Strange days

The sheltered 15-year-old boy who tells his story in Hungarian author Imre Kertész’s new novel Fatelessness does not try to suggest anything so inadequate as “the triumph of the human spirit over adversity” as he takes us along on his extraordinary journey from Budapest to the concentration camps during World War II. On the contrary, he conveys with subtlety and precision the utter strangeness of what happens to him at every step and demonstrates how unprepared and ill-equipped he and his companions are to cope with it. The boy’s overriding urge is to make sense of the seemingly nonsensical, to find rationality in the irrational, until the effort to maintain a sense of conscious subjectivity against the ravages of the body becomes too difficult and overwhelming.

For us to begin to understand life in the camps, it is not so much the horror that we must focus on, though this is the more fascinating story, if one can put it that way, but the altered state of consciousness that necessarily results from an altered and inconceivable universe. The narrator conveys the constant torment of the body and the sense of tranquility that finally comes with giving up the struggle for survival, when the separation of the sense of self from the body takes over. He also conveys the ultimate saving importance of friendship coupled with the near impossibility of friendship; the myriad choices that must be made coupled with the impossibility of controlling one’s fate; the endless sense of time coupled with the enormous effort of surviving moment to moment.

The universe of the camps is a place where the incredible becomes normal and natural, while what was once normal and natural becomes astonishing — a face that still has its own features, a kindness that seeks no immediate reward. Kertész shows us the impossibility of conveying the experiences of the camps to an uncomprehending audience afterward; the impossibility of continuing one’s life and yet of not doing so when one finds that, after all, one is still alive, still the person one was, and yet no longer that person at all but forever changed.

Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2002 and has written eight previous novels, was himself imprisoned in Buchenwald as a youth. We feel a lifetime of pondering this fate boiled down to this deceptively simple literary expression, in which one wants to savor each word while witnessing the gradual evolution of a naive adolescent consciousness into a philosophical confrontation with the incomprehensibility of life. This is not a coming-of-age story, at least not an ordinary one, but an illuminating perspective on Holocaust experience and its largest implications in the masterly tradition of Primo Levi, Charlotte Delbo and Tadeusz Borowski. That the boy survives is a result, not of spiritual triumph, but, as was so often the case, extraordinary chance and circumstance, suggesting that the arbitrariness of history is the ultimate lesson every concentration camp prisoner learns.

Dora Apel writes about books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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