Imre Kertész: Fateless – Sorstalanság (1975) Literature and War Readalong September 2015


Imre Kertész novel FatelessSorstalanság tells the story of fifteen-year old Gyuri Köves, a Jewish boy who lives in Budapest. It starts in 1944, on the day on which Gyuri’s father is sent to a labour camp. What strikes the reader from the beginning is the narrator’s voice and his cluelessness. He’s a young boy, interested in girls and puzzled by his parents strange arrangements (he lives with his father and his stepmother and his parents often quarrel because his mother wants him to live with her). He notices everything that goes on around him but his interpretations are always slightly off. He finds logic in many shocking things, like the yellow star they have to wear, the way they are being treated by non-Jews and many other things. Why? Because they seem logical, from a certain point of view. And because he doesn’t feel like a Jew. His family isn’t religious. They even eat porc during the last dinner with his father. He feels that the star and being ostracized hasn’t really anything to do with him. It’s not personal.

A little later Gyuri is sent to work in a factory and then, one morning, has to get off the bus and wait endlessly for a train to take him and others to another “work place”. Of course, the reader knows it’s a concentration camp. He’s first sent to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald and later to Zeitz.

He still finds logic in everything he sees. In the way they are forced to work, in the way they are punished. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer. He’s cold, dirty and constantly hungry. He witnesses executions and is afraid of being sent to the gas chambers.

Towards the end of the book, he falls ill and is sent back to Buchenwald until the day the camp is freed and he can return to Budapest.

Reading a novel, set to large parts in a concentration camp, filtered through the consciousness of a narrator like this, was a peculiar and eerie experience. It could have gone wrong. It could have felt sensationalist and dishonest like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (I’m referring to the movie not the book), but it didn’t. It’s chilling because we know what he’s talking about but he doesn’t. When Gyuri tells us how everyone stepping off the train is inspected and then either sent to one group or the other, we know that it means that they will either be sent to a labour camp or to the gas chambers. Reading Gyuri’s assessment of what happens, his feeling of being chosen and found worthy – without knowing the real logic behind it all – is almost creepy.

The best novels don’t just follow a character from the beginning to the end but they show a change. And Gyuri does change. The boy who’s leaving the concentration camp is bitter and full of hatred. The days of his admiration for a system that runs,logically, smoothly, and mercilessly are long gone.

I’ve seen this novel called “shocking” and, if you’ve read my review until now, you may think, you know why. Because of the distortion. But that’s not the shocking part. What may seem odd is the end of the book. It’s not a plot element, therefore, I don’t consider it to be a spoiler to reveal the end. When Gyuri returns to Budapest, people refer to the horrors he must have seen or ask him whether it was like hell. He tells them that he hasn’t seen hell and therefore he doesn’t know how to compare. And  he finds it absurd when people tell him to start a new life, leave what has happened behind. But it’s not likely he will ever forget. What he doesn’t tell them is, that there were moments of great happiness in the concentration camp. And that’s the shocking thing of the novel. It shows us that we cannot imagine something we haven’t experienced. Whether we think, like some,  it wasn’t all that bad or whether we assume it was “hell” – we have no clue. Both assumptions are equally faulty. And there’s a certain arrogance in a assuming that we can picture what we don’t know.  And there can always be happiness. This reminded me of one of my favourite books – Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

The end also reveals the meaning of the title. The novel describes many instances in which the Jews let the oppressor handle them like cattle. They never fight back. This, as Gyuri says, was a choice. Everything was a choice. There’s no such thing as “fate” – everybody is ultimately free, free to choose how to act. Always.

I wish this review was more eloquent but I’ve got the flu since Monday and my head is fuzzy. I’m sorry for that. It’s a book that would have deserved a careful review because it’s stunning. I really liked it a great deal and, for once, “like” isn’t a badly chosen word, even though I’m writing about a Holocaust novel.

I have watched the movie as well and found it powerful. It stay’s close to the novel, with the exception of the last parts. In the movie Gyuri is offered to go to the US when the camp is freed by the Americans. Going back to Hungary means going to the Russian sector. Nothing to look forward to. This isn’t a topic in the book.

The book is based on Kertész’s own experience. As a fourteen-year old he was sent to Auschwitz and from there to Buchenwald. Interestingly he says that the book is far less autobiographical than the movie.


Other reviews

Emma (Book Around the Corner)



Fateless is the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the German novel A Time to Love and a Time to Die – Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque. Discussion starts on Friday 27 November, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.

31 thoughts on “Imre Kertész: Fateless – Sorstalanság (1975) Literature and War Readalong September 2015

  1. I hope that you feel better soon Caroline.

    Great review as always.

    Though Kertész states that this is not autobiographical, the fact that he was a Holocaust survivor seems to give the book and its these credibility.

    • Thanks, Brian. My head feels awful.
      You’re right about what you say of him being a Holocaus survivor. Someone else wouldn’t have gotten away with say there was happiness.

