Monday, March 24, 2008
Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz
Some writers try to shock. At least it often seems that they embark upon a novel with that in mind. They create books set in times of conflict, amid war or pestilence, where the context is vivid, horrific or even repulsive. And often it is so well known that we engage with the setting, the context or scenario, rather than the plight of the characters. Or sometimes writers deliberately try to portray the unsavoury, often attempting to present sadistic brainlessness in a form that suggests anti-hero, ignoring the requirement that such a character needs at least some aspect of the heroic to deserve the name. These bite-sized pieces of nastiness are thus presented in a form that is easily digested in the end, the product usually attaining only triteness. Meanwhile others try to deliver blood and guts, their raison d’etre, as a means of eliciting revulsion and shock in the reader.
And then sometimes – rarely, in fact - we are presented with the truly shocking in a matter of fact way. Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich might fall into this category. The narrative just about never asks why anything happens; it just does and we, the readers, along with the subject of the story go along with whatever is demanded. We are invited to experience the unacceptable alongside and along with the characters, and in doing so we are invited to confront what we ourselves might have done in such circumstances.
These books locate the reader within the experience, never merely tell us about it. In Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz the writer elevates this form to another level. Not only are we presented with an inexplicable, an unrationalisable concentration camp experience of a fourteen-year-old Jewish boy, we are also presented with a character who apparently can neither feel nor express malice. As he wastes away, we are constantly confronted with an empathetic version of ourselves. Would we have reacted in this way? Would we have merely gone along with things, cooperatively, like this? Or would we have rebelled? Would we have had the guts to stand up? And what would have happened if we did? Could we have watched ourselves starve to death? And if we were to find ourselves required to do it, would we then react? Would we rebel? And if so to what purpose? And would we have survived?
Fatelessness is the story of Georg Koves, a Jewish boy from Budapest, who, one day, is diverted from his journey to work along with his mates. No-one bothers to tell the group what might be happening or where they might be going. Georg, however, goes carefully and cooperatively along with everything his directors ask. He makes train journeys, works in concentration camps, falls sick, recovers and survives, though perhaps his society does not. Names do not matter where he goes. Numbers identify, provide a pecking order of privilege that offers no more than survival into another day. But to be merely near one such survivor endows real kudos, if only by proximity of association. Throughout Fatelessness one is confronted with a question. How might I have coped? Would I have done the same as this ultimately trusting, suffering lad? Would I have survived? And if I did, or even if I did not, would I have used the same or similar resources as this hero?
Fatelessness is a harrowing read, though it never sets out to shock. Life takes you where it goes, irrespective of whether it starts in a privileged family in New York or a ghettoed Jewish confine in 1940s Budapest. One makes of life what it presents, be it wealth, riches, starvation or death. And that’s that. It’s the detail along the way that makes the journey, however.
View this book on amazon Fateless