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

Fateless

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)

 

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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.

Literature and War Readalong September 30 2015: Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész

Fateless

The third book in this year’s Literature and War Readalong is Imre Kertész’ Holocaust novel Fateless. Kertész is a Hungarian author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002. As far as I know, he’s the only Hungarian author who has won the prize.

As a boy of fourteen, Kertész was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and later brought to Buchenwald. Although the book is based on some of his own experiences, it is by no means autobiographical. The movie based on the book, and for which Kertész wrote the script, is much more autobiographical as the novel.

Here are the first sentences

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. I also handed him the letter in which, referring to “family reasons” my father requested that I be excused. He asked what the “family reasons” might be. I told him my father had ben called up for labor service; after that he didn’t raise a further peep against it.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

I’m planning on watching the movie soon. I’m interested to see the differences. If you don’t get the time to read the novel, but still want to join the discussion, you could just watch (and review) the movie.

 

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The discussion starts on Wednesday, 30 September 2015.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2015 – Mini Edition

Literature and War Readalong 2015

For some of you it may come as a surprise that next year’s Literature and War Readalong contains only four titles, but I felt we needed a change. That’s why I chose only four books, from four different countries, focussing on three different wars. The list should appeal to those interested in international literature, books by prize winners, novels on international conflict, modern classics, books that have been made into movies and a lot more.

The Disappeared

March, Tuesday 31 2015

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin (Canada 2009), War in Cambodia, Novel, 336 pages.

Here’s the blurb:

After more than 30 years Anne Greves feels compelled to break her silence about her first lover, and a treacherous pursuit across Cambodia’s killing fields. Once she was a motherless girl from taciturn immigrant stock. Defying fierce opposition, she falls in love with Serey, a gentle rebel and exiled musician. She’s still only 16 when he leaves her in their Montreal flat to return to Cambodia. And, after a decade without word, she abandons everything to search for him in the bars of Phnom Penh, a city traumatized by the Khmer Rouge slaughter. Against all odds the lovers are reunited, and in a political country where tranquil rice paddies harbour the bones of the massacred, Anne pieces together a new life with Serey. But there are wounds that love cannot heal, and some mysteries too dangerous to know. And when Serey disappears again, Anne discovers a story she cannot bear.

Haunting, vivid, elegiac, The Disappeared is a tour de force; at once a battle cry and a piercing lamentation, for truth, for love.

Literary fiction of the highest order, this is an unforgettable novel set against the backdrop of Cambodia’s savage killing fields.
Novel Without A Name.
May, Friday 29 2015

Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong (Vietnam 1995), War in Vietnam, Novel, 304 pages.

Here is the blurb:

Vietnamese novelist Huong, who has been imprisoned for her political beliefs, presents the story of a disillusioned soldier in a book that was banned in her native country.

A piercing, unforgettable tale of the horror and spiritual weariness of war, Novel Without a Name will shatter every preconception Americans have about what happened in the jungles of Vietnam. With Duong Thu Huong, whose Paradise of the Blind was published to high critical acclaim in 1993, Vietnam has found a voice both lyrical and stark, powerful enough to capture the conflict that left millions dead and spiritually destroyed her generation. Banned in the author’s native country for its scathing dissection of the day-to-day realities of life for the Vietnamese during the final years of the “Vietnam War, ” Novel Without a Name invites comparison with All Quiet on the Western Front and other classic works of war fiction. The war is seen through the eyes of Quan, a North Vietnamese bo doi (soldier of the people) who joined the army at eighteen, full of idealism and love for the Communist party and its cause of national liberation. But ten years later, after leading his platoon through almost a decade of unimaginable horror and deprivation, Quan is disillusioned by his odyssey of loss and struggle. Furloughed back to his village in search of a fellow soldier, Quan undertakes a harrowing, solitary journey through the tortuous jungles of central Vietnam and his own unspeakable memories.

Fateless

September, Wednesday 30 2015

Fateless – Sorstalanság by Imre Kertész (Hungary 1975), Holocaust,  Novel, 272 pages.

Here is the blurb:

The powerful story of an adolescent’s experience of Auschwitz by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertész.

Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, gets the day off school to witness his father signing over the family timber business to the firm’s bookkeeper – his final business transaction before being sent to a labour camp. Two months after saying goodbye to his father, Gyuri finds himself assigned to a ‘permanent workplace’, but within a fortnight he is unexpectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the start of his journey to Auschwitz.

On his arrival Gyuri finds that he is unable to identify with other Jews, and in turn is rejected by them. An outsider among his own people, his estrangement makes him a preternaturally acute observer, dogmatically insisting on making sense of everything he witnesses.

A Time To Love and a Time to Die

November, Friday 27

A Time to Love and a Time to DieZeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben by Erich Maria Remarque (Germany, WWII, Novel, 384 pages.

It’s interesting to note that the German title isn’t as corny as the English one. It means “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” not Love and Die.

Here is the blurb:

From the quintessential author of wartime Germany, A Time to Love and a Time to Die echoes the harrowing insights of his masterpiece All Quiet on the Western Front.

After two years at the Russian front, Ernst Graeber finally receives three weeks’ leave. But since leaves have been canceled before, he decides not to write his parents, fearing he would just raise their hopes.

Then, when Graeber arrives home, he finds his house bombed to ruin and his parents nowhere in sight. Nobody knows if they are dead or alive. As his leave draws to a close, Graeber reaches out to Elisabeth, a childhood friend. Like him, she is imprisoned in a world she did not create. But in a time of war, love seems a world away. And sometimes, temporary comfort can lead to something unexpected and redeeming.

“The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure.”—The New York Times Book Review

 

I will anounce each title with some additional information about six weeks before the discussion date. I hope you like the choices and will join me whenever you can.