by Imre Kertész (Sorstalanság, 1975)
translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (2004)
Vintage (2004)
262 pp

After reading Kertész’s Liquidation, I decided I’d better check out the books he wrote earlier, especially since they are the ones bearing the weight of the Nobel Prize. Fatelessness, the first book Kertész published, also the first book in a supposed tetralogy, is one of his most recognized.

Despite that fact, when I began it I was reading it more with the mindset of getting through it quickly to be able to read Kaddish for an Unborn Child, which appealed to me more. And at the beginning, nothing changed my mind.

Fatelessness, previously translated as Fateless (but doesn’t Fatelessness have a more Nobel-worthy name?), is a first-person narrative account of Auschwitz and Buckenwald, told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old Hungarian boy, Georg Koves. At first, he sounded as apathetic and cynical as Holden Caulfield. His father is getting sent to a labor camp, and he doesn’t show much emotion and seems to accept it as “natural.” In fact, he feels a bit awkward at his family’s display of sentiment. Even when Georg himself is taken from a bus and shipped on a train to Auschwitz he has more comments about seemingly petty irritations or puerile observations:

I didn’t even know offhand which way I was supposed to turn, and all I remember is that in the thick of it I felt a bit like laughing, in part out of astonishment and confusion, a sense of having been dropped slap in the middle of some crazy play in which I was not entirely acquainted with my role, in part because of a fleeting thought that just then flashed across my mind, which was my stepmother’s face when it finally dawned on her that it would be pointless to count on seeing me for supper this evening.

Mixed in were comments about how it really wasn’t that bad: the police were cordial, he didn’t have to go to work that day, etc. It is a very interesting way to approach a story about the Holocaust, but it still didn’t appeal to me — at first — it felt like cleverness just to be clever, just to be different.

Soon my attitude changed, though. Before I knew what was happening, the narrative shifted in a subtle, imperceptible way. I realized that, like the great Remains of the Day, the power was under the surface, what was not being said, how the deeper feelings emerged from underneath the narrative. Unlike Stevens, however, Georg is not pushing down feelings, refusing to feel them. He just notes things with a very noticeable lack of sentimentality. It isn’t a scientific disinterestedness. It is more — though I’m sure there’s a better way of explaining this — a deferential, understated attitude, an accepting as natural the way things were that somehow lets a subject become clearer because it is not hampered by sentimentality, somewhat — please forgive the incongruous reference — like Winnie-the-Pooh.

I had to concede, there could be no doubt about it, we were indeed at our destination. I was glad, very naturally, though in a different way, I sensed, than I would have been glad yesterday, say, or still more the day before that.

The power of these types of understatements grows and grows as Kertész’s narrative and philosophical stance build speed. Turns out, it’s not just a gimmick. Here is a particularly poignant passage where Georg is in a medical ward, sharing his bed with a fellow patient. Here, somehow, the understatement made me less aware of the suffering and more aware of the time and cold logic of the circumstances:

Hey! Cut it out, ease up there, and in the end he heeded the advice. I only saw why the next morning, when my repeated attempts to rouse him for coffee were futile. All the same, I hastily passed his mess tin to the orderly along with my own since, just as I was about to report the case, he snappily asked me for it. I later also accepted his bread ration on his behalf, and likewise his soup that evening, and so on for a while, until one day he began to go really strange, which was when I felt obliged finally to say something, as I could not carry on stowing him in my bed, after all.

Also of interest is the seemingly warped but curiously thought-provoking depictions where Kertész chooses to show a scene focusing on those who run the concentration camp rather than on the suffering Jews (though that’s still there):

I have no idea when the barbers get any sleep, for I am told that nowadays newcomers may have to stand around naked for two or three days in front of the bathhouse before being able to proceed farther while the Leichenkommando too, as I can hear, is constantly at work on its rounds.

While I understand the narrator’s point about fatelessness, I’m not sure how that tied into seeing the beauty of the concentration camp. I enjoyed passages like this one:

It was that peculiar hour, I recognized even now, even here — my favorite hour in the camp, and I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.

However, how does this fulfill or rather emerge from the philosophy of taking steps and surviving that way? Does it echo Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning? Was it the choice to see the beauty that helped him survive? If so, that isn’t what I got from the actual account of the concentration camp. He chose to escape by imagining and also by attempting to understand the system, and I see how that helped him appreciate what he still had on his “earthly remains.” Still, I’m not sure I understand how this fits in with the idea of being fateless. I see how recognizing one’s fatelessness leads to accepting one’s ability to choose. I see how that affects one’s ability to find beauty. I don’t see how this meshes with the other side of the coin: that fatelessness also uncovers the arbitrariness of one’s circumstances. And recognizing that arbitrariness, for most I’m assuming, does not lead one to happiness but to bitterness.

There is much more to discuss about how these narrative choices affect the overall philosophy of the novel. Fatelessness has an interesting perspective about what it means to live life in a concentration camp or out of it. I gladly move on to Kaddish for an Unborn Child, but not because I’m relieved at having finished this book; rather, this book encouraged me to keep up with my current trek through Kertész.

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