[WARNING: SPOILERS, of sorts]
Let’s get the first thing clear. I like holocaust literature – not because I enjoy the subject matter but because in it I find the most elemental, universal truths about humanity. Depending on the book, this literature contains various combinations of bravery and cowardice, cruelty and kindness, love and hate, self-sacrifice, self-preservation and betrayal, resilience and resignation, and well, all those qualities that make up humanity and its converse, inhumanity. I have by no means read all that is out there but here are some that have moved me: Anne Frank’s The diary of a young girl (of course) and Anne Holm’s I am David, from my youth, and then books like Martin Amis’ Time’s arrow, Bernhard Schlink’s The reader, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief, and Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the river. There are gaps, though, in my reading, such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s ark (I did see the film), the works of Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. I have, however, just added Imre Kertèsz’s Fateless to my list of books read.
Kertèsz adds a new spin to the universal truths explored by these books – it’s what he describes (in my 1992 translation anyhow) as “stubbornness” which seems to me to mean “resilience” or a determination to survive, and even to have, if possible, little wins against the system.
Anyhow, first the plot. The novel takes place over the last year of the war and concerns Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, who, one day, is suddenly called off a bus, along with all other Jews on the bus and transported to Auschwitz, and then Buchenwald, Zeitz and back to Buchenwald, before returning home at war’s end. It chronicles his experiences, his thinking, and the impact on him of his experience. He begins as the archetypal naive narrator…but by the end, though his tone has changed little, he is no longer naive. This is rather beautifully achieved as we see his youthful application of logic being changed into something more cynical and survival focused.
Gyorgy speaks with a strange sense of detachment borne, to start with, of an apparent unawareness of what exactly was happening to him and a disbelief that anything untoward would happen. And so, in the beginning, as events unfold he describes them as “natural” because of course, when they got to Auschwitz, it was sensible to inspect each person to see who was physically fit and capable of working. He didn’t know then what would happen to those not found physically fit. The horror gradually builds as reality sets in and he goes about making it through each day – through his share of beatings, the reduced food rations, and all the other deprivations that make up concentration camp life. In the first part of the book he uses the term “naturally” to mean some sort of normal logic but by the end it comes to mean, as he explains to a journalist who asks him why he keeps using the word for things that aren’t natural, that these things were natural in a concentration camp.
Early on in his captivity he says that they approached their life (and work) “with the best of intentions” but they soon discover that these “best of intentions” do not bring about any kindness from their overseers, and so his attitude to getting on, to surviving starts to change. As he starts to physically weaken, become emaciated and develop infections, he observes that “my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it”. Always dispassionate, always matter-of-fact, while describing the most heart-rending things.
Towards the end, he is placed in a hospital ward and there he is treated better and, even, with a certain amount of kindness. This in its way is as shocking to him as the cruel beatings he experienced at Zeitz. He can see no logic, “no reason for its being, nothing rational or familiar”. He can only understand kindness in terms of the giver receiving “some pleasure” from it or having some “personal need” satisfied. Never is there any sense that altruism might come into play. His view of “justice” is based very much on survival. He says, when he is spared, “everything happened according to the rules of justice … I was able to accept a situation more easily when it concerned someone else’s bad luck rather than my own … This was the lesson I learned”.
And so, in the end he returns home, and finds it hard to explain to people just what happened and how he now views life. He describes getting through his time as “taking one step after another”, focusing just on the moment. He implies that if he had known his fate he would have focused on time passing – a far more soul-destroying activity than concentrating on getting through each day “step by step”. This brings us to the fate/fateless bit. He says at the end that:
if there is a fate, there is no freedom … if, on the other hand, there is freedom, then there is no fate. That is … that is, we ourselves are fate.
I find this a little hard to grasp but he seems to be saying that we are free to make our own choices, even in a concentration camp – we are not fated but make our own fate. He was and is not prepared to accept any other approach to life. But life will not be easy:
I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live … I have to continue my uncontinuable life … There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?).
And yet, at the very end of the book, he says “and even back there [in the concentration camp], in the shadow of the chimneys, there was something resembling happiness”. Wow! This is an astonishing book – it charts horrors with a calmness that is quite shocking, and it is particularly shocking not because Gyorgy is unfeeling but because he can’t quite grasp what is happening to him. This is the fundamental irony of the book, and the fundamental truth of a naive narrator: we the reader know exactly how it is even as Gyorgy tries to make sense of it using logic and reason. I must read this book again – and preferably the newer more highly regarded 2004 translation by Tom Wilkinson.
(Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson)