Fatelessness (Imre Kertész)

Posted: July 8, 2014 in fiction
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There are established forms and methods for discussing The Holocaust. Imre Kertész ignores them and writes about what I must believe are his own experiences as a teenager in a concentration camp. For example, here’s the closing bit:

But one shouldn’t exaggerate, as this is precisely the crux of it: I am here, and I am well aware that I shall accept any rationale as the price for being able to live. Yes, as I looked around this placid, twilit square, this street, weather-beaten yet full of a thousand promises, I was already feeling a growing and accumulating readiness to continue my uncontinuable life. […] there is nothing impossible that we do not live through naturally, and keeping a watch on me on my journey, like some inescapable trap, I already know there will be happiness. For even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is that experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that, the happiness of the concentration camps.

And this is precisely what he does. Instead of writing about people dying, he writes about people living. This is a novel about how to survive disasters, not how to be delivered from them or how to be ground into the dust by them.

Only in Zeitz did I come to realize that even captivity has its mundane round; indeed, true captivity is actually nothing but a gray mundane round.

In this sense, most of us do live in captivity, and I drew some parallels to the difficult experience of living on an expatriate compound. We aren’t being starved or forced to work beyond our strength, obviously, nor are we beaten or shot at, (to limit myself to what we read in the book) but the monotony, the emotional starvation, and the uncaringness of the supervisors I can readily identify with. I also quickly sink into this listless mental paralysis that I think deserves a stronger name than boredom. At one point, he imagines hell as a place where it is impossible to get bored – this is his defense mechanism; his strategy for survival is to dissociate the mind from the suffering. Indeed, the mind sometimes severs itself from reality altogether, floating in a near-senseless limbo state. And this is why I watch too much television.

So it makes sense to me that when the camps are liberated, it takes a while for him to care. In the films, there are always American soldiers rushing in and carrying children or the wounded out of the camps immediately, as if they were shepherds returning lost lambs to the fold. Not so here. He’s in a camp hospital, and he hears some noise during the day, and then notices that his dinner is late. Some people get on an intercom and announce freedom in many languages, but . . .

However hard I listened, though, all I heard of from him, as from everyone before, was about freedom, but not a single word about or in reference to the missing soup. I was absolutely delighted, quite naturally, about our being free, but I couldn’t help it if, from another angle, I fell to thinking that yesterday, for instance, such a thing could never have happened. The April evening outside was already dark, and Pyetchka too had arrived back, flushed, excited, talking thirteen to the dozen, when the Lagerältester finally came on again over the loudspeaker. This time he appealed to the former members of the Kartoffelschäler-Kommando, requesting them to resume their old duties in the kitchens, and all other inmates of the camp to stay awake, until the middle of the night if need be, because they were going to start cooking a strong goulash soup, and it was only at this point that I slumped back on my pillow in relief, only then that something loosened up inside me, and only then did I myself also think – probably for the first time in all seriousness – of freedom.

Freedom is an important concept for me as an American; we’re taught to think of it as the most important thing ever, the concept that defines our nation. Yet, when I think of our behavior over the last fifteen years, or if I’m being perfectly honest, the last seventy, I wonder. Given the constraints of economics, education, and other factors, how free is the average American? Is this a Land of Opportunity? We clutch the word freedom in our mouths while giving away the genuine article with both hands.

When discussing concentration camps, it is only acceptable to discuss Jews. Even Bent, a gay romance set in a concentration camp, is about Jews. [How on earth did I think this would be a good movie for me to watch? Where is the possibility of a happy ending in that?] I would like very much to see a timeline for the camps—which types of inmates were brought in at which times, when all the pink triangles were dead, that sort of thing—because it always seems to me that the Jews were latecomers. That’s why they get rescued at the ends of their books/films. Protagonist-with-the-forgettable-name gets sent off in the middle of 1944, and while I don’t mean to diminish his experience, why don’t people talk about the ones who were taken earlier? The camps were efficient and heartless because the guards had been trained to be before the Jews in the films showed up. They cut their baby teeth on the political dissidents and homosexuals, so I imagine the experience of being in a camp in 1940 would have been very different.

The Jews in Holocaust films also tend to be all the same. They aren’t very orthodox, religious pragmatism/assimilation appealing to American audiences as it does, but they’re all keenly aware of their racial identity and derive a large part of their sense of who they are from their Jewishness. Not so, with our protagonist. Yes, he wears the yellow star at home and the yellow triangle in the camp, but his national identity as a Hungarian is much more important to him than his Jewishness. Before he goes to the camp, he has this conversation with a girl:

Then again, I had also read a book, a sort of novel, not long ago. A beggar and a prince who, leaving that one difference aside, conspicuously resembled each other both facially and physically, to the point they could not be told apart, exchanged fates with each other out of sheer curiosity, until in the end the beggar turned into a real prince while the prince became a real beggar. I asked the girl to try and imagine the same thing about herself. It was not very likely, or course, but then all kinds of things are possible, after all. What could have happened to her, let’s say in very early infancy, when a person is not yet able to speak or remember, it didn’t matter how, but suppose she had somehow been swapped or got mixed up with a child from another family whose documents were in perfect order from a racial point of view. In this hypothetical case it would now be the other girl who would perceive the difference and of course wear the yellow star, whereas she, in view of what she knew, would see herself – as of course would others – as being exactly like other people, and she would neither think about nor recognize any difference. As far as I could tell, that had quite an impact on her. At first she merely fell silent, then very slowly, but with a softness I felt as almost palpable, her lips parted as if she were wishing to say something. That was not what happened, however, but something else, much odder: she burst into tears.

