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Kohtalottomuus by Imre Kertész

Kohtalottomuus (original 1975; edition 2003)

by Imre Kertész, Outi Hassi

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1,295None6,013 (4.12)149
Authors:Imre Kertész
Other authors:Outi Hassi
Info:Helsingissä Otava 2003.
Collections:Your library, Luetut

Work details

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz (1975)

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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. ( )
  S.D. | Apr 4, 2014 |
This is when I found out that you could be bored even in Auschwitz - provided you were choosy. We waited and we waited, and as I come to think of it, we waited for nothing to happen. This boredom, combined with this strange waiting, was, I think, approximately what Auschwitz meant to me, but of course I am only speaking for myself.As he said, he's only speaking for himself. Here, I am speaking for myself, as is the case for any and all fiction, and even some of the non. What I speak involves my understanding, not my knowledge, my general aversion to gnosticism grown to unpronounceable proportions. Such as it should be with regards to the Shoah, yes? First the horror, then the silence.

Despite that, let's talk. If Kertész is willing, how are we to forbear?With a cracking voice, she desperately shouted something to the effect that if our distinctiveness was unimportant, than all this was mere chance, and that if there was the possibility of her being someone other than whom she was fated to be, then all of this was utterly without reason, and to her that idea was totally "unbearable."If you are punished, and have committed a crime, you are guilty. If you are punished, and have committed [...], ranging from birth to creed to whatever the reason one condemns another wholesale and complete, each on either side simply one of a many millions, you are innocent. A horror, the horror, your horror, or so they say. They, the bystanders, millions compounded and compounded again muttering in the stands, still capable of wanting, needing, crafting a story. They need their catharsis, especially the diffuse of responsibilities and unwitting (maybe? perhaps? they claim victimhood as well and don't want to think about it) accomplices. You will provide.

You? You lived. That length of time of your life, that skein of events and your reactions to such, the ideas and emotions filling in ever faster as all those gift baskets of audience prescribed sensibilities of disbelief, rage, terror, tears, fall by the wayside. You, a human being, lived, and made full use of your human capacity for feeling. Happiness, annoyance, puzzlement. The finding of beauty in a concentration camp. All of this, as I said, I noticed, but not in the same way as later, when I started to fit the pieces together and could sum up and recall the events step by step. I had become used to every new step gradually, and this hadn't given me the detachment I needed to actually notice what was happening.Was there a story in there somewhere, one a little more entertaining than the fact you managed to live to this day, and all the turns and twists and often boring banalities involved in such a happenstance? That would imply a reason behind it all, when everyone knows the capriciousness of life. Far deeper down than I would have thought, this knowledge, considering how they keep insisting on the climax, the tragedy, the entertainment. And this is only one genocide out of many, only one part of one genocide if one thinks only of the six million. What of the rest of the voices? Do they not fit within the parameters of what deserves to be heard? If those who still live on refuse the title of "victim", contemplate the multifarious of their experiences within the full range of feeling and thought, grasp their memories of such a time of their life as anyone else would, are they worth the time? Then, that day I also experienced that very same tenseness, that same itchy feeling and clumsiness that came over me when I was with them, that I had occasionally felt at home: as if I weren't entirely okay, as if I didn't entirely conform to the ideal; in other words, somehow as if I were Jewish. That was a rather strange feeling, because, after all, I was among Jews and in a concentration camp.He speaks of his lack of faith while the blood bound heritage of it couples him to a baffled mind and moldering body.Only slowly, and not without some humorous puzzlement and wonder, did the idea dawn on me: this situation, this state of imprisonment, had to be what was causing his agony. I was almost tempted to say to him: "Don't be sad. After all, it's not important." But I was afraid to be so bold, and then I also remembered that I didn't know any French.He puzzles at the monotone view of his day to day life by others, one restricted to pity, pity, pity. As if his effort to see the worth in living had time for that, when there were so many other things to think upon.But who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp? Who could explore, exhaust all those countless ideas, inventions, games, jokes, and ponderable theories, which are easily accessible and transferable from a make-believe world of fantasy into a concentration-camp reality? You couldn't, even if you mustered the totality of your knowledge.The horror, the horror, the horror. What else? ( )
1 vote Korrick | Feb 26, 2014 |
Excellent for its ability to provide insights into how prisoners were so easily caught up into the deportations and camp experience, and in the after-camp experience in which those who weren't in camps wanted everyone to just forget it and move one; an impossibility. ( )
  smallmeadow | Feb 10, 2014 |
bookshelves: published-1975, nobel-laureate, anti-semitic, autumn-2013, hardback, historical-fiction, hungary, holocaust-genocide, nazi-related
Read from June 27 to October 29, 2013

Foyles, Charing Cross Road. Translated from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson

Opening: I didn't go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher's permission to take the day off.

Fictionalised biography; gruelling subject; important reading. ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
This is a fiction book about a Jewish boy held in Auschwitz concentration camp and Buchenwald and Zeitz work campus during the Holocaust by a man who had a similar experience. He tells the tale matter-of-factually, as he experiences it. A lot of details just build to provide a picture of how commonplace and every-day horror can become as humans try to survive moment to moment. As he tries to explain to his family on returning home how hope, and longing for stability, and ethics have led everyone involved who is still alive to follow this path through to fruition, everyone he tries to explain it to becomes horrified. He speculates on the happiness in the concentration campus and on how anyone who came to these realizations all at once, instead of minute by minute as they were forced to live and find food and work and move, might collapse.

Honestly, it kept occurring to me while I was traveling in unknown places after finishing the book that I was sometimes following signs in underground places that were little populated for long distances, and I was just doing what the signs suggested I do next. Just hoping that it would get me where I needed to be without much thought, and I would think of the beginning of the books as people are transported to the camps almost without protest. Then I would feel ridiculous for my mundane comparison in face of such atrocities, then I would think about how the mundane nature of a lot of it was kind of his point, but it didn't make me feel less guilty. ( )
  alwright1 | Apr 14, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Imre Kerteszprimary 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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Wikipedia in English (4)

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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:41:56 -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)

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