Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz
Despite writing numerous books, nobel-prize winning Imre Kertész work remains shockingly difficult to get hold of. In the US, Knopf have Tim Wilkinson's able translations of Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért) and Liquidation (Felszámolás) and in the UK all we have is Kertész's debut novel Fatelessness (Sorstalanság). The rest remain untranslated. UK publishers have no plans that I know of to bring Kaddish or Liquidation to the UK market. As noted on the complete-review this is something of a disgrace.
Fatelessness, Kertész's debut, is clearly an autobiographical novel. From the Nobel prize website we learn:
Imre Kertész was born in Budapest on 9th November 1929. He is of Jewish descent. 1944 he was deported to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated in 1945. On his return to Hungary he worked from 1948 for a Budapest newspaper, Világosság, but was dismissed in 1951, when it adopted the party line. After two years of military service he has since supported himself as an independent writer and translator of German authors such as Nietzsche, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, Freud, Roth, Wittgenstein and Canetti, who have all had significance for his own writing.
Hungarian teenager György Köves, a naive and innocent guide, narrates. His father is about to be sent to a labour camp and the family is busy getting ready for his departure. At the family get-together organised to say goodbye to his father tensions surface. Not much later, taking a bus journey to work, György is taken first to Auschwitz and then on to Buchenwald. The bulk of the novel is his first-hand account of his experiences in the camps.
It is Kertész's tone that is remarkable throughout the novel. As told by György, the horrors of the concentration camp are never theatricalised. Callow throughout, György records and recounts, but never descends to hyperbole. Of course, he has no need. The horror is well known to us. (Indeed, there is a danger that we do not see quite how remarkable, restrained and radical Fatelessness is simply because we know the story quite as well as we do.) But, as told by György, what was happening to him was more strange than hellish, the horror more surreal than visceral. This is not quite right: for György the horror is elsewhere, what is happening to him is just curious and miserable.
Inside the world of the camp, György is keen to understand what is happening as rational, understandable. Whether this is simple a defense mechanism or not it makes for a very powerful book. Pitched somewhere between wide-eyed and perplexed, Kertész's novel describes a situation where the atrocity of the Holocaust is both right in front of us and somehow hidden. Kertész seems to be saying that György did not experience History (History only ever being a construction, an agglomeration of events), but rather merely suffered terribly. At the the end of the novel, György refuses to write an article for a newspaper about his experiences because he knows he would be used as a cipher or an emblem.
Journalism seeks representatives or archetypes or stereotypes; literature cleaves to something smaller and truer. Fatelessness achieves its power by being literature.