Book review: Fatelessness Surviving the Holocaust

Fatelessness,’ first published in Hungary in 1975, is an autobiographical novel by Imre Kertesz that recalls his deportation to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, and his experiences in a labour camp and Buchenwald concentration camp. Do we need another “Holocaust” novel? The Nobel prize committee thought so; in 2002 Kertesz won the prize for literature. They applauded his determination to remember Auschwitz and his insight into the implications it continues to have for modern society.

Kertesz was born into an Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest in 1929. His family still observed some Jewish customs but had Magyarised their names and thought of themselves as good Hungarians. At the opening of Fatelessness, the narrator, 15-year-old Gyorgy Koves, hears that his father, a timber merchant, has been summoned for “labour service” by the authorities. This was part of the escalating onslaught against Jews and it was tantamount to a death sentence.

Gyorgy has already been compelled to wear a yellow star, but the injustice meted out to his father prompts him to consider what it means to be marked out as different for what seem to him arbitrary reasons. He can’t read Hebrew, doesn’t know much about Judaism, and feels no special ties to his co-religionists, even though a pompous uncle solemnly informs him that “You, too, are now a part of the shared Jewish fate.” Significantly, the dawn of ethnic self-consciousness arrives at the same time as Gyorgy’s sexual awakening. He takes a closer interest in the daughter of Jewish neighbour. In between their adolescent fumblings they debate their persecution. Annamarie reasons that they suffer because they are Jews, but Gyorgy doesn’t feel Jewish and refuses to accept the imposed category of difference.

He is put to work in an oil refinery, until one morning he is hauled off a bus by local police hunting for Jews. Five days later, betrayed by his compatriots and deceived by the Jewish council, he is transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in a cattle-truck.

On arrival the Jewish labourers who unload the train tell him to say he is 16 and able to work. Thanks to this he gets through the “selection” and learns that the old, the young and most of the women who arrived on the same train have been gassed and reduced to the foul smoke drifting over the camp.

Otherwise, Gyorgy enjoys little solidarity with the mostly Polish Jewish inmates, for whom he is not Jewish enough. He is soon dispatched to Buchenwald and thence to a factory. Despite the friendship of an older Hungarian who schools him in survival, nothing can hold back starvation and disease. By sheer luck he survives to witness the camp’s liberation.

Gyorgy’s lack of fate, an awkward concept for Anglo-Saxons to grasp, is really the denial of free choice. His fate is not the destiny he chooses. Instead, he becomes the victim of what Kertesz calls “the dreary trap of linearity.”

Kertesz did not begin writing about his experiences until the mid-50s, when he was on the cusp of forgetting. Then he suddenly connected his response to communist tyranny with the camps. His refusal to submerge his individuality prompted him to recover the memory of being a teenager under Nazi totalitarianism.

The result is a powerful work that transcends the specific tragedy of the Hungarian Jews. Kertesz recalls the iniquity of imposed difference through the eyes of a naive teenager. He writes in a bleakly matter-of-fact tone, superbly captured by Tim Wilkinson’s new translation, that recreates the perception of a self-absorbed youth. It is almost like reading Catcher in the Rye transferred to Auschwitz.

The narrator drifts through the camps with wide-eyed curiosity: no matter how bad things get, to him everything seems reasonable because he knows no better. He views his own physical and mental degradation with cool detachment and simply accommodates to the new normality. The ironic force of the narrative arises from the disjunction between his “step by step” accommodation and the readers’ indignation, which is borne of hindsight or what the critic Michael Andre Bernstein has called “backshadowing.” This was a privilege denied to the camp inmates. Gyorgy just took things as they came and tried “to become a good prisoner.”

(‘Fatelessness’ by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson 272pp, Harvill Press)