by Anna Földes

His Life's Work - the Work of Mourning

Imre Kertész's whole life experience and literary career focuses on the Holocaust. His fate is being Fateless.

'After Auscwitz one can do nothing but write poems about Auscwitz'. The writer's extremist statement, which is polemic with Adorno's famous saying is just as shocking and disputable as the original one, according to which after Auscwitz one cannot write poems any more. Any possible counter-arguments or evidences against this statement's validity - masterpieces written about a thousand other things, about the world around us and the human soul wouldn't refute the Nobel prize winner writer's account of the moral and experience of Auschwitz, which has been validated by his whole life's work.

The hero and writer of Fateless, a very conscious but also vulnarable survivor of Auschwitz fights in each of his writings with the ghosts of the past appearing in the clouds of smokes of the Holocaust. The writer doesn't only give in to the inevitable forces of the rememberance, - 'one can't recover from Auschwitz' - but he considers it a moral duty to speak about the unspeakble with the very conscieous aim to show and cry out the disgrace of humanity in the name of the survivors' last generation.

Many one-book authors and accomplished journalists would made exuses by saying that it was the sufferings, the lagers and Auschwitz that made them a writer. The teenager Imre Kertész certainly wanted to survive the lager and not to write about it, and with the rest of his faith he dreamt of a modest, petit-bourgeois life. After returning home and finishing his schools he had an editorial job, he started and discontinued a number of novels, later he became a well-paid tabloid author - he rewrote and adapted burlesques and operettas. He was on a roundabout route and he didn't know for a long time where his life was leading to. As a result of thirteen years' fruitless efforts, at the age of 46, professionally skilled, he finally succeded to get into the the Hungarian literature with Fateless, his masterpiece, which, according to Ágnes Heller, is 'all times best Holocaust novel'.

Imre Kertész

He might have got into the Hungarian literature but not the literary life. Although Fateless had been received warmer and more enthusiastically in 1975 than the writer remembered it later, (I also wrote an acknowledging rewiev on it) his novel didn't get the appreciation that it deserved neither from the fellow writers nor its readers. It is a well-known fact that even today Imre Kertész is a more known and appreciated writer in Germany - maybe in Europe too - than in Hungary. He has received a number of prizes and rewards but his official 'knighting', the Kossuth prize has never been granted to him. Moreover, he has never been accepted by the national literary-historians. The newest and widely acknowledged work on literature-history, written by Ernõ Kulcsár Szabó, has even failed to mention the most committed Holocaust writer, - I looked for his name in vain in the index. It would be an oversimplification and maybe an insinuation too to assume that the reason of his disregard is anti-semitism, I think it's rather a deep aversion to the unavoidable facing the Holocaust and an avoidance of a desireable catharsis. There are too many people in the Hungarian literary life, for whom it is embarrasssing and unpleasant to deal with Imre Kertész and his continuous efforts to achieve national self-criticism. Thus, the writer, who is claimed to be writing about Auschwitz all the time, has often been criticized and marginalized in Hungary even though he was widely acclaimed in Europe.

Strictly speaking, this statement could be refuted, since several of Imre Kertész's books and short stories are about different topics, but they have often been ingored by critics, maybe for respect or tendentiously. For instance, his novel Fiasco, that he wrote as an appraised writer in 1988 and in which he examined the drama of creation with a brutal honesty, wasn't received very warmly. In this novel, he analysed the writer's struggle with the world and himslef in a much stricter way than Martin Du Gard did. Also as a short-story author, he successfully proved many times that he could go beyond his own limits.

But the main theme of his literary career is undoubtedly the rememberance of the Holocaust.

His books and studies can be linked together by his efforts to tell the truth, the Auschwitz theme, and his struggle with the Holocaust nightmare; he started it in Fateless and continued in the Kaddis for a Child Not Born. Most of his other essays, studies, articles and reviews belong to this group too. His commitment as a survivor appears in all of his writtings.

On the surface, Fateless is a self-novel. It's storyline, according to the very supportive fellow writer, György Spiro, is very simple, it's the story of a Jewish boy from Budapest whose father has been taken to labour-service. Later the boy himself is caught and taken to Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps, after that to a place called Zeitz, then back again to the hospital in Buchenwald where he survives and finally returns to Budapest. Gradually, we get to know the lager's life just like from the memoirs and novels of other survivors, however, from the very first sentences of Kertész's novel we find something else, something that we wouldn't expect from an ordinary lager-novel. We find something essential, something existential; a philosophy of existence that goes far beyond the frames of the novel and of literature, and that is very unique as a lagernovel and a system of philosophy too. But this effect is achieved by literary tools.

