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Fatelessness Paperback – December 7, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Kertesz ( Kaddish for an Unborn Child ), who, as a youth, spent a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz, has crafted a superb, haunting novel that follows Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, during the year he is imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Fighting to retain his equilibrium when his world turns upside down, Gyorgy rationalizes that certain events are "probably natural" or "probably a mistake." Gradual starvation and what he experiences as grinding boredom become a way of life for him, yet Gyorgy describes both Buchenwald and its guards as "beautiful"; as he asks "who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp?" Gyorgy also comes to a sense of himself as a Jew. At first, he experiences a strong distaste for the Jewish-looking prisoners; he doesn't know Hebrew (for talking to God) or Yiddish (for talking to other Jews). Fellow inmates even claim Gyorgy is "no Jew," and make him feel he isn't "entirely okay." Kertesz's spare, understated prose and the almost ironic perspective of Gyorgy, limited both by his youth and his inability to perceive the enormity of what he is caught up in, give the novel an intensity that will make it difficult to forget. One learns something of concentration camp life here, even while becoming convinced that one cannot understand that life at all--not the way Kertesz does.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Remarkable . . .an original and chilling quality, surpassed only by Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz” --The New York Review of Books
“In his writing Imre Kertesz explores the possibility of continuing to live and think as an individual in an era in which the subjection of human beings to social forces has become increasingly completeÉ. upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” --The Swedish Academy, The Nobel Prize in Literature 2002
“[S]hould be savored slowly . . . Only through exploring its subtlety and detail will the reader come to appreciate such an ornate and honest testimony to the human spirit.” —The Washington Times
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The story told in "Sorstalanság" is of a single year in Koves's life, from the moment when he is arrested on the street, sent to Auschwitz, saved by a kind of efficient "triage" to be shipped to Buchenwald, then to harsh labor at Zeitz, then as a nearly dead invalid back to Buchenwald at a time when the camp is in functional collapse (benign collapse for Koves) as the Russian and American Armies approach, saved inexplicably by camp 'trustees', and finally liberated back to Budapest. Author Imre Kertesz was, in fact, imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, at about the age of Georg Koves, but he has adamantly maintained that "Fatelessness" is not straightforward autobiography. I'm willing to take his word for that, even if every scene of the book corresponds to a scene in his own concentration camp experience. The point I think he wants to make is that his book is not about the story it tells. It's about Identity, Memory, and above all "Fate".
So young Georg is, by the author's artifice, a clueless teenage boy, in the midst of adolescent individuation, more focused on sorting out his detachment from others, especially his divorced parents, and on integrating sexual desire into his self-awareness, than on such matters as the War, which adults around him irrelevantly prioritize. Now, I've know a fair number of 15-year-old boys. Why, I used to be one, for a whole year, for a whole year. My son was a 15-year-old boy just four years ago, also for a whole year, and all of his schoolmates and teammates were 15-year-old boys as well, in overlapping years. Georg Koves, I can attest, is a plausible healthy 15-year-old boy, in terms of his Piagetian stage of development. He's not an especially precocious boy, nor an alienated rebel. He's just completely self-absorbed, with the kind of invulnerability and emotional impenetrability that comes from self-absorption. By the end of his year in the concentration camps, and therefore by the end of the novel, Georg Koves will be -- will perceive himself to be -- an old man. He will be 'old' physically, pathetically reduced by camp conditions to a scabrous skeletal invalid. And he will progress through all those Piagetian stages of mental and psychological development in a single year. His narrative voice, that is, will race from the 'concrete' externality of the 15-year-old to the complex internalized mentality of the mature man. Of Kertesz himself, should we say? Whether Georg Koves begins the book as a surrogate for Imre Kertesz, he certainly IS Kertesz by the last chapter, and not the Kertesz of 1945 but rather the remembering Kertesz of 1975, thirty years of remembrance later, a character composing himself in a novel.
Numerous readers have been puzzled by what they perceive as Koves's, or Kertesz's, "detachment" and avoidance of sentiment. I can't quite agree with that. Koves is the opposite of "detached" at all times. He is utterly attached to the moment, to the self he is at each moment. If that "self" is lying face down in the mud, being kicked and cursed by a fellow camp inmate, Koves is aware only of that "self" in pain and rage. But if he is relishing an unexpected crust of bread or whispered word of amity, then he is not only "happy" for a moment but "attached" to his awareness of happiness. Kertesz's whole point, I think, is the step-by-step, each-moment-as-it-passes nature of life, the attachment to the here-I-am that enables a person to stand in line waiting to be executed or spared, the there's-only-now that makes it possible to be bored in the midst of high historical catastrophe. Back home in Budapest, as Koves confronts the expectations others have, that the experiences of the concentration camp should constitute a grand hellish singularity, he finds that he can't satisfy their 'need' for such a unity. His memories are just a forced march of single steps, each with its own emotions.
