I’m not often proud of my brother. Much of the time, and in most circumstances, our personalities and values are very different. However, some time ago a friend of his tried to get him to watch one of those execution videos, in which some poor sod gets his head lopped off. And he refused, quite aggressively so, he told me; he wanted nothing to do with it. It occurred to me then that one thing my brother and I do have in common is an aversion to violence and suffering. Hold on, you’ll say, doesn’t everyone? No, I don’t think they do. Or certainly only an aversion to that which is directed at themselves. I believe that many normally functioning people – by which I mean people who are not dangerous criminals – are drawn to violence and other people’s suffering, they seek them out, at least at a safe distance. I’m sure there are complex reasons for why this is the case – most of which are, in my opinion, based around power and sex. I can imagine many of you shaking your head as you read this; I accept that this is not a popular view; yet to me it is undeniable; one only needs to look at the popularity of certain kinds of TV programmes, or films or books. Take the recent torture porn craze, films that amount to nothing more than 90 mins of people being butchered. And why do more people tune into the news the more horrific, the bigger the tragedy? Who, likewise, is watching all those murder documentaries? Murderers? Maniacs? I don’t think so. Who is reading all those brutal crime novels? The evidence is overwhelming, despite how uncomfortable the reality of it makes people feel. We – human beings – haven’t changed since large crowds gathered to watch public hangings, we just get our kicks in more subtle ways these days.
I think that this attraction to violence and suffering accounts for why many people appear to find Imre Kertesz’s Fateless [or Fatelessness, in another translation] boring or disappointing. Very few people will admit it, of course, but, in a number of the reviews I have read, there is a very real sense of expectations not having been met, without anyone actually truly giving voice to what these expectations were. I can tell you: these people expected grand horror. Fateless is a book about the holocaust, it is a partially autobiographical account of a young man’s experiences in some of the worst concentration camps. These disappointed readers wanted, perhaps sub-consciously, to read about the boy’s suffering, they wanted him to be severely psychologically and physically oppressed. Yet the book lacks these things, in large part, and therefore it is, I believe, for a certain kind of reader, a huge let-down.
For me, however, Fateless is amongst the most extraordinary books I have ever read. Indeed, one of the things I like about it is how novel it is, how, in essence, it does not conform to expectations. The horror is there, of course, because the holocaust was absolutely, undeniably horrific, so to side-step it completely is impossible, but it is nearly always in the background, is not lingered over. The book is a first person narrative, and the boy’s voice is detached, relentlessly ironic, and this creates a weird form of tension, because you know precisely what kind of awful things are happening around him and to him, but he seems, at least for the first two-thirds of the book, unable to see them. The boy isn’t stupid, nor particularly naïve, he just appears to take everything in his stride, to see the common-sense in, the rationale behind, everything.
[From the film adaptation of the book, directed by Lajos Koltai]
One of the most powerful, poignant and moving scenes takes place as Gyorgy and his friends arrive at Auschwitz and are seen by a doctor who divides the inmates into two groups on the basis of who is fit for work and who isn’t. The reader knows what this process is really about, of course, we know what the outcome will be for those unable to work, but Gyorgy, who at this stage does not, mentally joins in the selection process, justifying to himself or questioning the doctor’s decisions to pass or condemn his fellow man. Even when confronted by officers with whips he feels little more than discomforted or wary; and when he finally comes to understand what the crematoriums are for he barely raises an eyebrow.
Kertesz apparently once said that it was important to him that he did not present the holocaust as something in retrospect, as something that has already happened and is being commented on, but rather as something happening, as something being revealed bit by bit to the affected people. However, while I think that is both an interesting approach and one the author makes good use of, I don’t believe that it explains why this book is special. It suggests that Gyorgy would behave as expected [i.e. wringing his hands, beating his chest and wailing at the stars] once he understands what is happening, but he doesn’t. It is the boy’s voice, his take on events, that makes Fateless something of a masterpiece for me. Until I read the book I thought it impossible that anyone could bring a freshness to a subject I already knew a great deal about, but Kertesz does exactly that.
Fateless is, it is worth pointing out, also strangely funny. I have seen it compared to Candide by Voltaire, in which a character attempts to maintain a sunny, positive outlook in the face of every kind of disaster, and while I can see some of that in Kertesz’s novel, the humour is less slap-stick, is darker, more subtle and sophisticated; indeed, in tone it reminded me more of Gulliver’s Travels, or Kafka, it is similarly deadpan, so that one isn’t sure, at certain moments, whether one is meant to laugh or not. For example, when Gyorgy is moved to Buchenwald he sets off on a long description of the place, which sounds eerily like a holiday brochure or the script used by an estate agent who is showing you around a property you may wish to purchase, a property that isn’t of the highest calibre, of course. It would be possible to read this description and be slightly bewildered, because it is absurd, yet there is no doubt in my mind that the author is playing for laughs, albeit bitter laughs. There are, however, more obviously comedic moments, although these too are shot through with bitterness and a kind of searing irony, like when Gyorgy’s father is taken away:
“All the same, I thought, at least we were able to send him off to the labor camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day .”
Or when the boy describes one of the concentration camps as golden days indeed, or when he states, perhaps most movingly of all:
“I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp .”
In terms of style the novel is written in Kertesz’s recognisably overly-precise manner. He is a fan of clauses, that’s for sure, some of which do not make a great deal of sense to me, although you could put this down to a translation issue. The narrator is also, as with the author’s other work, pedantic, and partly because of this the sentences are inelegant, ugly even. Furthermore, Kertesz, much like Dostovesky, repeatedly uses certain words or phrases, such as ‘so to say’ and ‘somehow,’ which can make reading him laborious. However, lyrical is certainly not what the writer was gunning for here, so none of this is intended critically. One thing I would like to say, before I finish, is in response to the review by the usually excellent The Complete Review, which called Fateless something like the autobiography before the art [the art being Kertesz’s later novels]. I don’t agree with that at all. In fact, i think the opposite. Kertesz’s other novels – including Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child – despite many qualities to recommend them, are the imitation after the art. Fiasco is one part Beckett, one part Kafka and one part Bernhard; Kaddish is Beckett and Bernhard; Fateless, on the other hand, is all Kertesz, it is a singular vision.