Imre Kertesz

(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

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Imre Kertesz (1929)

"Fateless" (1975) is set in the Nazist concentration camps of World War II, but from the viewpoint of one of the prisoners, who progressively plunges into the psychological and physical misery of being destined to annihilation and barely survives the experience. It is mostly a lengthy soliloquy, a diary written after the fact, an extremely rational stream of consciousness that continuously tries to find meaning in the most meaningless of lives.

The story is told by a teenage boy, Georg. One day his father is drafted by the authorities into labor camp. They are a Jewish family, singled out during the fascist regime of World War II. All Jews must wear a yellow star that identifies them and makes it easier to discriminate against them. The boy is growing up amid the air raids. His father entrusts all the family's fortune to his loyal employee Suto, otherwise the authorities would confiscate everything. The boy's stepmother is afraid: they now totally depend on Suto's word of honor that he will be honest about their savings. The father divorced Georg's mother and got custody of the child, but now the mother tries to get her son back since the father will be gone. The boy has one friend in the same building, also a Jewish teenager: Anne-Marie, who lives with her uncle and aunt because her parents are divorcing. Relatives come to see Georg's father go and prepare Georg for the new role of man of the family. Georg and other Jewish boys are drafted to work at repairing an oil refinery. During a bomb raid Anne-Marie kisses him. Her older sister is upset at being a Jew. Father writes that he is doing well. Then suddenly one day all the Jewish boys are seized by the police with no warning. With no explanation and not even a chance to bid goodbye to their families and pack some clothes, they are loaded into overcrowded trains and sent to an unknown destination. The boys create their own reality in which they are being sent to work in a better place. Soon they find themselves in Germany where they are "examined". Those who qualify for hard work feel privileged and are still excited. They are mesmerized by the perfect organization. At every step they are being assured that it's for their best. A Hungarian prisoner explains the rules of the labor camp. Georg would like a chance to ask him what crime he has committed but the boys are soon dispatched to bathe and change. Then they realize that their new clothes are convict uniforms: they are prisoners just like the one who has welcomed them. The buildings where they are taken are surrounded by electrified barbed-wire fences. They learn that each prisoner has a number tattooed on his wrist. They can smell the crematorium where bodies are disposed of those who don't survive the harsh conditions of the camp. He learns that there are gas chambers in places that look just like showers. He learns that there are extermination camps. He and others are transferred to Buchenwald where a perfectly oiled organization takes care of the prisoners. Life becomes the senseless repetition of daily rituals, but Buchenwald is actually better than what comes next. He becomes friend with another boy, Bandi Citrom, and the Jews who speak Yiddish and look down on him for not being able to. Oddly the prisoners try to follow the rule as best as they can. Only once do people try to escape, and they are hanged publicly. Then the hunger begins, and soon their bodies begin to decay, and sometimes they also have to survive beatings from the guards. The conditions deteriorate rapidly. Eventually he is reduced to a barely breathing skeleton, loaded on a train and shipped back to Buchenwald, treated like a bag of bones to be disposed of on top of other lifeless bodies. He only has enough mental life left to wonder how they will dispose of them, and, despite everything, he agonizes because he would like to live a little longer.
Then suddenly everything changes: a French doctor is taking care of him, he is given a little food, his wounds are treated professionally, and convicts are treated humanely. It takes time to make sense of the change in behavior, of the fact that "they" now actually care for his well-being. A Polish nurse, Pjetyka, is assigned to his group and they become friends. Germany is losing the war and now enemy airplanes are heard over the camp. One day the loudspeakers order all German soldiers to leave the camp, and shortly afterwards the convicts proclaim their freedom. He is too exhausted to fully understand what is going on, but eventually he is shipped home, just about one year after he had been deported. He finds his old city barely changed. The first impact is negative, because a conductor asks him to pay the ticket to ride a tram (of course he has no money) and a female passenger pretends not to see that he needs help. A journalist pays his ride and then offers to write an article together on his experience. He first looks for his old buddy Bandi Citrom, but cannot find him. Then he walks towards his old home, only to find out that his family does not live there anymore and the new occupants don't want to talk to him. He finds friends who tell him that his father died in another concentration camp and that his stepmother married Suto. They did not understand what he says. He talks about fate and freedom, how one cannot coexist with the other, and they think he is blaming the victims for the atrocities committed by the torturers. Alone on a bench, watching the city move, he meditates that life was purer in the camps, and even feels a bit of nostalgia for the fleeting moments of happiness.
