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.
Kertesz ( Kaddish for an Unborn Child ), who, as a youth, spent a year as a prisoner in Auschwitz, has crafted a superb, haunting novel that follows Gyorgy Koves, a 14-year old Hungarian Jew, during the year he is imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Fighting to retain his equilibrium when his world turns upside down, Gyorgy rationalizes that certain events are "probably natural" or "probably a mistake." Gradual starvation and what he experiences as grinding boredom become a way of life for him, yet Gyorgy describes both Buchenwald and its guards as "beautiful"; as he asks "who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp?" Gyorgy also comes to a sense of himself as a Jew. At first, he experiences a strong distaste for the Jewish-looking prisoners; he doesn't know Hebrew (for talking to God) or Yiddish (for talking to other Jews). Fellow inmates even claim Gyorgy is "no Jew," and make him feel he isn't "entirely okay." Kertesz's spare, understated prose and the almost ironic perspective of Gyorgy, limited both by his youth and his inability to perceive the enormity of what he is caught up in, give the novel an intensity that will make it difficult to forget. One learns something of concentration camp life here, even while becoming convinced that one cannot understand that life at all--not the way Kertesz does.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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December 06, 2004
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Excerpt from Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz
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. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to "family reasons," my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the "family reason" might be. I told him my father had been called up for labor service; after that he didn't raise a further peep against it.
I didn't head home but to our shop. Father had said they would wait for me there. He added that I should hurry as well because he might need me. In actual fact, that was partly why he had asked me to be let off school. Or else so that "he might have me there on his last day before being separated from home," since he said that too, though admittedly some other time. He said it to my mother, as I recall, when he phoned her this morning. Today is a Thursday, as it happens, and on Thursdays and Sundays my afternoons, strictly speaking, belong to my mother. Still, Father informed her: "I can't let you have young Gyuri today," and then went on to give that as the reason. Though maybe it wasn't like that after all. I was rather sleepy this morning on account of last night's air-raid warning, so perhaps I don't remember it clearly. I am quite sure, though, that he said it-if not to Mother, then to someone else.
I too spoke a few words to Mother, though I no longer remember what. I think she may have been annoyed with me because I was obliged to be a little short with her, what with Father being there: after all, today it is his wishes I have to consider. When I was about to set off from the house, even my stepmother had a few private words with me in the hall, just between the two of us. She said she hoped that, on what was such a sad day for us, "she could count on my behaving appropriately." I had no clue what I could say to that, so I said nothing. She may have misinterpreted my silence, however, because she went straight on to say something along the lines that she had no wish to offend my sensibilities with those words of advice, which, she was well aware, were quite unnecessary. She had no doubt that with me being a big boy, now in my fifteenth year, I was quite capable of grasping for myself the gravity of the blow that had been inflicted on us, as she put it. I nodded. I could see she was content to leave it at that. She even moved a hand in my direction, and I half feared that she might perhaps be wanting to hug me. She didn't do so in the end, just let out a deep sigh, with a long, tremulous release of breath. I noticed her eyes moistening as well. It was awkward. After that, I was allowed to go.
I covered the stretch between school and our shop on foot. It was a clear, balmy morning, considering it was still just early spring. I was about to unbutton myself but then had second thoughts: it was possible that, light as the head breeze was, my coat lapel might flap back and cover up my yellow star, which would not have been in conformity with the regulations. There were by now a few things I had to be more on my guard against. Our cellar timber store is nearby, on a side street. A steep stairway leads down into the gloom. I found my father and stepmother in the office, a glass cage lit up like an aquarium, right at the foot of the steps. Also with them was Mr. Sut>o, whom I have known from the time he entered our employment as a bookkeeper and as manager of the other, outdoor lumberyard that he has in fact already purchased from us since then. At least that's what they say, because Mr. Sut>o, given that he is completely aboveboard regarding his race, does not wear a yellow star, so the whole thing is actually just a kind of business dodge, as I understand it, enabling him to look after our property there, and then again so we don't have to do entirely without an income in the meanwhile.
That had a bit to do with why I greeted him differently from the way I used to do, for after all he has, in a sense, risen to a higher status than us; my father and stepmother too were clearly more deferential toward him. Though he, for his part, sticks all the more stubbornly to addressing my father as "boss" and my stepmother as "my dear lady," as if nothing had happened, never failing to plant a kiss on her hand while he is at it. He welcomed me as well in his old, jocular tone, oblivious to my yellow star. After that, I stood where I was, by the door, while they picked up where they had left off on my arrival. As I saw it, I must have interrupted them right in the middle of some discussion. I did not understand at first what they were talking about. I even closed my eyes for a second because they were still a bit dazzled from the sunlight up on the street.