. . . a tragedy to those who feel. Horace Walpole.
Liquidation is the fourth in a series of books by Imre Kertesz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. Three, "Fateless", "Kaddish for a Child not Born", and "Liquidation" have been published in English. The fourth, "Fiasco" awaits translation. Although each is related to the other, the recurring characters and their life's story tends to change, the common thread in all is that monstrous thing known as Auschwitz. Kertesz himself is an Auschwitz survivor, and all his books have put Auschwitz, something that defies explanations or answers, on center stage.
Liquidation contains a story within a story. The protagonist, the aptly named Kingbitter, is a book editor in Budapest. It is the turn of the new century, 2000, and company that employs him is in serious economic trouble. The book opens with Kingbitter and his small circle of `friends' discussing "B". "B", an author, committed suicide in 1990 by means of an overdose of morphine, the morphine provided by his ex-wife. The friends are discussing "B" last known work, a play entitled "Liquidation". Oddly enough, the play, which discusses Kingbitter and that circle of friends, has foretold their personal course of events in the ten years since his suicide. Additionally, references in the play to a book supposedly written by "B" have caused Kingbitter to spend ten years in search of the manuscript. The manuscript is never found and doubts arise as to whether it ever existed.
Although Kingbitter is the principal `living' person in the book, the story does focus on "B" and his life and death. "B" was one of those few children born at Auschwitz. The story of his birth and survival is one of life's small miracles, a small drop of water in a sea of evil and death. As the story progresses, and as the play within the play progresses, Kertesz exposes us to "B", his ex-wife, his mistress, and Kingbitter and company. Each has their own take on "B's" life and each provides the reader with some insight into "B"s life. As one friend notes, "B" once said that "Man, when reduced to nothing, or in other words a survivor, is not tragic but comic, because he has no fate." Taking the quote from Walpole, above, as a reference, it is clear that "B" is one given to thought and not to feeling. In fact, I had the distinct imperssioin that feeling was an emotion that "B" avoided, perhaps understandably, at all costs. Ultimately, as with his other books, neither Kertesz nor his characters can answer the question that is Auschwitz and the meaning of survival. For "B", his survival has rendered him fateless as the fact of his surviving deprived fate of an intended victim.
Kertesz' writing is sparse and to the point. He does not provide the reader with emotional content. He provides text and a description of his characters, their actions, and their thoughts. As was the case in Fateless, any emotions to be gained from reading Liquidation will come from your own sense of the text. Kertesz does not provide you with an emotional road map.
Although Liquidation is one of a series, each book stands on its own and may be enjoyed on its own merits. However, for anyone interested in reading Kertesz, I suggest they start with Fateless. Although Kaddish comes next chronologically, I suggest reading Liquidation next. The only reason for this order is the assertion by some devotees of Kertesz that the book "Kaddish for a Child not Born" may represent the manuscript not found by Kingbitter in Liquidation. That may or may not be the case but it may enhance the reader's enjoyment if it is viewed as the lost manuscript of "B". The reader should also be aware that although each book is related to the other and there is an overlap in characters at times, this is not a trilogy. Kertesz shifts the story line around quite a bit. The Auschwitz survivor in Fateless, for example, was taken to the camps as a teenager, unlike "B" who was born there. The stories are connected by theme, not by plot line.
on April 8, 2005
Kertesz writes same old book over and over again, from Fateless to Liquidation. And yet, we cannot get enough of it. Questions posed in those books poke at the mind with such fiercness that sheer struggle remains to hold on to ones sanity. It is the question of existance, of possibility of existance. And of the world that made that question possible.
How can one live a life where even his birth was an anomaly, something that never should have happened, luck, coincidence, life in the camp of death where Arbeit mach frei...Can he exist as a writer, and is his personal legacy in a from of literature strong enough to revoke effects of concentrational camps. Kertesz say "no", and leaves an emptiness for every reader to fill out himself. Love and sex, marriage and relationships hold no meaning in Kertesz's world of pain, world of morbid and twisted humanity which is, sadly, world that we live in.
What is a Jew, and what is the meaning of being Jew? Questions posed in a postmodern (yeay! everything is postmodern nowadays) way of author who had written a play that speaks of character of an author reading it...Yet, that is just a style practice...Final part of Kertesz's tetralogy doesen't close this chapter at all, it just prolongs a moment of necessary answer...A must read!
on December 31, 2004
In this novel, the central character answers the same crucial question posed in 'Kaddish for a child not born': why staying alive after Auschwitz?'
In 'Kaddish' the author decided to live in order to write: 'My pencil is my shovel'. The real rebellion for him was to stay alive.
The central character here commits suicide and orders that his literary creations be burned. The liquidation is complete.
'Why he did it?' is the question that the narrator of this book tries to find out.
The novel is an accumulation of liquidations. The narrator's family was a product of wars and dictatorships. After fascism and Auschwitz, as a lector in a publishing house he gets in trouble with the collectivist bureaucracy, where 'state subsidies are a disguised form of liquidation of literature'. Finally, his publishing house goes bankrupt.