"A Kudarc/ Fiasco" (1988) is two books into one, and both autobiographical. because the first chapter begins after an introduction of more than 100 pages. This lengthy introduction deals with a nameless protagonist, an "old boy", via a multi-layered narrative: the old boy's unproductive daily life in communist Hungary (which is described in broken sentences full of parentheses and in the third person by an external narrator), and his own notes about writing his first novel (notes written in a simple colloquial language and in the first person), a novel about his experience as a Jewish child in a concentration camp during World War II. Kertesz employs a convoluted and sardonic way of telling a story, sometimes starting from a negligible detail to arrive at an important fact. The real novel that follows this introduction then takes place in a bureaucratic Kafkian society but initially has oneiric overtones, in which different past lives overlap. The protagonist now has a name, Koves, and he arrives at the airport from another country to visit his old friend, but then starts reliving the events about how that friendship developed.
Kertesz was sent to a concentration camp at the age of 14; he was later fired as a journalist by the communists and made a living writing plays and translations; he wrote a book that became a success and it took him more than ten years to write a follow-up, the book that we are reading. The novel's protagonist lives the same general events. The "old boy" is not a boy but is old in the sense that he feels that everything had already happened to him. Every morning he "thinks" in front of a file cabinet. He is a writer, but hasn't written a book in a while and his name is sinking into oblivion. Hence he stands in front of his file cabinet trying to get inspiration for a new book. He reads a note of his in which he talks about the time during the war when he, a child, and other Jews were assembled by their captors who threatened to massacre them if allied planes dropped bombs on the barracks. He is interrupted by the noise of a radio. The woman who lives upstairs likes to listen to radio and television nonstop, and makes all sorts of other noises, almost always when the "old boy" is about to start typing on his typewriter. He calls her "Oglutz". After inserting wax plugs into his ears, he continues reading his notes. That childhood trauma led him to write a novel, while making a living in musical comedies, and eventually to neglect his musical comedies and therefore his livelihood. Now he relies on the humble job of his wife, a restaurant waitress. His notes continue bemoaning the fact that he has lived in that small apartment with his wife for 19 years and only after 19 years he began to see it differently, not as the temporary place where he was writing a novel but as the cage that had become his real life.
His notes relate how he wrote an idiosyncratic novel about life in a concentration camp. He reads his notes as if he were writing someone else's notes. He reads how empty he felt at the end. Then he submitted the novel to a publisher and realized that his life had become hostage to that novel, depending on its outcome. The old boy pulls out the publisher's letter from his file cabinet: the novel was rejected with an excoriating negative review. His notes continue describing how he was told by the publisher that so many novels are submitted all the time. The phone rings: his agent wants him to translate a huge German book. It turns out that's what the old boy does for a living. He accepts, then returns to his notes. He is only interrupted by Oglutz' noise and by his wife. The same dialogue repeats every day when his wife returns home from the restaurant: she tells him what happened during her shift and she inquires whether he has accomplished any writing. He reads how frustrated he felt, but his notes now talk mostly about the concentation camp, the logic that presided over them. His notes try to make sense of the mass murder of innocents. The wife of a concentration camp even kept furniture made of human skulls and tanned human skin. A state of affairs created the concentration camps that created a state of affairs that created its staff that kept those concentration camps running. In the notes the old boy was toying with the idea of writing an essay on mass murder following his novel on the concentration camps. The meditation of the notes were interrupted by the arrival of the rejection letters (that the old boy has already read and now reads again). That letter, say the notes, was actually a welcome final touch to the novel's project. The old boy reads his own notes as if reconstructing his own memory.
