Imre Kertesz: Liquidation

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.

–Beckett, Molloy

This quote, the final lines of Molloy, begins Imre Kertesz’s Liquidation. To quote Beckett in this way, to quote the final, self-consuming lines of one of his more insular works as a preface to one’s own work, is almost presumptuously audacious. By doing so, Kertesz sets a challenge for himself, that he can go on writing after Beckett has stopped. That Kertesz can take the master of pushing language and fiction to its limit of meaning, and say more when Beckett could not.

It is, I think, only in this light that the book attains its true resonance and meaning. Liquidation is elliptical and convoluted, while Kaddish for a Child Not Born and Fatelessness had been forcefully direct. It deals in postmodern layers of textuality and reality, and as far as I can tell, leaves many of these issues open.

The more undisputed aspects of the plot: B., so named for the tattoo on his thigh given to him when he was born as a baby in Auschwitz, has committed suicide. His friend Kingbitter goes through his papers and finds a play that appears to anticipate what he is going through right then, a play by B. taking place after B.’s suicide, describing how his acquaintances sift through his papers, looking for a mysterious, unfinished, vanished, liquidated novel.

From there things become unclear. It is not evident that the novel ever emerges from the play/novel that B. was writing, or that, indeed, the novel was ever beyond it in the first place. Snippets of dialogue in script form alternate with narratives from several characters that appear to continue the story of the script. B.’s mysterious novel (or is it a play?) appears and disappears: its existence is revealed as a surprise, then a lover says that she has burnt it at B.’s request. Yet it is this novel, or parts of it, that appear to constitute the text of Liquidation itself. The story of the liquidated novel, in the words of B.’s wife, is similar to that of Kertesz’s Kaddish For a Child Not Born: a man who cannot allow himself a child in the wake of Auschwitz and so torments his wife and drives her to divorce. But Kingbitter himself observes that this is nearly B.’s story as well.

To summarize: the suicide B. has written a piece (call it A) about his acquaintances losing track of a piece (B) he wrote about his own life and the lives of those around him. A and B are quite similar, though partially complementary, as the contents of B are disputed and change over the course of Liquidation between a reflection of the reality depicted in A to a wish-fulfillment of the emotions that B., Kingbitter, and others feel robbed of, owing to the Holocaust. And A and B bear some resemblance to Liquidation itself, which is, of course, raising all of these ambiguities.

To what end is this indefiniteness? It follows from the Beckett quote, which is itself a chronicle of writing and erasure; Molloy describes the shrinking of the world to the size of a pen setting ink to paper, and the collapse of the distinction between subject and chronicler. Kertesz’s portrayal of this idea comes close to the end, when Kingbitter observes some “down-and-outs”:

They were storyless people, and that notion awakened a tacit sympathy in Kingbitter. He was well aware, of course, that each of them had their own sad story that had brought them to this, but Kingbitter supposed that by the time they had been brought to this, those stories had long lost any significance (if such stories can have any significance at all).

A common thread in Kertesz’s work is the absence of the ability to construct a story for one’s self. Liquidation is about the endeavor to do so in spite of it. We are given storyless survivors, and B.’s shifting writing is his attempt to give narrative shape to lives that have been robbed of it. He wishes to write out the story of his friends, and to write them out of the Holocaust. The attempt fails; it collapses in on itself because the writing ultimately detaches itself from the reality of the situation. At the end of Liquidation, we have only more confusion because every sentence has taken us further away from the people themselves, into the false raining night.

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