What Koves's interrogators, after the War, seem to want from him is an account of his Fate, based on his identity as a Jew, and that's exactly what Koves/Kertesz is unable to ratify for them. What exactly does the title of this book - "Fateless" - have to do with the narrative? The question of Fate doesn't become explicit until the final chapters, but it really is the chief subject of the whole text. Is Koves a Jew by Fate? Or by merest chance, as he argues to a neighbor girl at home in Budapest, before his deportation to Auschwitz? And in the camps, confronted with Yiddish-speaking religious Jews, Koves has to puzzle over whether he is in any way a Jew, or simply an accidental accomplice of Jewishness. Has there ever been a "religion" that didn't presume "Fate" -- or euphemistically, God's Plan -- to be the explanation for every happening of grief or joy? Clearly, in Kertesz's mind and in Koves's, to be a Jew is to accept Fate above all. What then is the meaning of being "fateless"? Isn't that a denial of a certain kind of Meaning? Or to put it another way, isn't "fatelessness" synonymous with "free will"? How subtly ironic can you get? to investigate the nature of "free will" in a story about imprisonment in a Death Camp?
Let's give Kertesz the next-to-last word about his own philosophical question. After his release and return to Budapest, his first day there in fact, Koves finds that he can't make his experiences clear to his surviving family friends, who advice him to 'forget' as quickly as possible in order to begin a new life:
"....I made it clear to them that we can never start a new life, only carry on with the old one. I took the steps, no one else.... Did they want this whole honesty and all the previous steps I had taken to lose all meaning? Why this sudden about-face, this refusal to accept? Why did they not wish to acknowledge that if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is impossible. If, on the other hand -- I swept on, more and more astonished myself, warming to the task -- if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate; that is to say -- and I paused, but only long enough to catch my breath -- that is to say, then we ourselves are fate ..."
The family friends are outraged. Aghast. To them, Koves's denial of the sublimity of Fate is tantamount to 'blaming the victim.' And this, I think, is the still agonizing ambiguity in Keretsz's mind. It's a profound ethical question, and "Sorstalanság" is a profoundly philosophical book as well as a horrifying story of one improbable survival.
That's one aspect of FATELESSNESS: a prosaic yet detailed and memorable account of the operations of the Nazi concentration/extermination camps, told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old György, who was rounded up during a dragnet conducted in Budapest in the spring of 1944. Another aspect of FATELESSNESS is György's speculations, or reflections, on the perpetrators, the choreographers of the concentration camps. For example, as regards the baths:
"After all, people would have had to meet to discuss this, put their heads together so to say, even if they were not exactly students but mature adults, quite possibly--indeed, in all likelihood--gentlemen in imposing suits, decorations on their chests, cigars in their mouths, presumably all in high command * * *. One of them comes up with the gas, another immediately follows with the bathhouse, a third with the soap, * * * and so on. Some of the ideas may have provoked more prolonged discussion and amendment, whereas others would have been immediately hailed with delight * * *."
Yet a third aspect of the novel concerns the effect of it all on the survivors of the concentration camps. György's thoughts on this subject are somewhat unorthodox, maybe even heretical. They are the antithesis of the conventional wisdom (as of fifty years ago) that "you must put the horrors behind you" and they are inextricably bound up with the title of the novel. I won't say more, because Imre Kertész's philosophical/psychological response to the Holocaust should be read as he presents it.
By the way, Imre Kertész, as a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy in Budapest, was rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, then Zeitz, and then back to Buchenwald, just like György Köves. But Kertész contends that FATELESSNESS is not autobiographical, that it is indeed a work of fiction. To me, it is the fictional counterpart to Primo Levi's classic memoir of a year in Auschwitz, "If This Is a Man". The power of both works inheres in the understated, matter-of-fact quality of their narratives. And in both, there are neither heroes nor victims, but only survivors and the dead.
Though simply written, FATELESSNESS is not a simple book. It may bewilder some readers and it may anger some Jews. But it deserves to be read. It is, as incongruous as this may sound for "Holocaust literature", a small jewel of a novel.