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Kohtalottomuus by Imre Kertész

Kohtalottomuus (original 1975; edition 2003)

by Imre Kertész, Outi Hassi

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1,441545,209 (4.08)155
Authors:Imre Kertész
Other authors:Outi Hassi
Info:Helsingissä Otava 2003.
Collections:Your library, Luetut

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Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (Author) (1975)


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Showing 1-5 of 37 (next | show all)
I don't ever really know what to say about books set during the Holocaust. This one is about a rather naive and initially thoughtless, unobservant boy who gets packed off first to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, then a smaller labor camp, then back to Buchenwald. He becomes, for lack of a better word, institutionalized during this time, isolated from his captors (of course) but also from his fellow prisoners who either don't see him as sufficiently Jewish (neither does he see himself so) or who dislike Hungarians (a view the boy claims to agree with). He is, throughout the book, unemotional, with his thoughts expressed with an increasing stiltedness verging on a hesitant formality. The best (that is, most horrific and well-crafted) thing about the book is the slow creep of realization on the boy's part--he thought he was going to a better life; but of course the reader knows better and waits for the details of extermination camps to slowly coalesce before the boy's eyes. The worst thing about the book is that I felt little connection to the character, which surprises me, but is likely due to the function of the prose and the distance the boy has even from himself, as well as the pure chance of his survival--there is nothing heroic or even particularly sympathetic about him (although there is much sympathetic about his condition naturally), there are in fact deficiencies (he expresses no real fear or concern for his parents or step-mother). This is hyper-realistic I suppose, much like the chimneys of Auschwitz were solid, real, genuine--a point that kept coming back to me as I compared this boy to Holden Caulfield (since I read The Catcher in the Rye recently), who would have found all the non-phoniness he could handle in the Germans' camps. I recommend it, and actually give it 4.5 stars, but there's little to nothing in it to counter the horror of the subject matter, even as that horror is muted by the boy's detachment. ( )
  Michael.Xolotl | Nov 11, 2015 |
I picked this book before a trip to Eastern Europe, visiting Budapest, Krakow and Prague. We wanted to focus part of our trip on the Holocaust and planned visits to Auschwitz, the Jewish quarter in Prague and other important historic sights. This book added a depth to our visit that gave us some additional insight about the horror of that time. The story is about a 14 year old boy from Budapest, Georg Koves, who is seized on his way to work to be sent to Auschwitz. This story is told in Georg's voice and its tone is very matter-of-fact. Although he sees that people are being separated to be killed, he doesn't display the expected horror or panic. And in the same even tone, he talks about the death of people around him, his gradual starvation and the daily work grind. Although the tone is calm and even, the facts are horrible and it makes this period of history seem even more cruel. An excellent book of a somber period in our history. ( )
  jmoncton | Aug 1, 2015 |
Gabi Toth gave me this for my 60th birthday. On first sight a strange choice of novel as a gift to a novice sexagenarian.
From my email to John Paine:
"The one recent novel which will stick in my memory is the work of a Hungarian writer called Imre Kertesz. He won the Nobel prize for literature. The book is called ‘Fateless’ and tells the story of Gyuri and his journey to and through Auschwitz. What distinguishes the narrative is the way the narrator makes sense - or tries to - of what he sees and goes through. I hesitate to recommend it because of the subject matter but what is foregrounded is the narrator’s stance rather than the awful familiar events. Whatever. The book has lingered in my mind after I closed it for the last time this morning and I cannot say that about most of the stuff I read. Because I get books from the library I am liberated from the obligation to read to the end books which don’t grab me. Fateless was given to me by Liz’s eldest son’s girlfriend who is Hungarian and comes from Budapest. Quite the thing really to be given a book from her culture and to feel that in some way the young lady has a programme to educate me! " ( )
  adrianburke | Jul 15, 2014 |
Original post at Book Rhapsody.


Happiness in Hatred

Recently, some of my bookish friends did a group read of The Catcher in the Rye, that novel where we read about the 17-year-old Holden. Just then, I’m reminded of Fatelessness, hence, this delayed write-up. I remember its 14-year-old narrator nicknamed Gyuri (I can’t recall the name just now due to the diacritical marks on it), which by comparison, makes Holden a wimp.

Certainly, the two have different issues, and although it is not fair to compare the whining Holden and the hungry Gyuri, I cannot help it. And when I think of the latter, I remind myself that I am still fortunate to have experienced only unrelenting typhoons, occasional budgeting-induced headaches, bad customer service at book stores, and none of those horrible things that survivors of the second world war relate to each other or worse, none of the horrors that one survives from concentration camps.

