“But who can judge what is possible or believable in a concentration camp? Who could explore, exhaust all those countless ideas, inventions, games, jokes, and ponderable theories, which are easily accessible and transferable from a make-believe world of fantasy into a concentration-camp reality? You couldn’t, even if you mustered the totality of your knowledge.” (148)
“Son, wouldn’t you like to tell me about your experiences?” I was a little surprised and told him that I couldn’t tell him very many interesting things. Then he smiled a little and said, “Not to me, to the world.” Even more astonished, I replied, “What should I talk about?” “The hell of the camps,” he replied, but I answered that I couldn’t say anything about that because I didn’t know anything about hell and couldn’t even imagine what it was like. He assured me that this was simply a metaphor. “Shouldn’t we picture the concentration camp like hell?” he asked. I answered, while drawing circles in the dust with my heels, that people were free to ignore it according to their means and pleasure but that, as far as I was concerned, I was only able to picture the concentration camp because I knew it a bit, but I didn’t know hell at all. (181)
I’m going to start with a note on the translation I read. My copy of the book is the Northwestern University Press edition, translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katherine M. Wilson. There is a newer translation by Tim Wilkinson titled Fatelessness. On the author’s page at the complete review I learned that Kertesz was not a fan of the translation I read:
In a profile by Dylan Foley in The Journal News (7 November 2004), Kertesz has his say about the original situation:"I really tried to protest against the first translations, but I found complete rejection," Kertész says. "The publisher (Northwestern University) was not willing to do new translations. It was a really bad feeling. It was as if you had a very sane character who has a rendezvous with the reader and the person who shows up is basically a real jerk, with a stammer, bad breath and a foul mouth."As to Wilkinson's efforts, Kertesz is enthusiastic: "I got carried away with Tim Wilkinson's new translations (.....) I'm extremely overjoyed."
The first translators did their own inaccurate interpretations of his work. "The translators didn't understand what I wrote about," says Kertész, still cringing. "The radical nature of my words was something that estranged them. They thought in the interest of the reader, they would make the text more human, to round it off and chisel it a bit."
So unfortunately you’re stuck with a real jerk with bad breath. Oh yeah, and a disappointing translation. The novel opens as the father of fourteen-year-old Georg Koves prepares to leave for a labor camp. The family’s business and valuables are transferred to a non-Jewish employee while the family gathers to say goodbye to Georg’s father. A few months later, while travelling to his imposed job, Georg and other Jews are pulled off their busses and herded to a train station. An odyssey of sorts follows as Georg lives in and travels between Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz (a labor subcamp of Buchewald). After the liberation of the camps, Georg returns to Budapest where people make varying demands on him, whether it’s asking him to broadcast his experience to the world or put it all behind him and carry on as if it didn’t happen.
While the depiction of Georg’s experience in the camps is the centerpiece of the book there are other themes I hope to cover in this post. In the first chapter we get glimpses of Georg as a self-centered teenager, wishing his father was already at the labor camp so he could avoid the uncomfortable feelings of his farewell. These inner revelations continue throughout the book, creating an issue around the story: is it told by the adolescent Georg or the grown up Georg. At times the young Georg is unable to process or understand what is happening to him and to other Jews, an uncertainty or failure to comprehend mirrored by the people around him. We see Jews spending time and effort on the yellow stars they have to wear, focusing on the symbol while avoiding the deeper significance. Avoiding what is really happening and the real meaning is a recurrent theme. People act as if they don't believe the bad things they hear about in the east, but on some level people realize what is happening. Why the need to transfer everything to a non-Jew? Why the feeling that Georg’s father won’t be coming back from the labor camp? An interesting contrast arises as the people are pulled off buses on the outskirts of Budapest: the boys treat it as a joke and a mistake while the adult men recognize what awaits them. Georg laughs at the situation, feeling he has dropped into “an absurd theater play,” while also having a typical adolescent, self-centered reaction imagining how his stepmother will react when he doesn’t return home.
Georg’s misunderstanding continues when he arrives at Auschwitz. He sees men in striped pajamas and barb-wire around the camp, believing there is a separate place for convicts and criminals instead of realizing that is his fate. There is a running theme on this lack of comprehension. At Auschwitz, prisoners had a favorable view of labor camps but, after being in one, Georg doesn’t share that outlook. Prisoners who had been in the camp system for years can’t comprehend Georg’s comments about how the Jews were treated in the city after the older convicts had been arrested. This will mirror the attitude of friends and family left behind in Budapest, who can’t comprehend what Georg went through in the camps.
