Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book 159, Hungary: "Fatelessness" by Imre Kertész

So, while bumbling through the train systems of Spain and Portugal, I've been reading this:

It's a novel about the Jewish Holocaust. By an actual concentration camp survivor. Huge bummer. 

And yet and yet and yet... it is worth reading. Kertész is a Nobel Lit Prizewinner, after all (they sure do churn 'em out in central Europe), so this is a tale with a difference, not simply autobiographical and documentarian, but also a commentary on human existence - how we are all, in a way, stuck in concentration camps of our own. (Yes, I know that trivialises the experience of the holocaust. But he has the right to trivialise it if he wants to.)

It follows the experience of a 15 year-old, György Köves, who's living in the Budapest ghetto, viewing the events of his father's deportation to a "work camp", his own placement in a teen bricklaying brigade, and everyone's getting rounded up and placed on trains to Auschwitz, with such a dispassionate, slightly bewildered voice that it startles you - there's no Sturm und Drang at all, no panic, not even when describing the days inside the locked train carriage with nothing to drink and nowhere to piss or shit, the old and the sick dying at their feet, then the separation of healthy and unhealthy into gas chambers and genuine showers, and then the realisation of the survivors as to what had happened, how they had to their surprise been transformed into convicts, as if it were an absurd, laughable magic trick rather than a crime against humanity...

I've no idea how much of this really happened to Kertész (and does it matter?) but the tail end of it involves him genuinely being allowed to recuperate from an infected knee in a concentration camp in Zeitz, which surprised me - I didn't realise any Jews got real medical treatment then.

Also a surprise: how he shows the mingling and hierarchies between different concentration camp internees (Communists, gypsies, etc, who usually got to keep their hair and were a good deal more handsome and human-looking than the starved and shaven Jews) and the divisions between the Jews, who were from dozens of different countries (differentiated by the letters on their yellow triangles - U was for Hungary), and who couldn't even communicate with a common language, not Hebrew since that was a dead language for everyone concerned back then, and even some Yiddish-speaking bastards who refused to interact with other Jews in the camp, telling György, "If you don't speak Yiddish, you must be a Gentile," to which György replies, "Then why I am I here?"

And the horrible way his Hungarianness keeps intersecting with his Jewish identity - how Hungarians treated him with both honour and inhumanity, even trying to persuade those stuck in train carriages to give up their valuables, since, "After all, we're all Hungarians"; how one Polish ghetto kid in the hospital managed to speak to him in Hungarian with great unwillingness, because he didn't like Hungarians, and when György reflects, he realises, yeah, he doesn't have any reason to like Hungarians either.

So when he makes it back as a survivor, all he can feel is detachment, and, when questioned by a journalist, hatred. And yet he can't call what he experienced hell. All he did was survive, and even his Jewish family who didn't get deported can't understand him, can't abide him...

Yeah, it's a mess. But it's just the beginning. Together with Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, this forms a trilogy. Do I have the spirit to read them all? Not likely. But I'm glad I read this one.

I mean, I've read and watched lots of holocaust accounts - The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler's List, Friedrich, even the clownish Life Is Beautiful... I've been to Yad Vashem, too.

But this is a new way to tell the human tragedy, by downplaying it, by making it universal, inescapable, complex.

Yes. Every horror is different. Yes. The complications must be told. 

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: "Before all else, he declared, "you must put the horrors behind you." Increasingly amazed, I asked, "Why should I?" "In order," he replied, "to be able t live," at which Uncle Fleischmann nodded and added, "Live freely," at which the other old boy nodded and added, "One cannot start a new life under such a burden," and I had t admit he did have a point. Except I didn't quite understand how they could wish for something that was impossible, and indeed I made the comment that what had happened had happened, and anyway, when it came down to it, I could not give orders to my memory. I would only be able to start a new life, I ventured, if I were to be reborn or if some affliction, disease, or something of the sort were to affect my mind, which they surely didn't wish upon me, I hoped.

Next book: Peter Pišťanek's Rivers of Babylon, from Slovakia.

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