Do you see now see why Gyuri becomes Superman when placed beside Holden or any other teenage drama king or queen? If you are not convinced, here are a few lines that broke my dam of tears that I had to shut my book and stop reading to make room for breathing.

Here and there, more suspect plumes of smoke mingled with more benign vapors, while a familiar-sounding clatter drifted up faintly my way from somewhere, like bells in dreams, and as I gazed down across the scene, I caught sight of a procession of bearers, poles on shoulders, groaning under the weight of steaming cauldrons, and from far off I recognized, there could be no doubting it, a whiff of turnip soup in the acrid air. A pity, because it must have been that spectacle, that aroma, which cut through my numbness to trigger an emotion, the growing waves of which were able to squeeze, even from my dried-out eyes, a few warmer drops amid the dankness that was soaking my face. Despite all deliberation, sense, insight, and sober reason, I could not fail to recognize within myself the furtive and yet-–ashamed as it might be so to say, of its irrationality–-increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.

A background: Gyuri is nearly dying of severe hunger and extreme labor, and his senses of touch, sight, and hearing have become incapable of reacting to any stimuli due to conditions that one can barely imagine in such a place and time. And yet, the smell of turnip soup, which in my opinion doesn’t seem to be so appetizing, stirs his stoic and decrepit body back to life despite the irony of a beautiful concentration camp.

Gyuri is plucked out from the normal life when one day, he is told by his school teacher that he needs to go home. He, his parents, and other Jews in their town are sent to different camps, and this I find strange for I could never understand why this hatred against them is so strong. You see, I have yet to encounter a full-blooded Jew here in our country, and despite the research that I did regarding the matter of the Jews, I will never fully understand it as much as Westerners would not understand why we couldn’t really care too much about the ongoing collapse of economies since my people are so used to hard times that recessions could hardly hurt us.

Anyway, Gyuri’s story is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own experiences during the war. It is told with a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone bereft of sentimentality that makes it only more piercing and more provocative. It seems like the tale of the human spirit trouncing the adversities thrown at it, but it is more of surviving the odds with chance and circumstance. Also, it touches upon the themes of happiness and freedom.

The narrator talks about finding happiness in the hellish camps. This seems like a lie, and yet, instead of the narrator burying the memories of those days, he cherishes them and holds them dear to his heart. It looks like a case of Stockholm syndrome. Being detained in camps for a couple of years, he has learned to deal with the conditions and make the most out of it. He looks forward to that moldy lump of bread that he would have to make to do for the next three days and focuses his energy on mindless labor to keep himself happy.

Or it’s more like resigning his fate to these circumstances. Abandoning any hope of escape might be the better solution in surviving than fervently struggling to keep one’s sanity intact, and there must be truth in this irony as we would later see at the last chapters of the novel. Gyuri achieves a sense of peace despite the senseless torture that his mind and body are subjected to, and when the war comes to an end, he is unshackled and let go on his own. He goes back to their town and knocks on their old apartment door, only to realize that the new tenants regard him with caution. He is now free, and he doesn’t know what to do with his regained independence.

And thus, the question of fate and freedom is brought up: is it possible for the two to coexist? If fate is a force that controls the course of our lives, then what role does freedom have? Fate will decide where we come from, but it is necessary that we have freedom to make our choices and weave the pattern of our lives.

These are the initial thoughts that I have on the top of my head as I try my best to recall the events in the novel, but really, the question is hardly resolvable. Questions about intrinsic ideals only end up being over-mired with more questions, and this write-up is merely an attempt for me to seek out my own and others’ considered opinions.

As Gyuri ponders about fate and freedom, we find out that we, as a generation bred after the war, might never be able to understand what he had gone through at the camps. Hunger, disease, and death have become normal to him. He was able to make himself happy in a place uprooted from hatred. When he goes back to the life he used to own, he is baffled at the strangeness of it. He confronts life with his new philosophical insights tested on new waters, and finally wonders whether the concentration camp is hell or not. ( )
  angusmiranda | Jun 10, 2014 |
By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it.

Sometimes when I read, I find one idea in a book right before I finish it, and then after immediately picking up another book, I discover a similar idea within the first few pages. I love when this happens. Often these ideas are basic ingredients of the universal soup we as humans all swim in: discovery of the world around us, time's passage, self-awareness, discerning our place in the world—these types of shared experiences that transcend culture and history. This happened with this book and My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard.