Throughout his torment Georg ascribes a genuine humanity to his persecutors. He feels guards and doctors like him. He hears that those sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the weak, young, women, and children, were treated with care and affection by the guards. Georg constantly looks to understand the motivations behind the way he is treated and usually decides good intentions or self-interest explains their behavior. Even when things go bad, such as when capes are handed out to the prisoners only to find they are useless, Georg still notes that they were doled out conscientiously. Doubts creep in, not on his tormentors' bad intentions but on Georg’s own self-worth:
I was in some ways mesmerized, fascinated by it all. I had to smile a little when I remembered the policemen’s nonchalant, almost modest accompaniment at home on that day as we were going to the barracks. But the behavior of the military policemen, I had to admit, seemed only noisily self-important compared with this silent and in every respect harmonized professionalism. And although I could see their faces well, the color of their eyes or hair, one or another characteristic distinction, or even some flaws, a pimple or a bump on their skins, still I was not able to grasp all of this. I almost had to doubt it. Really, in spite of everything, were these people who were marching beside us basically the same as us? Were they made of roughly the same human materials that we were? But I thought that my way of looking at this was probably flawed, because I was not the same as they were, of course.” (89)
Georg does realize that some people can’t stand the Jews. An early example is a baker in Budapest that shortchanges Jews their daily bread ration. Georg believes he understands why the baker believes as he did, which only solves one part of the equation: “I understood at that moment why he had no choice but to dislike Jews. For if he liked them, he’d be left with the unpleasant feeling that he was cheating them. This way he acted according to his convictions, his acts being governed by an ideal, and that made everything entirely different, of course.” (9-10) Georg’s narrative highlights his difficulty in defining his identity. Georg may have been viewed as a Jew in Budapest but other prisoners had different definitions on what it meant to be a Jew. A clique of prisoners asked Georg if he spoke Yiddish.
When I told them no, unfortunately not, they were finished with me; they treated me as if I were a nonentity. I tried to speak up, to make them take note of me, but it was fruitless. “You are no Jew.” They shook their heads, and I was entirely perplexed to see people who, after all, were supposed to be so experienced in business affairs insist so irrationally on a thing that was much more of a loss and a disadvantage to them than a profit, when you consider the end results. Then, that day I also experienced that very same tenseness, that same itchy feeling and clumsiness that came over me when I was with them, that I had occasionally felt at home: as if I weren’t entirely okay, as if I didn’t entirely conform to the ideal; in other words, somehow as if I were Jewish. That was a rather strange feeling, because, after all, I was among the Jews and in a concentration camp. (102)
Georg’s self-identification isn’t the only thing that changes in the camps. He emphasizes incremental changes, slight changes that accumulate over time and form major changes. “[T]ime can deceive our eyes.” Georg places a lot of emphasis on the power of time, believing at one point that he simply wasn’t given enough time to grow accustomed to camp life. Time plays tricks with Georg’s memory. He remembers things in great detail from the first days in a new camp but after that he only retains a general impression. Time and identity intersect when Georg can only remember the number assigned to him instead of his name.
Time also plays a role in one of the more unsettling parts of the book. “There was an hour in the day, between our return from the factory and mustering—an important, always-active hour, full of relief, which I for one liked best and anticipated eagerly. Incidentally this was also the dinner hour.” (104) Lest you think this is the older Georg forgetting the horrors he endured, the “special time” is mentioned several times and has an appeal in many ways. For instance during this hour Georg “found out that at home everybody was perfectly happy and mostly rich.” (108) (There is a lot of deadpan humor in the book.) Georg and other characters refer to certain periods of time in the camps as a “Golden Age.” On the last pages of the book, Georg notes he was homesick for that special hour, his “favorite hour in the camp” and remembers everyone “with a tiny, affectionate resentment.” These final pages provide the real power of the novel. Up to the liberation of the camps, Georg’s narrative has been very matter-of-fact, even bland. The horrors of the camp will still move the reader, but even here these descriptions are upstaged by Georg ascribing humane characteristics to his tormentors. Why the longing for that hour in the camps, and why resent other prisoners? Part of the answer lies in the awkward forward/back nature of the narrative, which I think provides a major key to reading the novel. The older Georg has lived through communist regimes, so in part he may be commenting on his preference in totalitarian systems. To this point Kertész commented in his Nobel Foundation lecture, "If I look back now and size up honestly the situation I was in at the time, I have to conclude that in the West, in a free society, I probably would not have been able to write the novel known by readers today as Fateless." Where he was and who he was allowed him to use irony in a fifteen-year-old boy’s thoughts. It also refers to his thoughts on fate, a recurring topic in the book.
