Fateless by Imre Kertész

Fateless, by Nobel prize winning Hungarian-Jewish author Imre Kertész, is also known as Fatelessness, which has a slightly different meaning. The suffix -less means ‘without‘ or ‘a lack of’,  and the suffix -ness means a ‘state of being’ .  So Fateless means without a fate, whereas Fatelessness means a state of being without a fate.

Wikipedia tells me that Kertész won the Novel Prize in 2002for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history“, and in this book, the adolescent narrator’s ‘state of being’ and what he chooses to make of it, is all.

György Köves is a Hungarian teenager when the story opens.  His father is about to be deported to a labour camp under the Nazi Occupation.  György gets permission to leave school early, and witnesses his parents’ preparations: leaving Mr Suto, (a business partner) in charge, and buying clothing and other supplies for Father to take with him. We know that the parents recognise the fragility of their arrangements because Father doesn’t bother to get a receipt for the jewellery he hands over to his partner, knowing that the possession of such a receipt is risky, and that it’s probably useless anyway.  But György is bored by these events.

Bored?? This comes as a shock.  It is a powerful reminder that Jews had no comprehension of what was to happen to them.  This boy has become used to systematic discrimination and at this stage in his life finds it merely tedious.  He doesn’t understand why his friend Anne-Marie’s sister is so offended by it.
Fateless shows us the inexorable progress of the genocide as it is happening, through the eyes of a disinterested, compliant adolescent.  It reminded me of the immediacy of  Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, a Jewish author who wrote as events unfolded with the Occupation of Paris.  She had no idea of what lay ahead of Jews in France, and this is what makes her writing so poignant to read.  Kertész, however, wrote his book in 1975.  He did know what had happened; he is himself a Holocaust survivor.  He has recreated the naive impressions of a teenager, but says the story is not autobiographical.

The dispassionate tone of the narrator is quite unnerving.  There is something about György’s dull incomprehension of events that makes it all seem so much more awful. He’s a boy, preoccupied with nothing much, and (when he can muster the energy to pay attention) he is mystified by his uncle’s belief that their travails are a judgement on Jews for their sins.  It hasn’t occurred to him to pray for his father, and he doesn’t understand the Hebrew prayer when Uncle Lajos pressures him into it because – although György is about to be plunged into religious persecution himself -  he’s not even a religious Jew.

What does make sense to him, when he is conscripted to work at the Shell Oil Refinery is Uncle Lajos’ appeal to him to behave well because he represents the ‘whole Jewish community‘ and ‘has a responsibility to be on [his] best behaviour’ (p22).  He can see the logic of this, and he is painfully keen to be logical.  Most awful of all is his naive reliance on the opinion of
the more worldly, older ones [who] thought that, regardless of how the Germans felt about Jews, basically, as everyone knows, they were clean, honest, orderly, precise, and industrious people who respected others  who exhibited these same traits…I was expecting more order, work, an occupation and some fun (p48).
I defy anyone to read those words and not feel queasy.
There were times when this the book suddenly overwhelmed me, and I could not bear to read it any more.  I had to get up and walk around my quiet, peaceful house to compose myself.  I think it was the youthfulness of the narrator that made it so difficult to read, knowing that so many young lives were truncated in those death camps, so few that survived.   But it was also the narrator’s tone -  the way he tries to rationalise the irrational,  his pride in being a reasonable person himself, his ghastly acceptance of his circumstances as if somehow they were the natural order of things…

It is unbearably sad when he asks a friend who has an ‘enviable position among those great dignitaries, the potato peelers’ for ‘some leftovers, … some remnants, maybe from the bottom of the pots‘ and he learns that ‘friendship is a finite thing, whose boundaries are defined by the laws of life’ (p114).  His poignant account of the three ways to escape a concentration camp focuses not on the drama of  suicide or an actual escape attempt but on the most modest:
There is one aspect of human nature that, I had learned at school, is also a person’s inalienable right.  It is true that our imagination remains free even in captivity.  I could,  for instance, achieve this freedom while my hands were busy with a shovel or a pickaxe – with a moderate exertion, limiting myself to the most essential movements only.  I myself was simply not there (p115).
And where does this boy wish himself to be?  Home, he tells us, with the pride of an adolescent, but only because he can’t credibly imagine himself in Calcutta or Florida – such fantasies are not tenable.  And when transported home by his imagination he feels regret that he had not ‘lived correctly‘ because he had been finicky about food, he had been foolishly afraid of his professors, he had wasted opportunities.

It seems to me that Kertész’s choice of title is profound.   What happened to his character, and by inference all the other Jews in the camps, was not his fate, and this fatelessness is a chosen state of being.  He is asserting that he refuses to explain these events with the notion that the Holocaust was predetermined by some spiritual being either out of malice or an Old Testament judgement on them.  He is making a statement that the German genocide of the Jews was a choice perpetrated by an evil leadership which succeeded with the acquiescence of the many.

About a year ago, I read and reviewed Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge which explained how the ‘grotesque sadism and humiliation [of the Holocaust] which – along with losses so profound we cannot imagine them – poisoned the lives of the survivors: they were traumatised by the humiliation of having submitted to degrading treatment‘.   Hoffman’s book made me realise that the common ‘dynamic determination [to be 'normal'] was sometimes a frantic or hysterical response to [that] trauma‘.  I wonder now,  if there is a little of that dynamic determination in the disconcerting conclusion to Kertész’s book, where György declines to act as a witness, and refuses to help the journalist tell the story of what happened.
‘I am here,’ [he says] and I know full well that I have to accept the prize of being allowed to live.  Yes, as I look around me in this gentle dusk in this square on a storm-beaten yet full-of-thousands-of-promises street, I already begin to feel how readiness is growing, collecting inside me.’ (p190)
His way of dealing with the shock of learning what has happened to his family is his refusal to be unhappy, succoured by an optimism that can only survive for as long as he denies the horror.  György has become institutionalised by his experiences and has a distorted sense of perspective:
There is no impossibility that cannot be overcome (survived?), naturally and further down the road, I now know, happiness lies in wait for me like an inevitable trap.  Even back there, in the shadow of the chimneys. in the breaks between pain, there was something resembling happiness. Everybody will ask me about the deprivations, the ‘terrors of the camps’, but for me, the happiness there will always be the most memorable experience, perhaps.  Yes, that’s what I’ll tell them the next time they ask me: about the happiness in those camps.
If they ever do ask.
And if I don’t forget. (p191)

The question for me is, is it György who is traumatized, or is it Kertész?

Author: Imre Kertész
Title: Fateless / FatelessnessTranslator: Christopher C. Wilson and Katherina M. Wilson
Publisher: Hydra Books, Northwestern University Illinois, 1992
ISBN: 9780810110496
Source: Kingston Library

I read this book in December 2010.
Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers
Lisa Hill, Melbourne Australia

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