As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, each remaining voice becomes proportionally more important. The Hungarian Imre Kertész provides an...
As the number of living Holocaust survivors dwindles, each remaining voice becomes proportionally more important. The Hungarian Imre Kertész provides an especially haunting point of view, not just about the concentration camps but about their lingering effects on the lives of their survivors.
“Fatelessness,” his fictionalized memoir of the Holocaust, was first published in 1975 to little attention. Over the years, it’s gradually gained fame, and occasional notoriety, as a quiet, intimate rendering of its horrific milieu. In 2002, Kertész won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Knopf has now released his latest novel, “Liquidation.” At the same time, Knopf’s fellow Random House imprint Vintage International has released new translations of two of his earlier works.
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New Kertész readers should read them in order, starting with “Fatelessness.” As it begins, the teenage György Köves has grown up in the Budapest Jewish ghetto, knowing no life except that of steadily harsher restrictions. Then on his way to work one morning, he’s rounded up from a city bus and shipped off. He’s first sent to Auschwitz for initial processing into the camp system. He’s deemed able-bodied enough to be transferred to slave labor camps, to be worked to death instead of gassed. György’s observations about the tiny details of his day-to-day existence are, at once, formally dispassionate and oddly unnerving. He seeks moments of happiness wherever he can; such as when his daily food ration at Buchenwald turns out to be slightly more generous than the amount he received at Auschwitz.
After a year of this, György lies in an infirmary, close to dying, when the war ends. Back home, he can see no “fate” or grand design to explain why he survived and so many of his relatives and friends didn’t: “If there is such a thing as fate there is no freedom … if there is freedom there is no fate.”
Kertész shows the long-term impact of such a philosophy in his 1990 book “Kaddish for an Unborn Child.” A “Kaddish” is a traditional Jewish prayer for the dead. The “child” of the title is not only unborn, but unconceived. The 120-page book contains no chapter breaks and only 17 paragraph breaks. Those are all for exclamations of the story’s key word, an emphatic “No!”
Its narrator, known only as “B,” is an unambitious writer and an Auschwitz survivor. He’d long ago refused to bring a child into a world where the Nazi atrocities could have happened. This stubborn refusal cost him his marriage and any chance for happiness in life. Now, in his late middle age, he uses his regret as the starting point for a rambling (yet fascinating) series of ponderings about life, society and denial of the self. Along the way, B. describes his current life as a path “toward knowingly known self-liquidation, an initial scraping toward the grave bed which I am making for myself.”
Now we have “Liquidation,” a short tale of aging and loss, set within the gossipy small-town atmosphere of the Hungarian literary world. “B,” the narrator of “Kaddish for an Unborn Child,” has died. He’s left behind a play script, written ten years before (i.e., just after the socialist regime’s demise), accurately predicting the future lives of his inner circle of friends and/or lovers. One of B.’s friends, Kingbiter (whose grandfather had changed his name back in the ’20s, to successfully hide and renounce his Jewish heritage), embarks on a quest for another of B.’s unpublished works, a novel which might or might not still exist, which might or might not have ever been written. (B. mentions this potential novel in “Kaddish.”)
Along the way Kingbiter, and we, meet the various members of this writers’ clique, and learn how their careers, their histories, their identities have ceased to be. After first the Nazis, then the socialists have come and gone, intellectuals in Eastern Europe were no longer hunted or repressed — they were ignored into nonexistence.
Tim Wilkinson’s clean, uncluttered translations reflect the realistic, unsensational tone of these stories. Kertész himself has been a professional translator for decades, bringing German literature and philosophy into the Hungarian market. He now divides his residency between Budapest and Berlin.
Kertész’s books are short and highly personal. But they poignantly touch upon universal aspects of the human condition.
Clark Humphrey’s thoughts on popular culture can be found at www.miscmedia.com