Kertész—Nobelist in Literature, 2000
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
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.#
L. Shapiro, former supervisor of high school libraries in NYC
Schools, is the author of Fiction for Youth.
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