At a first superficial reading, the book seems to be a lager-novel or a self-novel. Looking at it more thoroughly, however, we discover a piece of universality. It is an objective book, which - according to the author - is about "life as a whole", and his own experiences are only partially adapted into the text, to a level that was required linguistically and philosophically. What happened to Gyurka Köves in the novel, happened to Imre Kertész, at the age of 15. His age is not only a biographical data it' has a significant meaning; his age determines the way he perceives things. Only a teenager could have the bizarre thought arriving to the brick factory, the first station of his sufferings, that he could even "see the world" were he taken further to Germany. And only a teenager would say that he spread the butter on his bread with his fingers "the way Robinson would do it". Although conditions were slightly better and more human in Buchenwald, we are suprised to read the optimistc sentence "I soon began to like it". After coming out of the wagons, a long way to hell, there's only one person who can be happy about the arrival, a person who has some hope left; a hope that bad things must be followed by something better; a person who thinks that their new destination, Waldsee will be less fatiguing, and a person who is not terrified by the Auscwitz-Birkenau signs. When the half-dead, lingering, striped-dressed captives at the station warn the boy that he shouldn't admit that he is sick and only 14-15 years old but at least 16 he takes the advice. He has already survived a selection in Auscwitz and he is shocked to see the first lashes but he can still be excited about the football pitch that he discovers in the lager. He experiences his first cheerful and careless moment in the bath - this time it is a real bath. He is more terrified by the sight of the bald women than by the red fireworks of the crematory. However, he already suspects or maybe even knows that " his travelling companions are burning over there". The epidemy cannot claim so many lives...

The novel's most original amd effective feature is its uniqie objectiveness. The writer consciously avoids any complaints and sentimental self-pity, maybe because he "felt like a guest in captivity". Thus, after an endless first day, full of new impressions and experiences he is eager to learn, see and experience something new in the lager. Typically, he refuses to use the word "terrible" when he describes these experiences. Instead, he claims that he was more tried by the eternally long days than by the sufferings. He discovers that "one can be bored even in Auschwitz". At a second-reading of the novel, this statement might schock us more than in its original context, when the author describes the events of non-events. It's not a surprising but still an astonishing and a significant discovery that captivity is made up of ordinary weekdays. And each weekday in the lager means an enormous amount of work far beyond the teenager's physical strength, with little relaxation, many ominous signs and unforeseen smacks. Gyuri Köves's way of dealing with it - his indifference, silent resignation proves to be effective until he loses the last bit of his strength and reaches his phyiscal deepest point.

Imre Kertész's prose is objective, realistic in its descriptions, with deep symbolic meanings, and it turns into a kind of naturalism when it describes apocalyptic situations. With the precision of a medical report, the writer describes the physical suffereings of his sick, skin and bone hero, and the sufferings caused by the lice that feed on his wounds. The listing of his physical ordeals however, serve only to support the symbolic conclusion that all his efforts were in vain; in the end his body left him in the lurch. Reaching the deepest point, Gyuri Köves feels as if his body still 'existed' but he 'ceased to be in it'. Later, however, in the most desperate situation, he takes the hands that reached out for him, and he gains back a part of his desire for life. Going back to Buchenwald he puts it into words: 'I would like to go on living in this nice concentration camp'.

The often used adjective 'nice' seems to be dissonant and astonishing in this context. Neverthelss it has a function. The usage of this word is very typical of Imre Kertesz's often extremist style that would replace a detailed description of the mind with bizarre linguistic phrases. Doing so, the writer foreshadows the unimaginably daring finale when he almost feels homesick for the more simple and unambigouus captivity, the 'happiness of the concentration camp'. What feels like a linguistic paradoxon first - if we really think about it - is the crystallized moral of the Auschwitz mithology.

It wasn't the narration but the composition and the creation of his own linguistic style that was a real touchstone for the inventive and experienced author. His strict formulations, and the conciseness that keeps the structure of the novel intact doesn't prevent him from confronting items that are very different contextually and emotionally. The series of his sufferings and ordeals are sometimes interrupted by the always present, expected or unexpected human solidarity. The euphoric joy about his liberation will be overshadowed by the unpleasant surprise that there's no midday soup for the time being. On the day of his returning to Budapest he gets a smack from a bureaucratic, strict and indifferent conductor on the tram who demands his ticket in vain. But before the horizon of the novel would become totally gloomy, there is a stranger, a fellow-passenger who pays the fare instead of him and who doesn't allow the conductor to make him get off the tram.

