Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Imre Kertesz

I spoke of Imre Kertesz’s Fateless earlier, and my issues with its pretense towards portraying an adolescent’s immediate experience of the Holocaust. Now I’ve read Kertesz’s other commonly available translated book, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, and it goes a great ways towards explaining the other book. (Supposedly far better translations are coming out soon….)

Kertesz is, of course, far more opinionated than his adolescent stand-in of Fateless, and this interview with Gunter Grass and Kertesz gives a good idea of where Kertesz stands. The Reading Experience excerpts the most salient bits, but for me Kertesz’s words boil down to this one sentence:

Around the time when Mr Grass was beavering away on political commitment, I was beavering away on why a writer should not commit himself politically.

That rejectionist stance, in brief, is what Kaddish is about, except it is about how a Holocaust survivor, who happens to be a writer, cannot commit, period. He cannot commit to having a child, and he cannot commit to a relationship with his wife. Other writers have used the Holocaust as grounds for political action of certain stripes, or as a mark of disgrace against all or part of humanity, or as cause for fatalism. But Kertesz uses it to reject abstraction. And this comes out of anger at what he sees as more trivial representations of the Holocaust:

By way of that wretched sentence “Auschwitz cannot be explained” is the wretched author explaining that we should be silent concerning Auschwitz, that Auschwitz doesn’t exist, or, rather, that it didn’t, for the only facts that cannot be explained are those that don’t or didn’t exist…Consequently, Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one’s head…I could have said about Auschwitz that the explanation is contained in individual lives and exclusively in individual lives, nowhere else. Accordingly, Auschwitz is the image and deeds of individual lives in my opinion, seen under the emblem of a particular organization. If all of mankind commences to dream, Moosbrugger is bound to be born, that attractive lust-murderer we read of in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

The paradox here is that while organized genocide requires the auspices of a state or a large functioning body, it is still individuals, and their individual dreams that grow, unknowably, to produce a single totality. Part of Moosbrugger’s role in Musil’s work is as a character who resists explanation, who may be a product of society, but not a conceptualized product of society. Likewise, Kertesz seems to say, Auschwitz is a consequence of such-and-such in the lives of millions of people over hundreds of years, and that irreducibly serves as its explanation. What is not possible is to generalize the mechanism of its creation. Debates over “Is art possible after the Holocaust?” are not just meaningless, they’re offensive.

He mentions a story he wrote about a Christian man who, due to Jewish blood, is sent off to the camps. This man is estranged from all concepts of heritage and culture:

But how can one fundamentally like an abstract concept as, for example, Jewishness? How can one like an unknown mass stuffed into this abstract concept?…Now he had rid himself of this pain of his assumed responsibility. Now he can, in good conscience, reject those whom he rejects and he no longer has to like those he doesn’t like. He is liberated because he no longer has a homeland. All that is left to decide now is the state of his death. Should he die as Jew, as Christian, as hero or as victim, perhaps even as a metaphysical absurdity, the victim of a neo-chaos of the demiurge? Since none of these concepts means anything to him, he decides not to taint the positive purity of his death by a lie.

And here is what Kertesz was getting at in Fateless: the attempted presentation of unmediated experience as unvarnished truth, bereft of theory, ideology, meaning or meaninglessness. Throughout Kaddish, the main character rejects role after role: father, friend, husband, and writer. The last is most significant for the reader, and it gives the implication that Kertesz believes that Fateless was destined to be a failure and is a failure, because even in writing he takes on an abstract role that he does not wish for himself.

This makes for frustrating but brutally honest reading: if Fateless was the unsuccessful product of a concept (which it surely was), then Kaddish is the breakdown of conceptualization and Kertesz’s rejection of it. As an exercise in self-abnegation it has entirely different qualities from Beckett, and maybe a little in common with Ingeborg Bachmann. But the agonized image of a man for whom every written word is a lie is far stronger in Kertesz, and it puts me in mind of, ironically, William Gass’s The Tunnel, in which literary use of the Holocaust was pushed to intentionally distasteful and trivial ends. (See this review for further details.)

Leave a Reply