Fateless, Imre Kertesz

I’ve let this book sit for a long while before writing about it. For a book that is a concerted recreation of an (autobiographical) adolescent’s mental state in the Nazi concentration camps, it seemed appropriate to let vague memories sit beside the targeted rereading. What I remember of the story of the Kertesz stand-in George Koves is:

  • incredible, blissful luck as George’s sickness leads him to a (relative) place of refuge that enables his survival
  • a number of characters early on who disappear, never to return in reality or in his thoughts
  • his alienation, as a Hungarian Jew, from Jews that speak German and Yiddish, and their exclusion of him
  • a striking sentence after he returns, when he says that he feels a kind of homesickness for the camps, which for all its impact does not ring true

The problem with the last item is that it is an inadequate articulation of a long-dormant emotion. The translation is probably an issue here, but throughout the book Kertesz works very hard to preserve the reportage and outlook of an adolescent. When he is too well-spoken for an adolescent, it is to more clearly define an adolescent’s mental states, not to analyze them with an adult’s view.

Unfortunately, analysis goes part and parcel with the descriptive task Kertesz takes up, and the difficulty he has verbally qualifying mental states under extreme circumstances play against the intent of the book. There is plenty of objective reports of sensory experience, but there is just as much reportage of George’s mental outlook, and it’s here that the gaps show. Fateless aims to be a document not just of a series of events but of the mental response to those events. But it reads like a record of an older man’s recreation of his adolescent mental states.

There are moments where Kertesz all but acknowledges this disparity, when the gap between the firsthand sui generis experience and the writing of a book is simply too large to be bridged, and the older voice briefly intrudes. But these are exceptions. His stated goal is to report, and the book becomes more of a testament to the impossibility of describing the experience except in the actions and thoughts of the survivors after the fact.

I imagine Kertesz, with his humble and less “proper” approach, challenging the forwardness and narrative aggression of Elie Wiesel, by refusing to discriminate between the incidentals and the moments of history, by playing against any traditional notion of how emotional states should flow in such a situation. Yet in the concerted attempt to make absent such a structure, Kertesz leaves his methods too bare. The intent behind the words trumps the facts they signify.

Aharon Appelfeld has made an entire career out of avoiding the experiences themselves, choosing to deal with the victims’ experiences afterwards, or occasionally before. I read The Iron Tracks shortly after Fateless, and its story of an old, rotting man lackadaisically tracking the killer of his parents, and the resonance of his broken, fearful style in alluding back to his mostly unspoken earlier experiences is more affecting than much of Fateless. In its avoidance (and treatment of such in its main character), it seems more humble than Fateless.

Kertesz won the Nobel for a comparatively small body of work (much smaller in English). The Hungarian translator George Szirtes (who produced a wonderful English version of The Melancholy of Resistance and a more problematic Anna Edes) went after Kertesz as undeserving next to many Hungarian authors I haven’t read. I can’t take sides, but at least in Fateless, his strength lies more in what’s revealed of the evidently painful creative process of the writer himself and less in the explicit content of the final result. (His Kaddish for a Child Not Born appears to play to the strength, being a mixed assemblage about a writer who has authored books like Fateless, so it’s up next.)

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