Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness (previously published as Fateless) is the story of Gyuri, a 14-year-old ethnically (but not religiously) Jewish Hungarian boy. The novel opens on the day before his father is ordered to leave for a work camp. Shortly thereafter, the boy gets a job outside of town at a factory. One day, while on his way to work, his bus is stopped, he and his fellow workers are taken off and eventually loaded onto rail cars and sent to Auschwitz. Probably fortunately for our narrator, he is shortly thereafter removed to Buchenwald and then to a work camp, Zeitz. While there, he develops a knee injury that puts him in the sick bay where his injury is operated on. He soon develops another injury - this time to his hip - while in the hospital. Eventually he is transferred back to Buchenwald, where he remains until the camp is liberated in spring 1945. After liberation, he returns to Budapest.
The power of these stories is typically not in the actual events that happen. It's the small occurrences as opposed to the plot. The one or two people who go out of their way to help someone, to share a piece of bread. There is the time when he is in the hospital and his bunk mate died in the night...he didn't tell anyone (and no one noticed) for a few days in order to get extra food rations. And when he returns home, everything is only vaguely the same. He goes to his parents house, hoping to find his stepmother, only to learn she had moved. If it hadn't been that a neighbor recognized him, he would potentially have been completely lost. He runs into people who want him to tell everything, to expose everything, and those who want him to put everything behind him - to forget and start over. But how could you forget? And how could you possibly explain to anyone what this experience really was like?
Fatelessness is advertised as being, "surpassed only by Primo Levi's Surival at Auschwitz." Now Levi's book is frickin' amazing in terms of this genre (my review here), and I'm not sure I would put Fatelessness there. There were certain grammatical and stylistic elements that annoyed me, particularly in the beginning. I'm not sure, but I would be willing to blame this on the translation from its original Hungarian. At times I noticed tense changes from past to present; phrases such as "During these days too" was repeated multiple times in the same paragraph; at times the word choice seemed strange. By about half way through the novel these things seemed to disappear...or maybe I just stopped noticing them.
I was also very confused for a long time about whether or not the narrator was Jewish. He wears a yellow star, but there is a scene where a meal is served and his uncle refuses to eat because it contains pork, and his "faith forbids it." Once he arrives in the camp, he states, "I made the surprising discovery that Jews evidently don't only speak Hebrew, as I had supposed up till now." He is poked fun at because he can't speak either language - You're not a Jew, the "real" Jews say to them. It wasn't until this point that I realized what was going on...he was condemned because he was "racially" Jewish...and this is perhaps the first book I've read about someone in this particular situation. Someone who doesn't view himself as Jewish at all, and yet is lumped in with them because his family once was.
I found there were a lot of parallels to Levi's excellent work. The one that struck me immediately was the description of the shoes the prisoners were forced to wear. Until I read Survival at Auschwitz, I had never thought about it. You see the Allied pictures from the end of the war, when they liberated the camps, and you don't really notice the shoes. But those shoes just made everything worse. To have to walk all over the place, in those scraggly uniforms, hungry, unprotected from the elements, and then to have to deal with those shoes. It's strange how such a mundane detail such as that not only has shown up in now two of the Holocaust novels/memoirs that I've read, but that the detail has resonated with me.
I suppose the amazing parallel between the two works was the fact that these two people probably only survived at all because they were in the sick bay when their camps were evacuated prior to the Allied arrivals. Had they been healthy...had they not been where they were, the works of both of these men would never have existed. And it is amazing in that is not only that small twist of fate saved these two men, but what is equally tragic is the number of other works of art that were destroyed before they had a chance to be created by people who were not as "lucky" as Kertesz, Levi, and also Weisel (though he did go on the forced march) and others.
Fatelessness wasn't Survival at Auschwitz, which I couldn't recommend enough for people also interested in the subject, but it was good in its own right. There is a movie version (though I've read it is more based on Kertesz experience than the fictionalized version in Fatelessness) and I hope to get it this week through netflix. Expect a post on that next week.