abstractions the whole time. Much of the last part of the book deals with B.’s marriage to a Jewish woman born after Auschwitz, but still with “the mark” of Jewishness. She hopes that his ranting will help him purge himself of some of this pain and she supports him to show that she understands him. B.’s response to this offers a deep look at relationships in general.

This book follows the philosophy of fatelessness that Kertesz discusses in the book of the same name. B. views his birth as arbitrary, his confinement as arbitrary, every step of his life since then as arbitrary, nothing fated, nothing meant to help him become anything particular. The very fact that he, a secular, nonbelieving Jew would still be incarcerated and subjected to such horrors just doesn’t make sense:

There is no denying that I have known and felt since long ago, from the first stirrings of my thoughts, that some mysterious shame is attached to my name, and that I brought this shame with me from some place where I had never been, and I brought it on account of sin, which, even though I never committed it, is my sin and will pursue me throughout my life, a life which is undoubtedly not my own life, even though it is me who is living it, me who suffers from it, and me who will later die from it . . .

This book also offered some interesting insights into Liquidation, particularly with this line B. speaks to his unborn — never-to-be-born — child:

. . . your non-existence viewed as the necessary and radical liquidation of my own existence.

Here Kertézs sets up B.’s ultimate, uhh, fate. Liquidation begins with his suicide — B. has successfully liquidated himself. But Liquidation also looks at what that means to the survivors, particularly his ex-wife who has married a non-Jew and is raising two children who as yet do not know they are Jewish.

I hope that what I’ve said above makes the book attractive — it should be read — because I’m about to note the style of this novel, which might at first seem discouraging. Kaddish is stylistically different than Fatelessness and LiquidationFatelessness read more like a conventional, philosophical novel. Liquidation felt a bit like a Tom Stoppard play. Kaddish is a lot like Notes from Underground, a continuous declamation where words and thoughts trip over each other in long sentences on the crowded page. The book is 120 pages. In those, we have only seventeen paragraphs (there are six paragraphs on one page late in the novel, so such a high number as seventeen is actually a bit misleading). Many of those paragraphs end in the middle of a sentence that continues on into the next paragraph. This run-on feel is not unique to paragraph breaks: there are only nineteen sentences in the first ten pages, or less than two per page (I almost counted for the whole book, but I decided not to — any takers?).

Amazingly, this style is not cumbersome. In fact, this type of Chomskyan recursion makes the novel feel like one long statement, and it flows well from the writer’s “pen dipped in sarcasm.” I really enjoyed it.

2 thoughts on “Imre Kertész: Kaddish for an Unborn Child

  1. Laura says:

    Another great review! This is one I haven’t read yet, but it’s on my list b/c of Kertesz being a Nobel reader, and from a country I haven’t “visited” yet. I read another review that tempted me, and now this one … can’t wait!!

  2. Laura, are you planning to read Fatelessness first? Whatever you choose, please come back and tell us what you think!
    I had never (at least that I know of) read a book by a Hungarian author either. Interestingly, Kertész was not that appreciated in Hungary so he first got his fame in Germany. In his Nobel speach, however, he paid homage to his country . . . though he does still accuse it of ignoring the Holocaust.

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