by Imre Kertész (Felszámolás, 2003)
translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (2004)
Vintage (2005)
130 pp


At the book store I was in the mood to try some Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. Born in 1929, he was imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and he was old enough to know what was going on. I saw his latest book Liquidation, written after he won the Prize.

With a title that connotes closing shops, selling assets, and cutting losses accompanied with abstract illustrations of people, none looking at each other, I was very interested. Add to that the fact that it is only a novella, something I could get through in one day, and it was a must-read. After reading it, I have to ask, why don’t we, at least we in America, care much about those who win the Nobel Prize in Literature unless they’re from here? This book was well worth the short time I put into reading it — in fact, it will be paying off for years to come.

In a way, I hear, Liquidationis kind of a part of a tetralogy that also includes Fatelessness (1975), Fiasco (1988), and Kaddish for an Unborn Child (1990) (Fiasco is not available in English yet**). I haven’t read the others (but will), but this work stood on its own as a tightly packed rumination on Auschwitz.

The book is set in Hungary in the 1990s. A decade or two earlier, “the hero of this story, Kingbitter” met B. or Bee, depending on the sentence. B.’s mother was four months pregnant when she was put into Auschwitz. Against the odds (“The blokova, possibly stirred by the thought of helping bring a child into the world in the death camp”), B. is born and survives, though he was immediately taken from his parents. Despite the miracle of B.’s birth, years later he commits suicide. That is where the book begins.

But for what reasons did B. commit suicide? That is where the book goes.

B. prepares a deliberate, intricate suicide, even having the foresight to write a play (called Liquidation) that word-for-word foretells events and dialogues after his death. Kingbitter finds the play and then becomes obsessed with finding the novel, a master work that he knows B. would not have left the world without writing; after all, “[B.] felt that he had been born illegally, had remained alive for no reason, and nothing could justify his existence unless he were to ‘decipher the code name Auschwitz.'”

Thankfully, this very clever device is not the impetus of the story, as it would be for other writers. Some reviewers have said this is a flaw, that Kertész started with something interesting and then never really returns to it except as an afterthought. I disagree. I think it’s great that this device is almost incidental to the larger and (almost?) incomprehensible themes.

After reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I have been baffled by the lives of the “survivors of the survivors,” these children of those who lived through the death camps. How can they (how can any of us) get past all of this? Is it ethical? Isn’t it alarming that we are moving on? And in doing so, are we not ignoring reality? Aren’t we creating a fiction for ourselves by somehow living happily in the wake of such an event?

Some of the characters are bound to yet trying to escape the heritage that is Auschwitz, especially B.’s ex-wife Judit. She was not a prisoner in Auschwitz, but it is part of her Jewish heritage, and her attempt to understand it was one reason, perhaps the reason, she married B. Later in life she visited the camp. It was not as it should have been:

I found myself unable to capture the right mood, despite having prepared for it for days. I was haunted by the sense of walking around an outdoor folk museum.

Her purse gets stolen. “The receptionist enlightened her that Auschwitz was teeming with pickpockets, who took advantage of the visitor’s deep emotional state and attendant inattentiveness.”

Judit’s current husband Adam, who is not a Jew, has spent a lot of time since he met Judit reading up on Auschwitz. Here is a telling scene from the play B. wrote where Judit interrogates Adam’s motives for reading:

Judit: And you understand now, perhaps?

 Adam:  I’ve read at least fifteen books about manic depression and paranoia.

(long silence.)

Adam: No one can revoke Auschwitz, Judit. No one, and by virtue of no authority. Auschwitz is irrevocable.

Judit (in growing distress): I was there. I saw. Auschwitz does not exist.

Adam (steps to Judit and grabs her roughly by the shoulders): I have two children, two half-Jewish children. They know nothing as yet. They are asleep. Who is going to tell them about Auschwitz? Which of us is going to tell them they are Jewish?

Really, it’s all incomprehensible to me. Recognizing that, I think, is part of the purpose of this book. There’s an interesting part where Kingbitter is trying to get B. to write his story. B. is indignant at the request and asks how would you discern a story like that?

“Look here, I submit to you a piece concerning how, with the cooperation of a bunch of thoroughly decent people, a child is born in Auschwitz. The Kapos lay down their clubs and whips, and, moved to the core, they lift the wailing infant on high. Tears rise to the eyes of the SS guard.”

Kingbitter admits it would sound kitsch but contends it could be written in different ways.

“It can’t. Kitsch is kitsch.”

“But it’s what happened,” I protested.

That’s precisely the problem, he explained. It happened yet it’s still not true.

B.’s suicide is somewhat mysterious. He seemed to have a lot going for him. He seemed happy. And after all, he survived Auschwitz, against the odds. Kingbitter is also baffled because years earlier B.’s insights prevented Kingbitter from furthering any plan he had at taking his own life, albeit a rather bleak though amusing insight.

“I could say, I said, that I felt it was superfluous for me to weary both myself and society with that.”

But my thought is that B. committed suicide to complete his own story and desentimentalize it. The story wasn’t built on triumph. We hear stories like his and are amazed into thinking something great and moral took place. B. seems to repudiate this position with his own death.

There’s a lot more to this book. The relationships are complex. The title alone bears a lot of weight that I didn’t touch on in this post. It’s definitely one I will revisit again.


** Fiasco has indeed been translated into English, and I have read each of the other books. Here are my posts:

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