Why did they not want to acknowledge that if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible? - Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness
There have been many novels written about the Holocaust but I’ve never read one as strange as this. This 1975 novel is Hungarian author Imre Kertesz’s debut (and even won a Nobel Prize for) and this is the first novel from Kertesz that I have read. It is a semi-autobiographical story about fourteen year old Gyorgy Koves and his experiences in Auschwitz, Buchenwals and Zeitz concentration camps. The story opens in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest where we are introduced to the narrator, his family and his neighbors. Gyorgy’s father had just been sent to a labor camp and young Gyorgy had just received papers that would allow him to work and travel outside the Jewish Quarter. One day, on his way to work, he - along with others - is taken off a bus and sent to Auschwitz by train without any water. When he arrives at Auschwitz, he lies about his age, thereby - unwittingly - saves his own life. He describes his experiences at Auschwitz (as well as his fellow detainees) and is soon sent off to Buchenwald, then eventually Zeitz. There he falls ill, nearly dies, and spends the rest of his time in the hospital facility until the end of the war. When he returns home, he is confronted by those who are just beginning to hear about the atrocities that had taken place.
Now here’s where the novel gets a little disturbing and what separates it from all the other Holocaust novels that I have read up to this point: While still in Budapest, young Gyorgy seems to accept the racist laws that had become his lot in life; he admires “the attractive yellow star” he is forced to wear; he sympathizes with the neighborhood butcher who often rips off his customers - fellow Jews; he speaks of those “not of pure blood”, echoing Nazi propaganda; and while he’s at the camps, he has a curious and odd tendency to rationalize everything that’s going on around him. There is a distant, almost objective view of his experience, virtually determined to see his experience from point of view of his captors. His biggest complaint seems to be that he’s “bored”, although he eagerly tends to his work detail when it is assigned to him. He looks at his fellow inmates with the same detachment, even at one point pretending his bunkmate, who had died, was still alive so he could get his food rations. When confronted by religious, Yiddish speaking Jews, he is looked down upon for not knowing either Yiddish or Hebrew (they refer to him as a “goy”). Gyorgy, although he acknowledges his Jewish heritage, sees himself more Hungarian than Jew. When he returns to Budapest after the war, he begins to feel a sort of “homesickness” for the camps, where “life there had been clearer and simpler”. He searches for meaning and refuses to accept the meaninglessness of what had happened.
It is this sort of ironic detachment that is the most disturbing aspect of the novel. Gyorgy is aware of the atrocities taking place but since he never saw any of it happening, he doesn’t seem to think about it. He thinks about his own personal lot - his ration of bread, his bowl of soup, the feeling of the water while taking a shower and the grittiness of the soap, the emaciated “criminals” who “look rather Jewish”, his seeming admiration for the “smartness” of the look of his captors. Gyorgy seems to be in perpetual denial of what is happening to him and everyone around him. Or his he? Is he trying to focus on less horrific things as a survival strategy? Or his it the “innocence of youth” that will not allow him to fully grasp what is actually taking place? There is a hell of a lot to chew on here and the narrator’s detachment is one of the more chilling aspects of this novel. Questions are raised about whether or not people are swept along by historical forces in which they cannot control, that their selves/identities are shaped by that history. And like the opening quote says, if there is such a thing as fate then there is no possibility of freedom. There are times when the novel will meander a bit but it won’t take away from this odd but powerful story. If not anything else, it will make you think and question the narrator’s unbelievably detached tone. Powerful and very well written. Highly recommended.