New York City
March 2003

Imre Kertész—Nobelist in Literature, 2000
by Lillian Shapiro

His writing appears to be even and calm but as the writing proceeds it becomes more difficult to accept in that way. What he tells us has been inspired by a sentence made by someone who was at a meeting that he was attending. This man said, “Auschwitz cannot be explained.” Kertész has written a trilogy of which the first two, Fateless and Kaddish for a Child Not Born are in print in English. The third, Fiasco, has yet to be translated and I look forward to seeing it here. These novels are written to contradict that observation and emphasize that not only can it be explained but it must be explained.

This author was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1929, in a Jewish family but one in which their Jewishness was not very inherent in their lives, a fact that surely confused a young boy about his relationship with the fellow prisoners he met. Imre was deported to Auschwitz in 1944, transferred to Buchenwald in 1945 and liberated the following year. In Fateless, the first novel of the trilogy, the author describes the events which a young adolescent experiences and shares with many others, young and old, whose only “crime” was that they were Hungarian Jews and who were in no way activists or rebels.

When he is first taken into custody it is to do some sort of work and he thinks that it might be interesting. Then details begin to drip out like a slow leaking of blood only to explode into death and destruction. The description of the inedible and minute amounts of food, smallest amounts of indescribable scraps. The description of what passes for sanitation is disgusting and meant to dehumanize and bathing is also below standards that might be applied to even animals—but would not be by owners who had regard for those animals.

Surprisingly this young boy does make some relationships (can these be called friendships under the circumstances that exist?) but such delicate relationships are slowly made and cannot be maintained afterward when some of these prisoners (some fortunate few) are released. The “hero” of this unbearably difficult-to-read novel in any way but slowly makes an effort to accept that such things can happen. It is terrible to know that such events happened not only in German concentration camps but also in countries that treat their own in that way and in some countries even worse today.

The second title in the trilogy is entitled Kaddish for a Child Not Born. In these years of abortion as a political, rather than medical, subject, the reader’s mind leaps, perhaps, to that as still another attack on a population under siege. Kaddish is the Jewish word meaning a prayer in memory and mourning for the dead. In this second novel Kertész has his main character reveal an ambivalence about marriage as well as parenthood. The husband refers to his wife with various limiting descriptions such as in “my future wife” or “my former wife” and in other tentative descriptions such as “my wife (who was not my wife then and is no longer my wife now).” It cannot surprise us a great deal to read of this man’s reaction to his wife’s suggestion that they have a child. His shouted reply—several times—is NO! NO! NO! He makes it clear that he will not, cannot, be a father of a child who would suffer the treatment he had endured in the concentration camp, and perhaps even more compelling than that, the relationship with his father when he, himself, was a child.

One feels that Kaddish must be said for the narrator himself since his experiences have robbed him of the ability to love or live with the possibility of friendship—in fact, a death of some kind. The second book brings dramatically to the fore the emotional and psychological impact on the Auschwitz “graduate.”

His books are difficult to read because of their unblinking examination of man’s lack of human feeling. Sentences that go on and on without pause reflect the unquiet heart of the protagonist. They are also difficult to forget. One celebrates the award of the Nobel which validates his work—in fact, his very being. Read and remember.#

Lillian L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in NYC Schools, is the author of Fiction for Youth.

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