Imre Kertész, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, chose first person for his semi-autobiographical Holocaust novel Fatelessness, published in 1975 as Fateless. In 1944, aged fourteen, he was one of the 440,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz, where – warned by one of the Jewish “convicts” – he claimed to be sixteen and was thus saved from instant death. He was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, after which he went back home “like a stray dog.”
His protagonist, Gyuri Koves, is a fourteen-year-old boy rounded up the same year, who also lied about his age, and it is he who tells us his impressions of Budapest, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and the labour camp in Zeitz. He is a logically-minded, earnest, naive schoolboy and although one reviewer calls him “callous,” I’m not sure I would agree. The whole book focuses on his step-by-step attempts to make sense of what he sees, to make sense, in effect, of the senseless. He rationalizes, qualifies and justifies, and it is the ironic contrast between his limitations as a reporter and our knowledge of the holocaust that makes the story so chilling.
Fatelessness was thirteen years in the making, each sentence worked and reworked until it was faithful to Gyuri’s particular truth. Given some of the parallels between Gyuri’s imprisonment and Kertész’s, was the choice of first person point of view inevitable? I have no way of knowing.
Gyuri’s choice of details anchors the narrative to his own reality. In Budapest Jews are made to wear yellow stars and “there was a big shortage of yellow fabric, naturally.” Despite over-crowding, thirst and hunger, he has “the consciousness of a goal” on the train trip to Auschwitz. He describes the garden path of red gravel, the cabbage beds, a soldier’s beautifully braided white leather lash – and by dusk, understands the line-ups of the fit and unfit, the gas, the cloying smell of the chimneys which makes him “somewhat queasy;” understands, moreover, that the killing has been going on for years.
He is soon sent on to Buchenwald, where the reception is “less cordial,” and then to the small rural Zeitz labour camp, where he does his best to be a good prisoner and a diligent worker; he is helped in this by an older prisoner, Bandi, who teaches him such dodges as staying near the end of the food line so he gets the sludge in the bottom of the vat. To witness this adolescent boy’s inevitable deterioration because of over-work, starvation and beatings is dreadful: within three months he is “a decrepit old man” unable to free his clogs from the mud or lift a twenty-pound bag of cement.
For reasons unclear to me – perhaps related to the Germans’ knowledge that the war is lost – he is returned to Buchenwald where, in hospital, he recovers. After the camp’s liberation, he makes it back to Budapest, to various encounters with “the ignorant:” strangers and relatives ignorant (and how could they be otherwise?) of what he has been though.
In order to bring us closer to the oppressive routines of camp life, which the prisoners could escape only in their minds or by death, Kertész used a strictly linear time-line, disdaining to focus only on dramatic events, disdaining also to infuse the novel with outrage. He claims that he experienced, at certain times in the camps, happiness of an intensity impossible in ordinary life; claims also that survival is the only possible freedom when you have been robbed of your fate by powers against which you are powerless.
Kertész survived and Gyuri survived, both of them entering a post-incarceration future, step by step, hour by hour, day by day. Both of them fated to remember. Gyuri, having re-met some of his family in Budapest, feels a readiness “to continue my uncontinuable life.” Such a continuation, Kertész says in his Nobel lecture, will be one in which “…the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.”