by Imre Kertész (A kudarc, 1988)
translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson (2011)
Melville House (2011)
368 pp

Imre Kertész was one of the first authors I reviewed on this blog. The other books in his tetralogy (Fatelessness, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation) are brilliant. (For some reason Melville House doesn’t consider Liquidation a part of this sequence, so they call it a trilogy.) I couldn’t wait to get the missing piece — trilogy or tetralogy — Fiasco. I was thrilled when I found out Melville House was publishing it. I must not have been the only one waiting because the back of this book, where a little synopsis would appear, it simply says, “Finally: the heretofore untranslated ‘missing’ book from the trilogy that won Imre Kertész the Nobel Prize.”

Despite the lack of synopsis, it is no secret what this book is about. Kertész, a survivor of the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who when released quickly found himself in another totalitarian regime that was Communist Hungary, doesn’t write about anything else.

So why read more Kertész if you’ve read one? Because Kertész’s writing expresses many things besides the horror of the Holocaust (though never does it forget the horror of the Holocaust). For one, his characters often remark on the irrationality of their existence — no, the arbitrariness under which he suffered, the absurdity of life. I believe this passage from Fiasco gives a great sense of this. This is Kertész writing as Kertész:

Well then, at the time I came into the world the Sun was standing in the greatest economic crisis the world had ever known; from the Empire State Building to the Turulhawk statues on the former Franz Josef Bridge, people were diving headlong from every prominence on the face of the earth into water, chasm, onto paving stone — wherever they could; a party leader by the name of Adolf Hitler looked exceedingly inimically upon me from amidst the pages of his book Mein Kampf; the first of Hungary’s Jewish laws, the so-called Numerus Clausus, stood at its culmination before its place was taken by the remainder. Every earthly sign (I have no idea about the heavenly ones) attested to the superfluousness — indeed, the irrationality — of my birth.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Liquidation are the two books that most accutely express the idea of the “superfluousness” of a birth, which rings as a type of philosophy. In one, a man rages and mourns a child he doesn’t have because he couldn’t bear to see one born; in the other, a man doesn’t commit suicide because it would be redundant. They’re devastating books, but the intelligence behind them, which is surprisingly touched with compassion, makes them sublime.

Another reason for reading anything you can by Kertész is that the books are always unique in structure. Fatelessness seems the most conventional, but Kaddish for an Unborn Child is essentially one long sentence (that works) and Liquidation is begins with a play the main character wrote that tells the details of his death — it even gets his friends’ reactions right, word-for-word.

Fiasco is also unique.  We begin here:

The old boy was standing in front of the filing cabinet.  He was thinking. It was midmorning. (Relatively — getting on for ten). Around this time the old boy was always in the habit of having a think.

He had plenty of troubles and woes, so there were things to think about.

But the old boy was not thinking about what he ought to have been thinking about.

The old boy, it turns out, is Kertész (though it is never explicit). There he is, thinking, as is often the case midmorning. (Relatively — getting on for ten). The book begins rather simply. I’d like to draw a comparison, if I could, to the canon form in music. The first line of music is the old boy standing by the filing cabinet. Another note comes in (a few pages later):

“I’m just standing here in front of the filing cabinet and thinking,” the old boy as thinking, “instead of actually doing something.”

Well certainly, the truth is — not to put too fine a point on it — that he should long ago have settled down to writing a book.

For the old boy wrote books.

That was his occupation.

Or rather, to be more precise, things had so transpired that this had become his occupation (seeing as he had no other occupation).

Throughout the first part (the first 115 pages), these phrases will be repeated as others are added, much of what comes building on and incorporating what came before. As the part progresses, it becomes more and more complex, and more and more murky, though relationships between ideas become clearer. It might sound frustrating, but it was very satisfying reading. Kertész may have challenging structures, but I’ve always found his writing (surely, thanks to superb translating from Tim Wilkinson) to flow smoothly. This was no different. It remains clear what is going on, so the effect of the above is not to confuse but to give us a window into the mind of the old boy sitting at the filing cabinet, getting thoroughly worked up about the prospect of writing a book.

The old boy has already written one book, which, at first, was not well received. Take, for example, this letter from a prospective publisher:

We consider that your way of giving artistic expression to the material of your experience does not come off, while the subject itself is horrific and shocking. His behaviour, his gauche comments . . . annoyed . . . the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto . . . gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements.

This book the publishers disliked so much is Fatelessness, which does indeed have a narrator with a surprising tone that might come off as cynical and, well, gauche, particularly as he seems to lack the reverence we as society might deem appropriate given the content.

So, much of part one is the old boy thinking about writing his next book while also remembering the process of writing (and the agony of publishing) his first book. In the filing cabinet are his old papers, which he reads (and which we get nice long passages of). Though he was there, he still gets a shock — practically gasps with surprise — when he reads, “I could be gunned down anywhere, at any time.” The result of all of this mixing and building is a masterful part one that goes into the process of writing about experience, and about experiencing the Holocaust in particular:

As I was reading this passage, these memories came alive within me, and at the same time I was able to verify that the sentences fitted together in the organic sequence I had envisaged. That was all very well, but why had not what existed before those sentences, the raw event itself, that once-real morning in Auschitz, come to life for me? How could it be that those sentences for me contained merely imaginary events, an imaginary cattle truck, an imaginary Auschwitz, and an imaginary fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy, even though I myself had at one time been that fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy?

He finds it hard to reconcile the art that goes into recreating the experience with the real experience itself. He also speaks about the capacity of a reader to really understand this work of the imagination. To illustrate, he tells the awful story of 340 Jews who were killed.

[T]hat these 340 deaths on the rocks, for instance, might rightly find a place among the symbols of the human imagination — but on one condition: only if they had not occurred. Since they did occur, it is hard even to imagine them. Rather than becoming a plaything, the imagination proves to be a heavy and immovable burden, just like those boulders in Mauthausen: people do not want to be crushed under them.

So this is part one, only about a third of the book, and already I’ve exhausted the space I usually take to write a review. What is the second part? Well, the old boy finally settles down to write his next book. And the second part is the book the old boy writes. Like Fatelessness, it features Georg Köves, that fourteen-year-old boy we first met at the railroad tracks at Auschwitz. The war is over, and Georg is no longer in a concentration camp. However, he soon finds himself in Communist Hungary. And he has an urge to write a book about his experiences in the concentration camps.

To be honest, as much as I loved the first part, I only admired the second part. It was long and felt, uncharacteristically of Kertész, long-winded. I wasn’t as enthralled with the ideas or with Köves’s life. That said, when the time comes to reread Kertész, I’ll not hesitate a second to reread this book with his others. It is a great, layered look at the process of writing a book that never lets the reader forget the horrors the book is recounting — indeed, they are emphasized.

Thank you Melville House and Tim Wilkinson for making it finally available in English.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!