The old boy's reading of his own notes is interrupted by the arrival of his mother. She reads his notes that he wrote a novel and it was rejected, but the old boy claims that is not the novel he has been working on. His mother reproaches him for not having a real job and asks him why he can't write comedies anymore, and he answers that he doesn't want people to laugh, that it makes him jealous. His aging mother tells him that she has decided to rent a room in her apartment in return for caregiving. A brief detour tells the funny and Kafkian episode of his wife's imprisonment: she was never charged and never tried, simply imprisoned by mistake for one year and then released (and then had to fight in court to get back her apartment from someone who had obtained it through a bribe). The old boy resumes reading his own notes. After receiving the rejection note, he set out to read his own novel in order to asses by himself whether it was good or bad, but couldn't read it like an objective reader. At the same time he realized that the novel, which was but his own memory of his own teenage life in the concentration camp, was not satisfactory as a memoir. His wife comes home with news about the restaurant. She has decided to work also the evening shift, because it pays more, despite the fact that one has to deal with drunk customers. He is at work at the German translation when a sentence of this stranger's novel (which he increasingly appreciates) sends him leafing through a book about a Mr Kappus, and this sends him back to his own notes after his own novel had been rejected. In the notes he self-examines his motivations for writing an autobiographical novel and concludes that it was a therapeutic move. He met his friend Sas, a journalist, and Grun/Gerendas/Mijnheer, a childhood friend who had been wildly successful in Western Europe. They depressed him because he came to realize that his novel did not belong to the age of consumerism. The old boy stops reading and we learn that the novel was indeed published, although two years later, and sold quite a few copies. Finally, the old boy finds the inspiration to start a new novel, titled "Fiasco". (That's the end of the 100-page introduction).
In a scene that feels like a dream, Koves arrives at an international airport after a transoceanic flight. The airport looks deserted except for one uniformed person who welcomes him. Koves states that the purpose of his journey is a surprise visit to his friend, a world-famous writer named Sziklai. Then Koves asks "where am i?" and the official replies that he is home and gives him the option to go back. He is told to wait. While waiting he remembers how one day he decided to write a novel, spent ten years writing it depending on his wife for income, and then the novel was rejected (we read again the same letter we already read twice). One reason to leave his wife and travel was to rejuvinate his inspiration, and the other reason was a recurring dream... from which he awakes when his name is called. Koves is interrogated by "customs" officials and admitted not with a "welcome" but with a "welcome back". They give him the key for the apartment that has been assigned to him.
Koves walks in the streets of the city as if he knew them well, except that everything has changed, decayed, even if he insists to himself that he has never been there before. He meets a night-club pianist, Tiny, who addresses him as a regular patron of the bar. They chat and drink on a bench outside the bar. Koves falls asleep. In the morning they see people being carried away on a truck. The pianist fears that he might be next.
Koves walks to the apartment that has been assigned to him and it feels like that has always been his neighborhood. He recognizes the houses but they are run down. The landlady welcomes him as a lodger. He tells her that he is unmarried. She is a widow with a teenage son, Peter, who is obsessed with chess.
Koves receives a letter from his employer, a newspaper, that he has been fired. He takes the tram to the offices, knowing where they are even though everything has decayed, and demands to see the editor in chief. The secretary recognizes him as the one who has come back from abroad. Koves does not get rehired but feels good having confronted the boss. (Koves is slowly transitioning from the tourist in a foreign country to an ordinary citizen of that country.
