on March 10, 2014
Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize. Having survived the Holocaust, he has original observations about it, but this book is repetitive, mostly uninteresting, and disappointing. Kertesz perhaps pursues the ineffable a bit too far, leaving his meaning excessively elusive. There is little plot, little detail. It opens with the word, "No," that, as gradually becomes clear, is a rejection of the idea of bearing a child, apparently because the world is such a forbidding place. The narrator relates scenes from his childhood that seem horrible enough but certainly not on the scale of Auschwitz. "Later on, Auschwitz, I said to my wife, seemed to me to be just an exaggeration of the very virtues to which I have been educated since early childhood. Yes, childhood and education were the start of that inexcusable process of breaking me, the survival that I never survived, I said to my wife." This and other such observations are, as I say, original, but I am uncertain of their profundity.
on December 29, 2009
Imre Kertesz makes no effort to test that premise, that it's impossible to write about happiness, in this dense and dark little book. Writing, he declares often enough, is his necessary act to stay alive long enough to die: "...for my ballpoint pen is my spade," he repeats several times, "and if I look ahead, it is solely to look backwards." Don't suppose, dear reader, that this is another 'life-affirming' memoir by another Shoah survivor. Kertesz's only affirmation is of the necessity of understanding one's life as long as one is stuck with it. "One's religious duty," he writes, "totally independently of the crippling religions of the crippling churches, is therefore understanding the world; yes, that when all is said and done, it is in this, in understanding the world and my situation, and in this alone, that I may seek ... my salvation." Oh, the likelihood of any such salvation is slim indeed, according to Kertesz, but "we must at least have the will to fail."
That last quotation is second-hand; Kertesz quotes it from a book by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. If you know Bernhard's work, you'll recognize the influence it must have had on Imre Kertesz. At least in this volume, their styles are nearly identical: the same endlessly extended and qualified sentences, the same throbbing repetitions, the same parenthetical avoidance of any chronological narrative. If you don't like Bernhard at all, you'll probably hate Kertesz. On the other hand, if you can handle Bernhard's tyrannical mannerisms, you may well find Kertesz blessedly accessible and affective, though every bit as difficult. I do find this style -- Kertesz's as well as Bernhard's -- tyrannical, in that the hyper-run-on sentences, with all their adverbial qualifiers and compulsive repetitiveness, deliberately require me not to "think back" at them, not to pause to respond or reflect, simply to plough on to the end, with sometimes no more than the barest hope of recalling and reassembling enough in my mind to be justified in claiming that I comprehend. You have to read such stylists on their terms, and their terms only, whether those terms are acceptable or not. You can quarrel with the author later, but he won't be there to listen.
The "Kaddish" is a synagogue prayer for the benefit of a recently deceased family member. Strictly speaking, Kertesz's Kaddish for an Unborn Child isn't a prayer at all. Eventually, as you read, you come to realize that it is an 'apology' addressed to Kertesz's own unborn child, that is, to the child he refused to bring into life. There is, of course, nobody to hear it, no child to resent or to be grateful for not being born. Much of the tension of Kertesz's non-narrative comes precisely from "looking backward", as he re-assesses the reasons he gave his ex-wife for refusing to father her child. The wife obviously doesn't have her own voice, as Kertesz would surely admit; her thoughts are only Kertesz's thoughts about what he thought she must have been thinking. Yes, that's the kind of book this is: utterly hermeneutic and self-referential.
Kertesz writes that "NO!" which he says he said, both to his wife and to the philosopher-acquaintance whose question about having children stimulates the meditation qua Kaddish, at the head of each subsection of the text. "NO!" is the refrain, the burden, the moral of Kertesz's Kaddish. It's the complexities of meaning in Kertesz's NO! that make the book worth reading. Because, of course, Kertesz IS an Auschwitz survivor, although there's very little description in this book of his death camp experiences, and therefore has some certified claim to authority on the subject of NO!, of evil. As he tells his unborn child that he must have told that child's would-have-been mother, "...what is truly irrational and genuinely inexplicable is not evil but, on the contrary, good." It may well be too simple an explication of Kertesz's moral outrage, but it seems to me that his NO! has to be taken as the most ready incidence of 'Good' in his world.
Kertesz' prose is a mordantly brilliant, penetrating exercise in self-interrogation. It is the singularity and power of a voice--a voice that carries with it a lifetime of suffering and tragedy. It is an active consciousness reflecting in on itself the reasons why, its speaker could not bring a child into the world. Although we only ever see patches of the speaker's story, an entire history presses on us with the weight and density of the entire event that is the Holocaust. Drawing on the inspired prose style of Thomas Bernhard, Kertesz brings his own particular temperament and intellectual itinerary. This is little book will take you deep into the crevices of nothingness quickly, and without any hesitation.
on December 22, 2007
Let me start off by saying that this book is quite difficult to read and to follow. First, there isn't that much material on the internet to help you follow this book (e.g. cliff's notes, reports, etc.). Second of all, the vocabulary can be very daunting to comprehend and definitly requires a dictionary by your side if you want to follow the story in its entirety. I am certainly not the most educated fellow in the country, but I do at least have a bachelor's degree from a major state university, and I still found this book to be quite difficult to read.
Now, let me address WHY on earth you may be interested in reading this book. For me, there were two major aspects. First, I am very interested in the WWII period and the Holocaust specifically. I try to read any book about WWII, or the Holocaust, as well as watch any movie that may come out on the subject. This book not only provides some background information on the author's life during the Holocaust but also what those experiences did to his future. Secondly, "Kaddish..." has won many awards and can be found on many lists of "must-read" books that may change your life/beliefs.
"No!" That is how the narrator/primary character in the book begins his story. What follows this first word is a barrage of information, personal stories, theories, philosophies, etc. The narrator brings the reader along in a very tumultous journey into his past, present and future in a non-sequential order. We learn about the narrator's experiences as a child and how his experiences at a boarding school after his parents' divorce greatly affected his views of the world and humanity as a whole. Later, we learn what happened to the narrator while he was imprisoned in the Nazi extermination camps. The narrator centers much of his views and arguments on one experience that he had while in a concentration camp with a fellow whom he just calls "Teacher." This fellow was able to perform an act of kindness under the most awful and degrading conditions and our narrator is both baffled and even distrusting of this act of kindness. This act sets his mind into motion as he tries to understand how a human being can both be exterminating people in concentration camps and at the same time another human being has the capacity to think of someone other than himself under the most trying circumstances.
Later, the narrator lets us know why and how his marriage failed. He reveals what his ex-wife told him before she left him, which to me was the climax of the story. In the end, we see the narrator pondering his existence as it relates to the child that he refused to bring into the world, because he couldn't bear the thought of bringing an innocent child into such a monstrous, brutish world.
I don't want to give any more of the story away, but I do want to encourage everyone to read this book. The ideas and philosophies brought out in the book are enough to propel even the biggest optimist into uncertainty about their beliefs. In the end, you will make a decision for yourself on whether the author is right in his view of the evil that is humanity, or whether you agree with his wife in her ascertation that what is to be admired in the world is the perservearance of a human being whom is submitted to evil and cruelty yet can rise above it all as a positive human being that can be a beacon of hope for all others. Read this book and make the decision yourself.
P.S. In case you're wondering, I didn't rate the book 5 stars because I found it very difficult to read. Also, I suggest that you read this book in conjuction with Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," as you can find the two different ideologies in each book.