I think this is true of socially constructed identities in general. Yes, racial characteristics are genetic; yes, sexual preference is marked by observable physiological responses; but this is only a scientific basis for society to categorize us. The physical fact of race and gender are not as important as the identity society builds for us around them. You’re Jewish? You must be clever, greedy, and argumentative. You’re gay? You must like dance music, shopping for clothes, and adopting the gestures and speech patterns of sassy African-American women. All of these are arbitrary social constructions. But when we adopt a social construction as an identity, it can be hard to have that pulled away from us.

Like de-emphasizing nationality. The Germans took Jews from several different countries, told them that Jewishness was their most important identity, and put them all in camps together. But they don’t all speak Yiddish, and when left to themselves, they tend to reassert the primacy of their national identities. For Protagonist, this is generally a difficult process because there are so few Hungarians, he doesn’t speak Yiddish, and he doesn’t identify strongly with other Jews.

That day I learned that the discomfiture, the skin-crawling awkwardness which at times took hold between us was already familiar to me from back home, as if there had been something not quite right about me, as if I did not quite measure up to the proper ideal, in short as if I were somehow Jewish – a rather odd feeling to have after all, I reckoned, in the midst of Jews, in a concentration camp.

He’s a Jew among Jews, cast out of the outcasts for not being Jewish enough. At some point in our lives, we all struggle with the conflict between socially constructed roles and our personal identities. I don’t know if this is still the case, but when I was growing up African-American boys were discouraged from getting too interested in their education because that was characteristic of whites. There was a certain style of dress that was accepted for them – I’ve seen the prices, those clothes are just as expensive as the ones popular for white kids, so this isn’t an economic issue. But collectively, our society has decided how black people (gay people, women, people with disabilities, fat people, etc) should dress, act, and speak, and woe be unto the teenager who tries to be free from that.

But I’m ignoring the happiness of the concentration camps! Protagonist arrives at the hospital and talks with the doctors, who are also prisoners, but of ten or twelve years. They ask him what he did to wind up in Buchenwald, and he describes getting taken, and they’re shocked that it was done without his parents being consulted.

In the end, I found that people on all sides were looking at me, heads shaking, and with a most singular emotion on their faces, which was a little embarrassing because, as best I could tell, they were feeling sorry for me. I felt a strong urge to tell them there was no need for that after all, at least not right at that moment, but I ended up saying nothing, something held me back, somehow I couldn’t find it in my heart to do so, because I noticed that the emotion gratified them, gave them some sort of pleasure, the way I saw it. Indeed – and I could have been mistaken of course, though I don’t think so – but later on (for there were one or two other occasions on which I was similarly questioned and interrogated) I gained the impression that they expressly sought out, almost hunted for, an opportunity, a means or pretext for this emotion for some reason, out of some need, as a testimony to something as it were, to their method of dealing with things perhaps, or possibly, who knows, to their still being capable of it at all; and in that form it was somehow pleasing, for me at least.

They need to be able to pity someone. They can bolster their happiness by looking at the suffering of others. No matter how bad things are, at least I wasn’t in a concentration camp at age sixteen. They can look back on their own happier youths and contemplate the present with more strength. Things might be awful now, but they could be worse, and there are always the memories of better times to relive. There’s also music, as in this scene from shortly after intake:

That day I also saw the women too for the first time. A group of men congregating and excitedly swarming around by the barbed-wire fence pointed them out: there they were, true enough, though I found it hard to pick them out in the distance, on the far side of the clayey field that stretched before us – and, above all, to recognize them as being women. They scared me a little, and I noticed that after the initial delight, the excitement at the discovery, the people around me here all fell very quiet. Just one observation, which rang hollow and a little tremulously, reached my ear from nearby: “They’re bald.” In the big hush, I too picked out for the first time, carried by the occasional wafts of a light summer-evening breeze, thinly, squeakily, and barely audibly, but beyond any doubt, the soothing, joyous sound of music, which, combined as it was with the sight, somehow hugely astonished everyone, myself included.

Yes, bald women in concentration camps can still sing. For some, I imagine it’s a necessity. Protagonist goes on about stubbornness, but having read the literature of the civil rights movement, I’d be more likely to classify it as resistance. With all of the Germans’ attempts to dehumanize the prisoners (like removing their names – I really shouldn’t continue doing that here: Protagonist’s name is György Köves), they are determined to remain themselves, to hold onto their sense of personal identity, whether that involves religion, nationality, or just a good voice. In the men’s camp, there’s some singing too, but the resistance seems to come more and more from passivity. Indeed, that’s what impresses me the most about Protagonist and the people he lives among: their passive acquiescence to circumstances. I suppose it’s not that different from Americans today, but . . . the herding, the starving, the beatings. I’d like to think that we wouldn’t put up with it, though I have no way of knowing.

