The canon of Holocaust literature has taken shape in recent years around key texts. Eli Wiesel’s Night and Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz are at the forefront, while young readers are offered Anne Frank’s Diary or the graphic novel Maus.
For those strong of constitution and interested in a non-Jewish Polish point of view, Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman stands out. Many readers have room for only so many of these guiding presentations of the events of the war, but others continue to follow the changing shape and shifting demands of Holocaust literature.
The writer whose work, increasingly, seems unavoidable, is the Hungarian Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize in 2002. Kertész’s best known book, called Fatelessness in English (in an earlier translation it was called Fateless) was written during the 1960s and’70s, and first appeared in Hungarian 1975. This period of composition and publication precedes the appearance of a broad, popular audience for Holocaust writing, and might in some ways account for the book’s singularity.
While other central and eastern European views of the war – Polish, Russian, even Serbian – have become familiar, the particularities of the Hungarian Holocaust experience are not widely known or understood. Wiesel’s Night begins in the Transylvanian countryside, in a borderland between Romania and Hungary, but the narrative flees the area in a handful of pages. Fatelessness begins with a boy’s view of the country under a right wing Hungarian regime in league with the Nazis. At the outset it focuses on the inadvertent way a youth could be swept up in the process of deportation to German death and work camps.
Kertész’s novel is notable in a number of ways for its approach to its material: its early chapters are told from the point of view of a boy of 14, whose Jewishness is only faintly important to him in the face of laws like those requiring the yellow star. In the chapters set in Budapest and its environs, Kertész strives to present prewar personalities and types, young and old, to convey the character of Hungarian Jewish life. He is attentive to luck in the progress of each person’s wartime experience. Its narrator’s youthfulness allows the writer to approach the events overtaking him in a tone of almost naïve objectivity.
Kertész surpasses even Primo Levi in his willingness to present the events of the war through eyes that operate as a kind of recording mechanism, presenting “ghastly” behaviour, to borrow a word Kertész uses to describe Auschwitz, with an almost noncommittal bafflement. Bafflement and calm obedience go hand in hand as Kertesz’s narrator is casually rounded up with a group of other boys by a lone Hungarian policeman one spring morning: “We accompanied him over to a solitary, shabby, single-story building close by, next to the highway; this was the ‘Customs House,’ as a weather-beaten inscription on the front also declared. The policeman produced a bunch of keys and picked out from the many jingling keys the one that fit the lock. Inside we found a pleasantly cool and spacious, though somewhat bare, room . . .”
Kertész applies the same flat, almost easy tone to his narrator’s initiation at Auschwitz. Recognizing himself as “privileged” – he is not chosen for death at Birkenau but for some unknown work detail – the days before he is sent off to Buchenwald are marked by a combination of boredom and “strange anticipation.”
Part of Kertész’s point in writing this way is to convey the very littleness of the inmate’s knowledge, the incapacity to recognize and understand, in the early period of incarceration, one’s surroundings. In his first days at the camp, he encounters what he calls “an interesting settlement… I was clear that this was the Gypsies’ camp. I was a bit surprised, since although, guarded as almost everyone back home, myself included, was in their opinion of Gypsies, naturally enough, up till now I had never heard it said that they were actually criminals.”
Kertész’s tone retains this disarming and idiosyncratic quality – nowhere is there the moralistic musings of Wiesel’s work, nor the studied almost sociological reports of Levi. By his inclusion in the Nobel pantheon the Swedish deliberators must have felt the need for a certain redirection, or variation in the manner in which Holocaust experience is written and received.
Now in his 80s, and badly stricken with Parkinson’s disease, Kertész’s creative life is nearing its end. But even in increasing infirmity, the importance of his view of the war continues to gain influence.
Of his own contribution, Kertész has said the following: “Writers such as Jean Améry or Tadeusz Borowski conceived their works for people who were already familiar with history and were aware that old values had lost their meaning. What was at stake was the creation of new values from such immense suffering, but most of those writers perished in the attempt. However, what they did bequeath to us is a radical tradition in literature.”
Reading Kertész’s Fatelessness provides an immersion in this radical tradition, and forces a reordering in our minds of the way we expect the war years to be addressed .
Norman Ravvin’s recent publications include the novel, The Joyful Child (Gaspereau) and Failure’s Opposite: Listening to A.M. Klein, co-edited with Sherry Simon (McGill-Queen’s).