The quote above comes at the end of Kertész's novel. It is the starting edge of his understanding of what has happened to him. He has literally just returned to Budapest from Buchenwald, after spending his thirteenth year of life in various concentration camps during the Shoah.

(I don't know how to write this review so it's probably going to be all jumbled up. There are a lot of ways to approach this book. It was Kertész's first novel and he has said that it is not particularly autobiographical, though both the narrator György and the writer Kertész were imprisoned at ages 13-14 in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Kertész has said that the film of the same name, of which he wrote the script, is more autobiographical than the novel. I have not seen the film. But this is likely unimportant. The point is he knew of what he wrote.)

I feel a pull toward starting at the end. There are reasons for this. Kertész delves farther below the surface later in the book. When György arrives back in Budapest, a reporter badgers him as he makes his way home to see his family. The reporter wants György's story (though he is not up front about being a reporter); he wants to know what it was like to live in a concentration camp, he wants György to tell him this. At one point, György tells him it's possible to be bored in a concentration camp, even Auschwitz-Birkenau ("the death factory"), given certain circumstances. The reporter wants him to explain how this is possible. It is here where György begins to talk about time and how it helps. He speaks of how, when you arrive by train at a camp's station, "everything becomes clear only gradually, step by step, on schedule." And how when you are coming to understand everything in a gradual way, you don't remain idle at any moment, you are continually adjusting and readjusting to each new step. That is your business to attend to. However, "if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it's possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it." On the other hand, György explains, you must still find a way to pass the time. Some prisoners survived in camps for 4, 6, or even 12 years. And these people had to find a way to occupy the time, which may have been what helped them, he says, for if all of that time fell on them at once, they may not have survived, either physically or mentally.

On page 15 of My Struggle, Knausgaard writes this:

As your perspective of the world increases not only is the pain it inflicts on you less but also its meaning. Understanding the world requires you to take a certain distance from it. Things that are too small to see with the naked eye, such as molecules and atoms, we magnify. Things that are too large, such as cloud formations, river deltas, constellations, we reduce. At length we bring it within the scope of our senses and we stabilize it with fixer. When it has been fixed we call it knowledge. Throughout our childhood and teenage years, we strive to attain the correct distance to objects and phenomena. We read, we learn, we experience, we make adjustments. Then one day we reach the point where all the necessary distances have been set, all the necessary systems have been put in place. This is when time begins to pick up speed. It no longer meets any obstacles, everything is set, time races through our lives, the days pass by in a flash and before we know what is happening we are forty, fifty, sixty...Meaning requires content, content requires time, time requires resistance. Knowledge is distance, knowledge is stasis and the enemy of meaning.

György is only 13 when his bus is stopped on the outskirts of Budapest and he is removed with the other Jews on board, eventually ending up on a train to Birkenau. He is at a point in his life where he is still in the process of gauging distances; he is in flux and he is still absorbing content, much has yet to be fixed as knowledge. He retains a certain childlike naivete. At one early point, when still trying to understand what is happening, he says, "I think we should have been studying about Auschwitz all along, if they had tried to explain everything openly, honestly, intelligently. During the four years at school I did not hear a single word about this place. Still, of course, I realized that it would have been embarrassing, and I guess it really wasn't part of our general education." When he first arrives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, he keeps commenting on all the convicts around, referring to them as "the inhabitants" and to himself and his fellow new arrivals as "us free people," not realizing until he is shaved, showered, and given his own "convict" uniform, that he is now also an inhabitant. He attributes this to the "understandably deceptive tendencies of human nature."

More than a few reviews of this book hinge on critiques of both the style and content, complaining of unemotional descriptions and uneventful plot, sometimes with a reviewer's caveat of feeling guilt over thinking a book dealing with the Shoah is boring. I am not sure what these people expected. While this is a novel, the subject matter is real and it is not there for our entertainment.

I can think of several reasons why György narrates the way he does. One reason is fully evident in his post-liberation explanation of time's passage in the camp, as I have already mentioned. The experience did not fall on him all at once; it was gradually revealed to him in an ordered series of steps. The book is written from the standpoint of György experiencing these revelations over time. It is not written from the standpoint of a boy who knows exactly what he is getting into. As the novel progresses, as he is shipped from one camp to another and back again, he comes farther along in knowing what to expect, though he is still sometimes surprised and confused by what is happening. Some things become knowledge, are held fast by fixer, while others remain mysterious, for "who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp?"