The overall sentiment in 'Liquidation' is one of bitterness and nausea provoked by the poison of universal impotence.
Although the combination theatre/novel is highly original, I found that this book was more loosely built than 'Kaddish'.
But it is still a very worth-while read.
on December 7, 2004
The Hungarian writer B. commits suicide after the fall of communism. His editor, Keserü, tries to find out why he killed himself, for which he needs to trace the whereabouts of a manuscript by B. Meanwhile it becomes more and more clear that B. is a victim of Auschwitz: he was born in Auschwitz and the rest of his life is devoted to the question whether a man is alllowed to live after surviving Auschwitz. And in the background there is the play in which B. has described very precisely how the people near him will react after his death.
The title of the book "Liquidation" is very appropriately chosen: Auschwitz killed millions of Jews, B. makes the life of his wife Judith impossible, communism gets wiped out, the publishing house for which B. and Keserü work goes broke, B. commits suicide, after ending his life he causes a big crisis in Judith' second marriage and the manuscript of his novel is liquidated. A beautifully written book that leaves both the reader and Keserü empty-handed and with a lot of questions.
The powerfully dynamic, 2003 novel of Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertesz, Liquidation, can aptly be described as a play within a novel. Set in Budapest in 1999, ten years after the fall of Communism in Hungary, the story of Liquidation is existential in tone, delivering historical, social and psychological blows with the thrust and drive as only one who has survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald as Kertesz did, can.
In a bleak, dismal and gray Budapest of Spring 1999, a Hungarian writer of great literary repute, who is known to his circle of friends only as Bee, unexpectedly takes his own life with an overdose injection of morphine. His closest friends, including the main character Kingbitter, are shocked, bereft and also mystified that Bee, as one who was born a Jew in Auschwitz and actually survived, would take his own life so tragically.
Upon learning of Bee's suicide, Kingbitter searches through Bee's apartment and retrieves Bee's most important papers in order to save any manuscripts, poetry or other significant writings from being seized by the Hungarian authorities. Kingbitter is also desperate to find amongst these writings a novel which he is certain Bee surely would have written to explain the compelling reason for his suicide. But instead of a novel, Kingbitter discovers a play titled LIQUIDATION, a play of great significance for not only Kingbitter, but Bee's ex-wife, Judit, and his close friends Sarah, Kurti, and Oblath.
For Kingbitter and Judit in particular, Bee`s death and his play LIQUIDATION cause their own repressed dark memories to surface. In re-examining their own lives and the personal crises which have dogged them since the Holocaust, years of Communist rule, and the chaos and hopelessness following the Communist fall, the mystery of Bee's existential crisis is also revealed.
"Liquidation" as a word used by Kertesz is an urgency of expression with the immediacy of anguish. It is also a metaphor in layers. Liquidation as metaphor evokes many historical events: the liquidation of the Jews during the Holocaust; the liquidation of Hungarian society by the Communists in the wake of WW II; the liquidation of hope and personal freedom under Communism; the liquidation of identity and human spirit in Communism's grim aftermath. It also conjures a feeling of despair in the arts and humanities, as even literature is suggested to be liquidated under the present political structure.
It goes without saying that Liquidation the novel is brilliantly crafted with the word-wielding authority of a great literary master. The story is intricately complex, dramatic, suspenseful and disturbing. But it is also tremendously lyrical, even in English translation. I actually read many passages aloud to myself just to hear the rhythm and flow of beautiful profoundity. One such passage that produced an intense and lasting effect for me is part of Kingbitter's narration upon his discovery of Bee's suicide~
"...He was dead. It suddenly occurred to me that I had never seen a dead person before. As I glimpsed B.'s wrapped-up, motionless body, the familiar face frozen in unfamiliar grimace, my whole body was shaken by a violent jolt, though it was as if a brutal external force were doing it, with me obliged helplessly to submit..."
My humble review of Liquidation is for the 2004 English translation from the original Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson.
on April 28, 2010
... One is about the Holocaust and the other isn't.
At least, that's how my reading has gone recently, with brilliant painful books by Herta Müller and Imre Kertesz at the top of the list. Both writers have won Nobels, deservedly. Kertesz's "Fateless" and Müller's "Herztier" (Land of Green Plums) surely rank with the finest modern novels in any language. Both are challenging creations artistically, emotionally, and intellectually.
"Liquidation" is a short tale, narrated by an 'editor' who is obsessed with recovering the lost novel of his friend "B", an Auschwitz survivor as a baby who commits suicide soon after the fall of Communism in Hungary. There are subtle threads between the 'fictional' personae of "Liquidation" and Kertesz's other works, particularly "Kaddish for an Unborn Child." In fact, the "B" of Liquidation is effectively the narrator of Kaddish, so in a sense the lost novel was found in Kertesz's own hands. In my previous review of Kaddish, I noted a similarity of style between Kertesz and the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, who should have won a Nobel also but didn't. Sure enough, Bernhard is acknowledged in Liquidation, on page 56. Then, on page 72, we discover that "B" had intentions of preparing a new translation into Hungarian of "The Radetzky March", the great novel by the Austrian Joseph Roth, which I've also reviewed. At this point, my reading of recent years seems to demonstrate quantum entanglement.
