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Bill curates: Imre Kertesz’s Fateless or Fatelessness

July 24, 2020

Bill curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit.

Sue reads some striking books and writes some (many!) striking reviews, of which this is one. I’m not sure I agree with her about Holocaust fiction, but I do appreciate that people who experienced the Nazi concentration camps, or their after-effects in the case of, say, Lily Brett, must write, just as we must read to honour their tribulations, and that a fictionalised account may be the way they choose to do this. Imre Kertész is another Nobel Prize winner I was unaware of. He died in 2016.
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My original post titled: “Imre Kertesz, Fateless or Fatelessness”

[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 washappening 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.

Imre Kertész
Fateless
Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson
Northwestern University Press, 1992 (orig. ed 1975, in Hungarian)
191 pp.
ISBN: 9780810110496

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I looked in my bookshelves when Bill sent through this Bill Curates post, and discovered that the edition I own is the later Tom Wilkinson one. I must have bought it with the intention of reading it, but I haven’t yet. Oh, the dreams of an everyday reader!

Bill will, I hope, explain his introductory comment regarding Holocaust fiction. We’d love to know what you think – and/or read.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2020 10:28 am

    Without going on at length, I have the same opinion about Holocaust stories as I do about race and gender – the opinions of people who ‘weren’t there’ leave me cold. Old white guys have privileged access to publishing and they crowd out the people it would make more sense for us to listen to. On top of that I don’t think the Holocaust should be used as a background for out titillation or entertainment. But, Kertesz was there. If you want to know what it was like, and we all must know as it comes closer and closer to recurring in Refugee concentration camps, then read him.

    • July 24, 2020 4:48 pm

      I look forward to seeing what else you have this opinion about Bill! is there a point where you think imagination is OK? I think I can see why you like SF, because there it has to be pretty much all imagination as there’s no-one who can say it wasn’t like that?

    • Sue permalink
      July 24, 2020 7:00 pm

      I agree with you on this one Bill – I have close (elderly) friends who lived through the holocaust and tell me their stories about it – it doesn’t seem to me to be to be something that people who didn’t go through it should write novels about.

      • July 24, 2020 7:07 pm

        And yet, and yet, Sue – there are different ways of writing about something like this? I’m thinking of Martin Amis’ Times arrow. He didn’t experience the Holocaust but this novel is a powerful statement about it.

        • Sue permalink
          July 25, 2020 9:22 am

          I’ve been thinking about it Sue (sometimes I need a while!) – and I think it’s what Bill says above – that stories about the holocaust by people who haven’t been through it just don’t appeal to me. I don’t believe writers shouldn’t write about things they haven;t experienced – writers are meant to use their imaginations – so I have been wondering why I have this opinion about the holocaust in particular…

          I think it’s because I grew up with Jewish neighbours/friends and heard their stories from very young, & my parents were determined we kids would grow up being aware of anti-Semitism and racism (at least they had more enlightened views on these matters, unlike the education of girls!) & so stories by people who haven’t been through it themselves just don’t work for me. I’ve heard the real stories and nothing else compares. I know this seems inconsistent!

        • July 25, 2020 9:40 am

          I think we are all inconsistent Sue … that’s what makes us interesting. I knew many Jewish people from wartime Europe too in my teens and early twenties, but interestingly, most of our interactions were about the present. They were amazing people, and have made a big impression on me. (PS I’m glad your parents were enlightened about that!)

    • Neil@kallaroo permalink
      July 24, 2020 8:02 pm

      I really struggle with this whole argument “you can’t write about that because you aren’t one/haven’t been there”. Putting on my logician’s hat, I push this argument to one extreme: no male can write female characters, and no female can write male characters. Clearly this is absurd. But I appreciate that the story told by folk who weren’t there is automatically filtered, regardless of how hard they try to remove the filters. Even a second-hand account such as The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris has problems. But, putting my logician’s hat on again, if we only allow people who were there to write about something, who writes about the events when all those people have died?

      I have no easy answers. I just struggle.

      • July 24, 2020 10:00 pm

        Yes, Neil … exactly. You’ve said it very well. I think we should always think about filters, but I hate denying writers the right to write what they feel inspired to write. We readers can decide, of course, whether or not we want to read them.

        • July 25, 2020 1:11 am

          I never argue ‘you can’t write that’, though I do argue ‘you shouldn’t write that’ in relation to white people writing as though they were Black, and anyone re-imagining the Holocaust. And I personally ignore men writing as women.

          i

        • July 25, 2020 9:35 am

          Semantics, Bill! But I take your distinction. So, you don’t like Tess of the D’Urbervilles? So many books are about men and women. Interestingly, though, Austen famously steers clear of focusing on men. I think it’s true that in her novels she rarely, if ever, has scenes featuring men conversing only with men, though she regularly has women conversing with each other. No wonder you like her!

  2. Neil@kallaroo permalink
    July 24, 2020 8:05 pm

    LOL. Ah, well done, Bill. It’s annoying, isn’t it, that you can’t get notification without adding a comment (and even more annoying when you forget to tick the box).

  3. July 25, 2020 12:54 am

    I have read Primo Levi and Schindler’s Ark but I have stopped reading holocaust literature because it is just so harrowing.

    • July 25, 2020 9:31 am

      It sure can be Elizabeth (Pink Roses?) Schindler’s ark is another written by someone who wasn’t there, isn’t it?

    • Neil@kallaroo permalink
      July 25, 2020 2:10 pm

      Agreed. Or, by extension, life in a Russian gulag. Still harrowing!

  4. Sue permalink
    July 25, 2020 6:22 pm

    I am inconsistent Sue, I admit it. I loved Schindler’s List and The Book Thief, perhaps because both came from the authors knowing people who had been directly impacted by the Nazi regime… I don’t mind men writing women characters or vice versa, and I don’t like censoring writers… oh dear I am a mass of contradictions! We humans can be an impossible lot! Sometimes I think I overthink…help!

    • July 25, 2020 7:50 pm

      LOL, as I said, I think we all are (except perhaps Bill – I can usually read him on these matters!), Sue, so I’ll forgive you!

  5. July 25, 2020 8:28 pm

    This is an excellent review, I am so glad Bill gave it a second viewing. Although, it is harrowing to read books about the holocaust, I feel we can learn a lot from people, who actually lived through it and about what it takes to avoid losing all hope in such a hopeless situation. Did you read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning?

    Actually, I agree with Kertesz’ views on fate and freedom. If you believe in fate, it is so easy to give up, because what is meant to be will be… But if you don’t believe in fate, you can make an active choice and that feeling may ultimately help to keep you alive.

    On a different note, I absolutely love the cover!

    • July 25, 2020 9:04 pm

      Thanks so much Stargazer. I’m really glad Bill chose it too, partly because reading it again clarified for me the fate and freedom issue, along the lines you describe.

      I also love your assessment that books like this can teach you about what it takes to avoid losing hope. It’s astonishing how some people managed to survive mentally.

      I have heard of Frankl’s book, but haven’t read it.

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