Koves meets Sziklai, who too has been fired (Sziklai is the friend he came to visit but now he is a complete stranger he meets for the first time). Sziklai takes him to a restaurant named South Seas and introduces him to waitress Alice. Sziklai plans to write a comedy and wants Koves to help him. At home Koves is pestered by Peter who wants to play chess all the time. Peter is determined to become a chess champion and is ashamed of his father, who didn't oppose any resistance when he was carted off and later executed. (It is not clear if he was the victim of nazists of communists). Koves takes care of bureaucratic chores that result in his name being registered. The chairman of the tenement, an elderly man always seen walking his dog, already knows everything about Koves and warns him that two men came inquiring about his habits. At the South Seas he meets Berg, who too appears to be jobless, but talks in cryptic sentences about a room in which decisions are taken or at least documented. Sziklai announces that he has decided to join the fire brigade but still wants to write a comedy with Koves.
(The moment Koves went through "customs" he stopped being someone who had a wife and had written a novel that had been rejected and became a younger unmarried man who returned to a home he left before the war, and returned to a time when Sziklai was not yet a writer).
Koves has to accept a job as a factory worker. One day on the way to work he witness two "customs" men taking away the chairman with his dog. Koves gets a girlfriend in the most unlikely of manners: one day a factory girl causes an accident that leaves him slightly wounded, and later she invites him to her apartment. He tells her that he is not married. They become lovers and she clearly has plans to start a family with him. However, Koves is summoned to the manager's office. "They" have found out that he is a journalist and are surprised that he works in the factory. They want him to work for the ministry. Koves initially refuses but is soon convinced to accept. He packs his things and leaves the factory without saying a word to his dumbstruck girlfriend. Later Sziklai admits that he informed the press chief of the ministry about Koves' journalistic past and arranged for his "promotion". Every night Koves dines at the South Seas to discuss their comedy with Sziklai. Eventually he notices that Tiny the pianist has disappeared. People refuse to admit that he even existed until someone, an old friend of the pianist, utters a sentence that implies he was carried away as he had feared.
One day after an argument with the boss the typist offers herself to Koves. He is craving sex and takes her, and she educates him in the politics of the ministry. There are alliances and tensions between her boss and his boss, who is the wife of the minister's secretary. This sinister wife is also the sometimes lover of Koves' boss. The intrigue has sadomasochistic overtones that explain a novella written by Koves' boss and that Koves simply thought was boring and amateurish. The typist is amazed at Koves' ignorance. Koves was completely clueless about the whole power struggle. And all of this was almost nothing: the speeches of the minister are actually drafted by the typist herself, not a difficult tasks, given that they are basically always the same; and then revised by her boss, and by his boss and so forth. And then the typist reveals her own ambition: she wants Koves' boss back (so she was her lover, presumably abandoned for the powerful wife). And she now turns arrogant and rude to Koves, telling him that he is going to be fired in the morning: she knows because she herself has typed his letter of dismissal. He wasn't hired because he was needed, he was hired only as a favor to Sziklai.
Koves visits Berg, who has not been seen in a while. Berg is busy writing a book about himself, nicknaming himself "the executioner" and admitting that he has to stand trial for the murder of 30,000 people. But then he speaks to Koves in an ambiguous manner that leaves the doubt the book is not about him. Berg talks in riddles about lives being redundant, serving only an order. Koves tries in vain to get rational answers to simple questions. Berg's nihilist philosophy is that a man's crime is just the being accused.
Back home Koves finds an ambulance taking away the body of Peter: the teenager has committed suicide after losing a chess tournament.
Koves is sent to the army for a while. When he returns, the political mood has changed. The editor in chief who fired him is now destitute. Tiny the pianist has been released from labor camp. Koves return to his job as a journalist and keeps writing the comedy. One day he also sets out to write a better to Berg, a letter in which confesses that during his time in the army he also worked as a prison guard and one day slapped a prisoner on hunger strike. He decides to personally deliver the letter but finds that Berg has become senile. Then one day the revolution starts. Koves witnesses crowds in the streets chanting "we want to live". Sziklai tells him that they can escape abroad because the borders are not watched anymore, but Koves refuses: he has decided to write his novel, and it has to be written in his home country. The last chapter tells us that the did write the novel, that it was rejected by the publisher, etc... (That novel, of course, is Kertesz's first novel, and what we just finished reading is his second novel, which is therefore a novel about writing the first novel).
(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )