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Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… 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. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

  1. September 30, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Merci beaucoup, Emma. I really admire your review, you have brought out some points that I overlooked in mine:)

    Like

    • September 30, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Thanks Lisa.
      We’d like to like him more, we’d want our victim to be more likeable. But he’s just a regular guy with his qualities and flaws.

      I don’t know if I imagined the extra “existentialist” side of the novel. I’m curious to read what Caroline thinks about that aspect if she reads my billet.

      Like

  2. September 30, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    This does sound like a book that might be very hard to read, so I can understand your hesitation in picking it up. Fate and fatelessness, or the randomness of fate – very interesting discussion!

    Like

    • September 30, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      It’s difficult to read but worth it.
      Plus, what’s my little discomfort compared to his experience and our collective duty not to forget.

      Like

  3. September 30, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    I just wanted to thank you for joining me and tell you that I’ll read your review soon.
    I’ve got the flu since Monday and I’m mostly in bed. Sorry.

    Like

    • September 30, 2015 at 9:45 pm

      I’m glad you put it on your reading schedule. It pushed me to read it and I’m really glad I did.
      I’m sorry to hear you’re sick, I hope you feel better soon.

      Like

  4. September 30, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Great commentary on the title, its various meanings and interpretations – that makes a lot of sense. I read a couple of Primo Levi’s books (This is a Man and The Periodic Table) a few years ago, so it might be a little soon for another book on this topic. Like you, I find them very hard to bear. I will keep it in mind, though.

    Like

    • September 30, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      These books are hard to bear but the clueless tone of the character is terrible.
      I’ve heard about a play by Belgian journalist and director Michael de Cock. He’s done interviews of refugees and written a play based upon their experience. It’s set in a truck and it gives a voice to refugees. (The play in entitled Kamyon, like truck or lorry). He was on the radio the other day and he said that the most terrible part of the interviews were children. They’s known nothing else than war, the road and hardship. It’s their life and what they consider “normal” is far from normal for an adult with a usual childhood.

      It’s exactly the same here. Gyorgy is young and his ideas about what is normal or more exactly, acceptable or human are not set. His views get twisted by his circumstances and he accepts as normal things that aren’t normal at all.
      And an adult reader of a European country in 2015 grasps the horror of what he’s living. And at the same time, you can’t really relate because it’s so foreign, so awful. You can sympathise but never relate.

      I also loved the extra-layer about our condition as humans. Is there free will? For me, Kertész thinks free will exists because even in this dreadfully organised organisation, the narrator’s tiny actions still had a capital influence on his life.

      Like

  5. September 30, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    I think you caught the terror of not having a fate really well in this review. I could feel myself imagining what it would be like to live only in now and tomorrow.

    Like

    • September 30, 2015 at 9:33 pm

      It’s a difficult book to read because of the horror of the camps and the cluelessness of the character.

      It’s hard not to be able to imagine a future because of your current circumtances and because your past experiences cut you off the future you had imagined and you need to reinvent your future.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. October 1, 2015 at 2:02 am

    I reviewed this too early in my blog’s life. I loved reading your review, Emma, partly for your wonderful and helpful insights, and partly because it reminded me of this book again. It’s not that I’ll ever forget it, but it was such a challenging read that I often want to go back and think about it a bit more.

    Like

    • October 1, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      Thanks. It’ll stay with me too and like you, I’ll be interested in reading other reviews too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. October 1, 2015 at 9:02 am

    Very detailed review, Emma. Thanks for that and for adding the photo and the numbers. I had no idea so many of the Hungarian Jews were killed right away.
    What would be interesting is how much they knew. Did they know less about the camps/gas chambers in Hungary than in some oter countries? Or did he emphasize that to make it more horrible for us, who know?
    I really appreciated the tone/voice of the narrator. I’m so often annoyed when books about the war are told in a sentimental way. Or even like entertainment. Not sure you heard of that romance novel that came out this year. It won prizes. (for romance novels, that is) It tells the love story of a Jewish woman and a Nazi in a camp. It caused an uproar. Rightly so. I can’t remember the title.

    Like

    • October 1, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      The synagogue, the museum of the Terror and the memorial along the Danube are horrifying. So many people killed in such a short period of time.

      I think common people didn’t know. And it’s so unimaginable.

      I liked his tone, too. There’s nothing sentimental about it, that’s for sure. I liked that he doesn’t play the victim card although he is a victim of a horrible regime. His tone shows well the slow dehumanisation, how his innocence is destroyed piece by piece.
      I haven’t heard of that romance novel. It’s hardly plausible. While it happened in occupied zones in a civil environment, I can’t picture it in a concentration camp, just because the organisation of the camp wouldn’t allow it.

      Like

  8. October 1, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I’ve had this on a wishlist for years (along with a number of Kertesz’s books) but have never quite got round to picking it up. Thanks for the billet Emma, I’m interested in what you say comparing it to Camus and Kafka. Must re-read The Castle as well….

    Like

    • October 1, 2015 at 8:56 pm

      Let me know what you think about it when you read it.
      It’s a powerful book and it’s worth reading.

      Like

  9. October 2, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    This is a great review. Fatelessness was the first Kertesz novel I read and still, I feel, his best. The child’s viewpoint, as you say, is particularly ironic. Thanks for your discussion of the title – I never understood why there were two English versions!

    Like

    • October 3, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Thanks.
      It’s my first Kertész, too. I understand that it’s part of a trilogy. I’ve got to check this out. Which other ones have you read?

      Like

  10. October 3, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Have you read Night by Elie Wiesel? That was the ultimate Holocaust read for me. I went through a period decades ago when I read every Holocaust book I could get my hands on, but Night stuck with me more than the others.

    Like

    • October 3, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      I have never read Wiesel. I should read this one too. (The best way would be to buy it now, have it on the shelf and I’d come to it one day)
      Fateless gives a voice to the Hungarian victims.

      Like

      • October 3, 2015 at 5:54 pm

        Yes you have to have space in between reading Holocaust books, I think.

        Like

  11. October 5, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Very nicely captured Emma, but not one for me I think. Literature of the Holocaust and I parted ways some time ago, though this sounds significantly better than more conventional and recent novels on the subject.

    Like

    • October 6, 2015 at 8:05 pm

      I’m not a huge reader of books about this period (although I have Wandering Star by Le Clezio ligned up for next week or so)
      I thought the approach through an adolescent eyes interesting and it gave us a testimony from a Hungarian angle.

      Like

  12. April 1, 2016 at 12:46 am

    On the day when we learn the news of the death of Kertesz, it is interesting to re-read your review (and mine), in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis. What, I wonder, is going through the minds of the 15-16 year-old boys, not quite old enough to fight against ISIS, at this time?

    Like

    • April 4, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Good question, Lisa. For me, the worst are women: what can they find in this idealogy that deprieves women of basic rights?

      Sad times for literature: Jim Harrison, Imre Kertész…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. June 6, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    “The whole novel bathes in absurdity. … It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy…”

    Dunno…I just can’t see the Nazis as absurd; they seem to purposeful and human in what they were doing. I don’t find inhumane hatred and mass murder a surprising or absurd response to the world anymore – seems part of what people do. Reason’s power is very overrated, especially by disillusioned French existentialists. That’s one post 20th century man’s opinion.

    I thought this book was fantastic precisely for the deadpan tone. Kertesz was terrified of stepping into the dog shit of “holocaust kitsch,” of the Speilberg type. I respect him a lot for that.

    A writer with a similar tone, very much admired by IK, was Borowski, author of the short story, “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen,” a real blow to head of a story.

    Cheers!

    Like

    • June 6, 2016 at 8:48 pm

      I never said the Nazis were absurd. What I say is that the way the narrator relates his experience, it feels absurd. He doesn’t have any political analysis of the situation. He never sees the bigger picture. He sees the events at his height, according to his capacities as a 15 years old. He feels like being in an alternate universe and he doesn’t understand the reason for the existence of the camps. It’s to kill Jews, but why kill them?

      I also think that this horror is part of human nature, unfortunately. What I described in my billet is the character’s perception, not mine.

      What do you mean by That’s one post 20th century man’s opinion?

      Yes, I think this book is unique in its tone and also because it pictures an adolescent who didn’t have the tools to think what was happening to him. And it shows how the camp attacked people in their dignity, in their flesh, in their mind.

      I suppose that Kertesz being Hungarian has a lot to do with the different perspective. He went from Nazism to Communist dictatorship. What a life.

      Thanks for the book recommendation, I’ll check this one too.

      Like

      • June 7, 2016 at 3:37 pm

        “I never said the Nazis were absurd.” I get that. 😀 👌

        I just find the notion of the absurd unconvincing. I don’t think Kertesz is portraying the camps as absurd, but as something stranger – normal. That’s how G sees it. He doesn’t try to make sense of it. Readers, immersed in the notion of the absurd, still try to it, and are shocked by his acceptance. G’s attitude is, “Well, adults do odd thing,” and so they do.

        Like

  1. September 30, 2015 at 11:55 am
  2. December 29, 2015 at 11:29 pm
  3. March 5, 2016 at 11:58 pm

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