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Liquidation Hardcover – October 19, 2004
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Nine years ago, B. killed himself with a heroin overdose, leaving behind manuscripts, including a play that exactly reproduced the scene of his friends' learning that the Hungarian state-supported publisher for which they work is to be liquidated. That event actually occurred after B.'s suicide, which also figures in the play, and this novel's narrator, who calls himself what he is called in the play, Kingbitter, reacted to B.'s demise as the play, which he hadn't yet seen, records him doing. Furthermore, the play foretold some of the other friends' destinies. The characters of 2002 Nobel laureate Kertesz's brief new novel represent a generation of middle-European intellectuals so alienated by history--Auschwitz and what it symbolizes, to be specific (B. was born in Auschwitz)--that, as Kingbitter observes more than once, for them the "Hamlet question" has become "Am I or am I not?" Non-European readers could be forgiven for failing to sympathize with them enough to enjoy the novel much. Ray Olson
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“Writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” –From the Nobel Prize citation
“Not since Kafka or Beckett–both clear influences–has a writer packed so much metaphysics into so tight a space.... [A] classic literary detective story.” –The New York Times Book Review
“A judgmentÉon the human spiritÉ. By turns sardonic, watchful andÉbitterly despairing.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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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.
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.
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!
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Liquidation is the fourth in a series of books by Imre Kertesz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002.Read more