I don't want to reveal any more of the plot or structure of Liquidation; it's a book that reveals itself by stripping away its own complexities and ambiguities as you read it. Here are some snippets from it, which set my mind awhirl:
From B's suicide note: "Don't feel sorry for me. I had a perfect life. Of its kind. All one has to do is recognize, and that recognition was my life." Shades of Spinoza! Who would not have survived the Holocaust, had he lived in our times.
"This being without Self is the disaster, the true Evil, said "B", though, comically enough, without your being evil yourself, albeit capable of any evil act. ... beware of knowing thyself, else thou shalt be damned, he said."
From B's account of interrogation by the Communist police: "I was forced to an acknowledgement of the stark fact that man is, both physically and morally, an utterly vulnerable being -- not an easy thing to accept in a society whose ideals and practice are determined by a police view of the world from which there is no escape and where no explanation of any kind is satisfactory, not even if those alternatives are set before me by external duress rather than by myself, so that I actually have nothing to do with what I do or what is done to me." The 'alternatives' mentioned here are either to agree to become an informer or to be tortured. "Interrogation" is a nearly ubiquitous element in writings about the tyrannies of the last century, both communist and fascist. The interrogation scenes in Kertesz's and Müller's novels, set in Hungary and Romania, are matched in horror by those in Keun's and Roth's novels about Hitlerian Germany, and Bolaño's novellas about Chile under the capitalist murderocracy of Pinochet.
B's lover, Sarah, at the time of the fall of the Communist regime in Budapest, reports that she was "unable to stand aside from the high tide of general euphoria around her, the general climate of great hopes and great relief. She had gone to Heroes' Square, taking a candle and lighting it, standing with the crowd until night had drawn in, and she had sung along with the crowd in the lights of those tens of thousands of candles. None of that had been of any interest to B." In fact, B's suicide follows the 'restoration' of those Great Hopes. Likewise, in Müller's Herztier, the first of the circle of young dissidents to reach the West survives only six weeks before committing suicide.
Not a warm and fuzzy book, dear readers! Not a tale that resolves in optimism. Another story to make you wish you'd lived and died before 1900. But a book of disturbing insight and vivid emotion. Read it at your own peril, Pollyannas! All's for the worst in Kertesz's worst of all possible worlds.
on August 25, 2010
Always difficult to know what's going on with a translation from a language one doesn't know, but there's an awkwardness to this text that initially I found distracting. Over time it became poignant.
It's a work of genius, regardless--peculiar, wonderfully structured, sincere. It wonders at the big questions: We are a chaos, now, and all live in the shadow of Auschwitz--so what follows from that? And what is the relationship between love and self-destruction? Between love and sadism?
It is unapologetically, if clumsily, postmodern, but it's postmodernism functions in the service of an emotional verisimilitude that I find heroic.
That is a good word for this book. It's a word that its author would flee, rebuke, dismiss as yet another example of our contemporary stupidity.
Regardless, this is a heroic book.
Kertesz' brief novel is fascinating in its structure: Bee, a Holocaust survivor and writer, has killed himself from a morphine overdose, and his literary friends are left with the task of tending to his estate, which includes the liquidation of his work. Kertesz proceeds via a play within the novel, which develops the story foretelling the events instaurated by his death. The structure is elusive-it is an act of liquidation itself. Through this liquidation, Kertesz attempts to speak to the impossibility of extinguishing the memory of Auschwitz, as well as to signify the impossibility of recuperating the meaning of artistic creation before the ultimate event of human evil. A truly dark and mysteriously wonderful work.
This is the third book by Kertesz that I have read. "Fateless" was the best but "Kaddish to a Child not Born" was pretty good after I got used to the non-stop monologue format. "Liquidation" has a lot to offer as well but, frankly, I found the format a bit incoherant.
The novella is about an Aushwitz survivor who took his life. We see most things through the eyes of our narrator, another concentration-camp survivor. The deceased was a writer and the narrator is a literary person as well. The narrator becomes obsessed with the notion that an author would not take his life without completing his opus first. Thus he examines the available writings he can find and pursues his search for the elusive novel. It is in this context that the truth reveals itself. Truth is hard to find if life seems to be a lie. That is, essentially, the focus of the message in "Liquidation". Since the message builds on itself much better than I can do it justice, I will not attempt to further define what our narrator discovers. However, I will say that my observation of Holocaust literature is that those that try to define what happened and give it meaning generally reach the same end. The Holocaust defies definition because we look to define in relation to our concepts of reality. What the literary Holocaust survivor shares with us, often, is a glimpse of a totally different reality but their ability to explain generally exceeds our ability to comprehend. In "Liquidation" Kertesz expands his message by giving us a debate about that reality through the perspectives of seperate Holocaust survivors. The debate enhances our efforts to understand but leaves us wondering if we have heard the conclusion or the introduction.