  2. Very thoughtful review, Caroline. It’s too easy to spout cliches and pigeon hole books about the holocaust but your analogy with Ivan Denisovich is a good one. We can’t ever know what it was like to live through this experience and we shouldn’t underestimate the human capacity to cope with whatever situation they find themselves in.

    • Thank you, Karen. I found this aspect of the novel so interesting. I’ve had bad situations in my life, of course not like that, but somehow I always managed to carve out tiny slices of happiness.
      It’s arrogant oassume we know what it must have been like, even if we think we’re being empathic if we assume the worst.

  3. I’ve carried this book with me for the past 3 weeks, but unfortunately, I haven’t gotten very far with it. I haven’t yet been able to “connect” with what is happening, but I get the impression from your and Emma’s review that I am not necessarily meant to do so. I think I just need to wait until my life calms down a bit and I can give the book the attention it deserves.
    I hope you feel better soon!

    • Thanks, TJ.
      It’s a book that keeps you at arm’s length to some degree but I read it very quickly. I liked the way it as written, as absurd as it felt.
      And it wasn’t as horrble as Primo Levi or any other of the Holocaust novels/memoirs I’ve read so far.
      I need to read Emma’s review. I’m just not too well yet.

  4. I agree with Kaggsy – your review is excellent and very thoughtful. I was struck by your comments on the impossibility of us ever really understanding or imagining something we haven’t experienced for ourselves. That’s so true. It sounds like the sort of novel that will stay with the reader for a very long time.

    Wishing you a speedy recovery from the flu – hope you feel better soon.

    • Thank you, Jacqui and for the wishes.
      Interestingly people are always told that they cannot imagine how awful something was – but in this case, what he’s saying is that we have no clue what quality that awful had. We always circle around it and try to pin a cliché on it. “So you were in Auschwitz, hmm. Was that like hell?”
      It will stay with me, I’m sure. He’s an excellent writer.

  5. I hope you feel better, Caroline.

    It’s a powerful book because it doesn’t say, “look how awful it was” but it says it anyway through the boy’s eyes. “Clueless” is the perfect adjective for him.
    Through his narration, we see how he slowly separates himself from the boy he used to be.

    The way it’s told prevents you from thinking you’re relating to his experience. It’s done on purpose because no one can relate to that, ever. I liked that he said he can’t call it ‘hell’ because he’s never been to hell and doesn’t know what hell is.

    The part about his being happy in the camp, from time to time puts the stress on our resilience. We have resources we never imagined.

    I’m really glad you picked it for this year’s Literature and War readalong because it prompted me to read it.

    I hope someone else who’s read it will comment as it’s meant to be discussed.

    • Thanks, Emma. I still feel bad.
      It is a powerful book and I’m glad I chose it too.
      It should be discussed.
      Some of the other Holocaust literature made me feel so sick and almost tricked me into believing I kn ew waht it was like.
      He doesn’t allow that and that’s the amazing thing. There’s no place for hypocrisy here – not even from the reader.
      Resilience is an impiortant topic.

  6. Pingback: Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész | Book Around The Corner

  7. Enjoyed your review Caroline. I always read reviews of this book when I see them come through because while there is always a core that’s the same, we all have a slightly different perspective on what we take away from it, on the emphasis we put on different aspects of the novel.

  8. Good review that makes me quite interested in the book.
    One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is one of my favourite books too for how it shows that people adapt and live even under the hardest of circumstances, that not all is bad. A story needs to tell about these things, about the complexity of an experience, to feel alive and strong and real. For even if we will never completely understand what we haven’t experienced ourselves, we will get closer once we realize these aspects.

    • Thanks, Carolina. Nice to meet someone else who feels the same about Ivan Denisovich.
      I agree, we can still learn even if we can’t fully comprehend. Let me know what you though of Fateless should you pick it up.

  9. Beautiful review, Caroline. This looks like a beautiful, powerful book. It is interesting that the book says that even in the horrors of the concentration camp people could find happiness. It is a tribute to the human spirit, I think. I am sorry I couldn’t join you for the readalong. Hopefully, I will join you for the next one. Sorry to know about the flu. Hope you are feeling better now. Hope you get well soon.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I’m sure you’d like this book. It’s powerful and so different.
      Don’t worry about joining. The Remarque should be a wonderful book.
      I’m still not very well but better. Thanks.

  10. I’m very keen to read this based on your thoughts Caroline. It’s been on my list for ages without getting to it. The perspective is interesting (and challenging) in itself, but also I think because of the dialogue it sets up with other accounts by e.g. Primo Levi, or the recent Otto Dov Shula book (which is a magnificent testimonial).

    Thanks for putting this back into mind for me.

    • I agree, it does set up a dialogue. I would have appreacited it without having read some of the other accounts/novels, but it did enhance the experinece, made it more interesting.
      I haven’t read Otto Dov Shula’s book yet but since you call it magnificent, I’ll put it on my list.

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