The second reason for the style that occurred to me relates to the first, but has more to do with Kertész's desire to communicate the everyday business of living in a concentration camp. About halfway through the novel, György has been moved to another camp: "Only in Zeitz did I realize that captivity also has its gray, everyday days, or, rather, that true captivity is really a row of gray, everyday days." Even while still at Birkenau, as he relates to the reporter, he speaks of being bored and how "we waited and we waited, and as I come to think of it, we waited for nothing to happen."

The third reason for this unemotional narration reads to me like detachment as a coping mechanism. His body and mind separate so that his body is a mere husk that he begins to observe from afar ("I could no longer glance at my body without some feeling of disgust or alienation"). There is a torturous protracted erosion of his will to fight off assaults on his body, e.g. the lice feeding on his wounds, to which he at first feebly objects, only to eventually feel "almost relieved."

I doubtless existed, even if I was only sputtering along with the flame turned entirely down. But still something within me burned—the flame of life, as they used to say—in other words, my body was still there. I was thoroughly familiar with it, only somehow I myself no longer lived inside it.

A final potential contributing factor to György's detached narration is that in many ways he feels like an outsider in the camps, and I think this isolation comes through in his voice. He does not experience much camaraderie with those around him. Early on he loses close contact with his friends from Budapest, eventually even losing the ability to recognize them because of how all of their bodies are changing, their skin shrinking and turning yellow. Though he is a Jew, he does not speak Yiddish and is disparaged by some of the other more pious Jews in the camps. He feels ambiguous about his Jewishness and is not sure how it factors into his identity. He is also mocked and shunned for being Hungarian, which he generally accepts as deserving, even confessing at one point to a fellow patient in the sick ward who reports disliking Hungarians "that he had a point and that generally I found little reason for liking them either."

One way György copes with living in the camps is by rationalizing the behavior of his captors. At one point, after receiving a brutal beating for dropping a cement sack, he is carefully observed during the remainder of his work detail by the man who beat him, on whose face György perceives a sort of pride, "justifiably so," at the fact that György does not drop another sack.

And in the final analysis I had to recognize that this proved him right. On the other hand, at the end of that first day I felt that some irreparable damage had been done to me; from that point on I was convinced that every morning would be the last morning I would wake up, that every step would be my last, that every move would be my last. Still, at least for the moment, I was able to go on.

Kertész published this novel in 1975. No doubt by then he had processed a lot more about his experiences in concentration camps than the narrator of this novel had by the time of his liberation. Though this is fictionalized, I would imagine it took significant measured control to write in this way, to describe György's experiences in the way that he received them as a 13-year-old boy, not in the way he would have reflected on them a year, five years, or 20 years later.

When I was maybe 11 or 12 our teacher showed a documentary in class about the Shoah. This may have been the first time I saw images from the concentration camps. I recognized what this meant immediately. I can't articulate what I realized any better than Kertész, though. In his criticism of Schindler's List he describes the film as being "incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life and the very possibility of the Holocaust." It is this connection that I saw. It reflected the opposite of human kindness. It showed me the full scope and scale of what our "deformed mode of life" could generate, something of which I had previously only glimpsed small hints. I began to read books and watch documentaries about the Shoah until I could take in no more. By that point my awareness of this atrocity had long been fixed as knowledge, and it became an important part of my understanding of the world.

Almost 20 years ago, I visited Poland and had the opportunity to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. This morning I looked at my photos from that visit. Birkenau was left as-is. It was an extermination camp where over two million people were killed. It was also a place where the human spirit prevailed. In October 1944, some of the Jewish prisoners at Birkenau who were forced on threat of death to remove bodies from the gas chambers revolted and destroyed the crematories. The day I visited the site was sunny and warm, the sky blue with a few puffed-out clouds. Some of the fields were overgrown; there was rubble from collapsed buildings juxtaposed with other structures still standing. One photo shows a desolate patch of ground between two endless rows of electric fencing.

When György is on his way home to Budapest, a man accosts him on a train platform and wants to know about the gas chambers, whether György knew if there were gas chambers. György explains that he is coming from Buchenwald (where "there was a crematorium […] but only one, since that was not the camp's primary purpose, not its essence, its soul, its total meaning"). The man presses him: "well then, you heard about the gas chambers," to which György responds, "Yes, of course, I did." But the man is not satisfied with this.