“Fate” has several meanings in the novel. The most obvious is how Georg was sent to the camps and more importantly how he survived. It’s important to note Georg never explicitly uses the word “fate” in this context but it is clearly an important meaning in its use. He could have easily run away from the policeman when being marched to the train station in Budapest. Even though he’s not the only boy to lie about his age at Auschwitz, the doctor motions him to the group that won’t be gassed. The first letter of his name was the reason he was sent to Zetiz. Bandi Citrom, another prisoner from Budapest, saves Georg’s life several times. Georg acknowledges his natural stubbornness played a role in his survival. Upon his return to Buchenwald he is laying next to a body that is as lifeless as his, yet the other body is thrown in the pile to be cremated while Georg is taken to the hospital. All of these things are important in Georg’s survival, his fate. There are two other meanings of “fate,” though, that Georg explicitly talks about. (In this multi-layered meaning of “fate” I’m reminded of the many meanings Vasily Grossman had in mind when he titled his book Life and Fate.)
The first of these is his Jewishness as well as his identity and fate tied to that meaning. A childhood friend worries about why so many people hate her because she is Jewish and what it even means to be Jewish. Georg tries to console her, telling her that there is nothing distinctive about being a Jew, which upsets her even more.
“With a cracking voice, she desperately shouted something to the effect that if our distinctiveness was unimportant, then all this was mere chance, and that if there was the possibility of her being someone other than whom she was fated to be, then all this was utterly without reason, and to her that idea was totally ‘unbearable.’” (29)
Georg’s Uncle Lajos and a rabbi he meets on the train talk about the Jewish fate for having turned their faces from the Lord, giving meaning to their trials and tribulations. Georg doesn’t openly come out against this meaning while accepting the part of this argument that being on earth means they will be judged. But he also feels it is a message pointing to something beyond being Jewish…maybe simply being human? I think that explains some of the reason he is so disturbed by the nice treatment he receives in the camp’s hospital—it was at odds with the idea and existence of a concentration camp. The second additional meaning of fate comes close to Grossman’s meaning, where fate and freedom are at odds. This is why the “ordered life-style” is so important in captivity—the lack of freedom meshes with fate. Once the camp is liberated Georg notes that freedom is nice, but where is their daily food? He’s only able to begin to savor freedom after plans to feed the former prisoners are broadcast. There’s understanding in his voice when talking about people willing to swap their freedom for a preordained fate. You will live out a given fate, whether it is yours or not. As Georg puts it, “we ourselves are fate:”
“We can never start a new life. We can only continue the old one. I took my own steps. No one else did. And I remained honest in the end to my given fate. The only stain or beauty flaw, I might say the only incorrectness, that anyone could accuse me of is maybe the fact that we are talking now. But that is not my doing. Do you want all this horror and all my previous steps to lose their meaning entirely? Why this sudden turn, whey this opposition? Why can’t you see that if there is such a thing as fate, then there is no freedom? That is,” and I stopped to take a breath, “that is, we ourselves are fate.” (188-9)
As I mentioned earlier, part of the power of the novel lies in its final pages when Georg returns home. It’s hard to tell what Georg dislikes most, the journalist who wants him to share is story (he’s already said that the totality of a man’s knowledge cannot comprehend a concentration camp unless you have endured it) or the defensive, well-meaning relatives who advise him to move on with his life. I think this is another reason he mentions the golden hour in the camps for which he was homesick—the experience shaped him and became part of him. To deny what has happened would be to deny who he is. His return to Budapest reinforces his fate in the most common meaning: some people help him, some ignore him, and others torment him. He doesn’t fault the last two groups, ascribing a humaneness to them that probably doesn’t exist, by noting they couldn’t possibly understand him.
OK, I didn’t mean for this to be such a rambling post. I did want to convey the complexity of the novel, which I think is often dismissed as a thinly-veiled, bland retelling of Kertész’s experience. I think the most moving parts of the novel, the opening two chapters and the final one, are the most moving on purpose—his experience in the camp can be documented but not adequately communicated unless you have been through it. Highly recommended. I’ll have a post on the 2005 move Fateless (Kertész wrote the screenplay) soon.