Imre Kertész widens the severe present validity of the camp in two directions. In one respect, searching the mechanism of remembrance, he tears the old, home-dreamland that often emerges dimly in other camp-novels into pieces. He, at the age of fifteen, growing old in three months, confutes nostalgia rooted in a lot of people. He draws up a balance and passes a judgement on himself as an adult for he didn't live sensibly enough, he didn't use his days right at home. He was often scared in certain situations at school that later, thinking back, made him smile in the camp.

The present clearing of the past doesn't supersede the tomorrow out of the hero's horizon, a hero who is deprived of his future. The aim is to forget the terror on order to live on and to preserve the leftover of the hell; to tell what happened and to let more and more people know the truth. The fate that the hero, the writer, doesn't really feel his own one is closed without a happy end even without a catharsis, but he takes it on as he lived it through and he knows that he has to continue his own uncontinuable life as an orphan without home.

Everything that has been written by Imre Kertész in the past quarter of the century since the first edition of Fateless is a continuation of this uncontinuable life and oeuvre. In his confessions, studies and interviews Kertész calls himself a survivor, a private survivor whose fate was determined and accomplished by his experiences in the most severe historical and human experiences of the century. As a member of the survivors' last generation, an accomplice of survival he declares remembrance an irreversible ethic responsibility. 'With it, with us, the lively remembrance of the Holocaust will irretrievably disappear from the world'. The continuous quoting and re-experiencing of Auschwitz is more than a trauma for him, it's some subjective anxiety from oblivion, some self-excruciating remembrance, the key of the objective world's interpretation, a universal parable, if you like.

Its grievance can't be actually eased by the awareness of heroism, quite the contrary. The Jews of Europe did not die for their belief and not in the name of another one but for nothing, in the name of nothing. And it makes this death even more unacceptable. You can't be resigned to the fact that 'our modern mythology begins with a gigantic negative motive: God created the world, and man created Auschwitz'.

This mythology is endured and written by Imre Kertész who has carried the doom of Fateless on his shoulders in all his life. He lived it through when he was on the track of his father who had disappeared in 1944 and he saw that in the cave - theatre in Sopronkõhida, the late spot of the mass murder, an operetta was performed. And he lived it through again when the hero of the his forgotten short novel Trace searcher, returns to the former concentration camp but instead of his memories he meets only an artificially constructed replica of the hell, so he isn�t able to internally identify his previous self and the spot of his sufferings.

The survivor examines his own fate, obligation of survival and its acceptance through a couple's life in his novel Kaddish for a Child Not Born. Regarding its genre, the novel is clearly even more fictitious than Fateless. Nevertheless, his imaginary heroes fight with the writer's demons. The woman, suffering from her experiences in Auschwitz still has a deep desire for motherhood, but the man struggling with depression protests over and over - in this cosmos he could never be the father (god) of another man.

The hero (and the writer) tries to declare in vain, that he doesn't want to refuse life for the sake of life deniers either, and although he feels the demands of his instincts, his arguments and inhibitions are stronger, his decision is irrevocable. Being Jewish, his existence, experience and anxiety meets the refusal of fatherhood in refusal of the continuation of life.

The hero, and the writer, is deterred from the responsibility of bringing up children by his own childhood-experience. The main argument against children, declared or not, is that there are people who can't or don't want to give birth to a child, a Jew, into this world, into the choking circumstances of a totalitarian system. 'The child not-born in this case is not simply a child not-born - corrects Imre Kertész his opinion and conclusion about the novel in an interview - it has to be extended a bit: the child wasn�t born after Auschwitz, the catharsis wasn�t born and nothing was born that should have been normally born in the world' .

The pressing of the failed catharsis characterises Kertész's literary mourning, work and behaviour as a kind of categorical summons. Replying to the paralysing question whether the Holocaust can create any value, the writer answers with two arguments, with double 'yes'. He describes the Holocaust as a value because 'it resulted in an enormous knowledge through a lot of sufferings 'and because only 'this tragic world-wide-knowledge' can create a catharsis in the future. But beyond this knowledge, the �priceless moral reserve' of the Holocaust can also be considered a value. This way the utter refusal gets saturated with value creating belief in an age that misses values.

The parable of Auschwitz mobilises against all present and future totalitarian systems. And that makes the survivor's memory such a cathartic experience and memento that gradually relieves of the burden of the Holocaust at the turn of the millennium.

(The study was sponsored by the J § O Winter Foundation)


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.