Every so often, though, the stubbornness reveals itself in action. In this scene, a few prisoners are being executed for having escaped and been recaptured.

The customary punishment squad assembled, then, after a further wait, the representatives of the military authorities made their appearance, after which everything went ahead in due form, if I may put it that way – fortunately, up front near the washroom, far from where we were, not that I watched anyway. My attention was drawn rather to my left, from where all at once came a sound, a muttering, some sort of song. In the row I saw a slightly tremulous head on a scraggy, forward-stretched neck – little more, in fact, than a nose and a huge, moist eye that, right at that moment, was somehow swimming in a crazy light: the rabbi. Soon I also picked out his words, particularly after others in the row had slowly taken them up from him – all the Finns, for instance, but many others as well. Indeed, though I don’t know what the mechanism was, it somehow passed across to nearby groups, the other blocks, spreading and gaining ground as it were, because there too I observed a growing number of lips in motion and shoulders, necks, and heads cautiously, almost imperceptibly, yet distinctly rocking back and forth. Meanwhile, the muttering was just about audible here, in the center of the row, with a continual “Yitgaddal ve-yitkaddash” being sounded over and over again, like some murmur issuing from the ground below, and even I knew that this was the so-called “Kaddish,” the Jews’ prayer of mourning for the dead. It is quite possible that this too was sheer stubbornness, the final, sole, and perhaps, I could not help realizing, in some ways slightly forced, I might almost say prescribed and in a certain sense fixed, so to say imposed, and, at the same time, useless mode of stubbornness (for it altered nothing up at the front: apart from the last few twitches of the hanged men, nothing moved, nothing wavered at these words); yet all the same, I could not help somehow understanding the emotion in which the rabbi’s expression seemed almost to dissolve, and even his nostrils quivered so strangely. As if it was only now that the long-awaited moment were here, that moment of victory whose coming he had spoken, I recollected, back at the brickyard. Indeed, for the very first time, I too was now seized, I don’t know why, by a certain sense of loss, even a touch of envy; for the first time, I now somewhat regretted that I was unable to pray, if only a few sentences, in the language of the Jews.

In the films, every prisoner suffers alone, or with one close friend. We do not see the communal experiences like this. We don’t think about the power that we give to a group identity when we place all the people who share it in one place. Hitler was the first person in modern times to gather the scattered Jews, and while this was contrary to his intent, the act of gathering them gives them power. It is one thing to pray alone when your heart is troubled; it’s a bit like dancing by yourself in your room. It is entirely different to either pray or dance with a huge crowd of people who are doing the same thing in unison. Your individual identity fades in importance and you merge with the crowd, experiencing all of their individual joys or sorrows with your own. We transcend ourselves and merge with the collective consciousness. There is a joy, a catharsis in this act of voluntary surrender, even when praying for the dead in a Nazi death camp. By gathering the Jews, Hitler united them in a way they had not dreamed possible for thousands of years.

I’m sorry if it offends you that joy can be found in Buchenwald. I’m sorry if you’re bothered by my facility for finding the good in bad situations. But I believe that the capacity for joy is an essential quality to living, and this is a book about survival, not death. Protagonist might not understand a soft bed or kind treatment after being in a concentration camp for a year, but he still enjoys them. He still notices when a man’s face is handsome. In fact, he notices the attractiveness of good health more when he’s surrounded by starving prisoners.

In the final chapter, Protagonist argues with someone about the role of fate. He sees fate as being the exact opposite of freedom. Having been liberated from a concentration camp, he doesn’t feel the need to say that there was an omnipotent impersonal force that made this tragedy happen; he knows that it came about because of the decisions, actions, and apathy of millions of people. I don’t think he blames the people, but he doesn’t agree that the Holocaust was inevitable. So, ultimately, the title of the book is synonymous with Freedom. Freedom is also another way of understanding the stubbornness and nonviolent resistance of the prisoners. If they can’t be free from their situation, they can find ways they are free to make their own choices and act for themselves. Or at the very least to think for themselves. This is a novel that resists the urge to Americanize the Holocaust, to make the prisoners like ourselves, to make our nation the liberating hero, but if freedom defines the United States, then this is a book about the concept that gives us an identity. Freedom, its consequences, and (to use the popular phrase) its price.

America doesn’t have the monopoly on freedom. I think the search for it is a human trait, the exercise of it a basic right. And sometimes, we need a book like this to remind us how important it is, what opportunities we have to pursue it, and how easy it is to hand our freedom to an authority figure. It’s important to cling tightly to our freedoms; it’s even more important to respect the freedom of others. I would like to live in a world with neither prisoners nor guards (one compels the existence of the other), where we can be truly free and in peace.


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