"And yet," he went on, with the same stiff, stricken look on his face, as if he wanted to bring order and light into everything, "you have not convinced yourself with your own eyes." And I had to admit, "No, I haven't." "Well then," he said, and with a short nod he walked away stiffly with a straightened back, and from what I could see, he looked very satisfied about something, if I wasn't mistaken.

Already, mere days after his liberation, György is assaulted by doubters, by those who do not want to recognize the connection between our "deformed mode of life and the very possibility of the Holocaust," as Kertész later describes it. On the day he arrives back in Budapest, György also begins to feel hatred, perhaps reminded of his capacity to feel this emotion by the display of a streetcar conductor's callousness and a fellow passenger's disapproving glances when he has no ticket or money to purchase one. When another man steps in and buys György a ticket, expressing outrage at the behavior of the others, he turns out to have ulterior motives, for this is the reporter I wrote about earlier, the one nosing around for a story.

When the reporter asks if György went through many horrors, he responds:

"That depends on what you call a horror."

Surely, he replied with a tense face, I had been deprived of a lot, had gone hungry, and had probably been beaten.

I said, "Naturally."

"Why do you keep saying 'naturally,' son," he exclaimed, seeming to lose his temper, "when you are referring to things that are not natural at all?"

"In a concentration camp," I said, "they are very natural."

The natural state of affairs in a concentration camp is what Kertész lays bare before the reader in this novel. They are not described in the way of an outsider taking it all in at once. They are described by an insider discovering a new existence, step by step. In order to survive, György realizes, "I had to accept the reality of the present events." In the end, when he is back home with what remains of his family, it is obvious he is already struggling to process it all. He bickers with his uncles over blame and victims, not sure of what he is saying at all, but seeming desperate to own his experience, to hold on to what he has been through, not to just "forget the terrors" and move on, as his uncles suggest. Yet even a little later, after leaving confused, he sees his position with more clarity:

This is precisely the hurdle: I am here, and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live. ( )
1 vote S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kertész, ImreAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ertl, IstvanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Griffini, B.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kammer, HenryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klein, EvaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Klein, GeorgForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ortman, MariaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Pošová, KateřinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I didn’t go to school today.
Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
At the age of 14 Georg Koves is plucked from his home in a Jewish section of Budapest and without any particular malice, placed on a train to Auschwitz. He does not understand the reason for his fate. He doesn’t particularly think of himself as Jewish. And his fellow prisoners, who decry his lack of Yiddish, keep telling him, “You are no Jew.” In the lowest circle of the Holocaust, Georg remains an outsider.

The genius of Imre Kertesz’s unblinking novel lies in its refusal to mitigate the strangeness of its events, not least of which is Georg’s dogmatic insistence on making sense of what he witnesses–or pretending that what he witnesses makes sense. Haunting, evocative, and all the more horrifying for its rigorous avoidance of sentiment, Fatelessness is a masterpiece in the traditions of Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, and Tadeusz Borowski.
Haiku summary
Painting a "picture"
To see the real-life effects
When wrong-doers reign!


Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0810110490, Paperback)

One of Publishers Weekly's Fifty Best Books of 1992

Fateless is a moving and disturbing novel about a Hungarian Jewish boy’s experiences in German concentration camps and his attempts to reconcile himself to those experiences after the war. Upon his return to his native Budapest still clad in his striped prison clothes, fourteen-year-old George Koves senses the indifference, even hostility, of people on the street. His former neighbors and friends urge him to put the ordeal out of his mind, while a sympathetic journalist refers to the camps as "the lowest circle of hell." The boy can relate to neither cliche and is left to ponder the meaning of his experience alone.

George's response to his experience is curiously ambivalent. In the camps he tries to adjust to his ever-worsening situation by imputing human motives to his inhumane captors. By imposing his logic--that of a bright, sensitive, though in many ways ordinary teenager - he maintains a precarious semblance of normalcy. Once freed, he must contend with the "banality of evil" to which he has become accustomed: when asked why he uses words like "naturally," "undeniably," and "without question" to describe the most horrendous of experiences, he responds, "In the concentration camp it was natural." Without emotional or spiritual ties to his Jewish heritage and rejected by his country, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that neither his Hungarianness nor his Jewishness was really at the heart of his fate: rather, there are only "given situations, and within these, further givens."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:46 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Relates the daily life of prisoners at a Nazi concentration camp as seen through the eyes of Georg Koves, a fourteen-year-old boy who is deported from his home in Budapest to Auschwitz with his father, in a new translation of the acclaimed novel by the Nobel laureate.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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