THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Writer shows strength after Holocaust

By Nan Goldberg
May 13, 2011

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Imre Kertész’s autobiographically inspired literary trilogy — “Fatelessness’’ (1975), “Fiasco’’ (1988), and “Kaddish for a Child Not Born’’ (1990) — is informed by a single moment in his boyhood when, “through a conjunction of infinitely inane circumstances, I found myself looking down the barrel of a loaded machine gun for half an hour.’’

In “Fatelessness’’ (sometimes translated as “Fateless’’), a teenager in Budapest happens to be riding a bus one day when it is stopped by Nazi soldiers, who detain the Jewish passengers and deport them to Auschwitz. This actually happened to Kertész, a Jew who was born in Budapest in 1929. The machine gun aimed at him was eventually lowered, but by then he had “grasped the simple secret of the universe that had been disclosed to me: I could be gunned down anywhere, at any time.’’

After the war, Kertész returned to Soviet-controlled Hungary. While writing “Fatelessness,’’ he began working for a Budapest newspaper, but was fired in 1951 when the paper adopted an orthodox Communist ideology. In 2002, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, notably for the trilogy, which the Nobel committee described as upholding “the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’’

In “Kaddish,’’ Gyorgy Köves — the young protagonist of “Fatelessness,’’ now an adult — destroys the marriage he cherishes by refusing to father a child. The mere suggestion stirs up a tsunami of memories from his own interrupted childhood; “at times, the city opened up under my feet so that I never knew in which unspeakable scene, saturated with tortures and outrage, I would unexpectedly find myself.’’

“Fiasco,’’ which like “Kaddish’’ is written in stream-of-consciousness style, follows Köves in the decades after the war as he attempts to find a publisher for his novel (which sounds identical to “Fatelessness’’) and to live rationally under Communism, a system as absurd in its way, as random, and as bereft of individual choice as Auschwitz. Meanwhile, Auschwitz is always present, “sitting in my stomach like an undigested dumpling, its spices belching up at the most unexpected moments,’’ and Köves struggles to fit his Auschwitz experience into a construct that will make living itself a rational act.

In this atmosphere, irony is an essential survival tool — as when a publishing executive, in rejecting the Auschwitz memoir/novel, remarks: “Isn’t it a trifle bitter?’’ But hearing this, Köves realizes he is “sitting opposite a professional humanist . . . [who] would like to believe that Auschwitz had happened only to those to whom it had happened . . . that nothing had happened to the majority, to mankind — Mankind! — in general. . . . [T]he publishing man wanted to read into my novel that notwithstanding . . . everything that had happened . . . Auschwitz had still not sullied me. Yet it had sullied me. I was sullied in other ways than those who had transported me there, it’s true, but I had been sullied nonetheless.’’ These so-called humanists, Köves concludes, want “to annihilate me with their cravings: they want to invalidate my experiences.’’

Annihilate him how? By foisting upon him the role of victim, which he cannot abide. If Köves/Kertész must choose between being the victim of atrocity and being partly responsible, it’s apparently a no-brainer. In this absolute rejection of victimhood, Kertész is unique in Holocaust literature.

Also alone among Holocaust writers, he seems to flaunt the thoughts and feelings that contradict the accepted narrative. In the aftermath of being threatened with that machine gun, for example, he wonders: How can he best describe “the unforeseen good spirits that, after I had got over my initial surprise, coursed through me as well? All I had to do to be able to enjoy the game . . . was to recognize the triviality of the stake.’’

It’s a shocking reaction, almost incomprehensible — until you see that by insisting on the power of his own choices, no matter how perverse, to affect the fate that befalls him, he defeats that fate, transforming random devastation into the least important part of his story.

I read it as a manifesto: What is important is not what was done to me; what is important is that I myself chose how to react. In that crucial sense, whatever I may have been, I was not a victim.

It’s not pretty. But it’s some kind of heroic.

Nan Goldberg, a freelance writer and book critic, can be reached at nan@thebookmaven.com.

FIASCO

By Imre Kertész

Translated by Tim Wilkinson

Melville House, 361 pp., paperback, $18.95