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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fate and freedom and a unique acount of the Holocaust

Imre Kertesz's 1975 novel, Fateless, seems to be an autobiographical document, a thinly veiled memoir, and it's hard not to think of it as such, a personal account of a young man's passage through the hell of the German concentration camps, one of the few to survive to tell the story. At first (earlier post) I thought the narrator was imprisoned near the start of the war, as he seemed so completely naive and uninformed about the camps - never even heard of Auschwitz, but as we learn going forward he spent only (only?) one year in the camps before the liberation - so by this account, no doubt accurate, the public, especially under the Nazi-controlled states such as Hungary, knew little or nothing about these supposed work camps. Kertesz's account is straightforward and terrifying - very different from one of his other novels that I posted on a few years ago, Liquidation?, which was so caught up in narrative games as to be impenetrable and nearly meaningless. Part of the excellence of Fateless is the strict adherence to the young man's point of view: there's so much he doesn't understand, but we can see around the edges of his knowledge and we can know more about the Nazis, the camps, the course of the war than he ever does. One mystery remains for me at the end: why was he taken into a hospital (with leg injures) and treated so (relatively) well during the last months of the war? I would have thought an injured young worker was completely expendable, but apparently not, for some reason. The novel has a terrific concluding chapter in which the camps are liberated and the narrator returns home to Budapest, to find the city of course in near ruin and to learn the "fate" of his family. Kertesz presents a highly ironic passage - he was writing this in a country then under Soviet rule - as the Hungarian youth heading home are led through a series of marching songs about workers and the proletariat - a glimpse forward to the next oppression under which they would live, but in a passage unassailable and readily embraced by the censors. At the end, the narrator explains, in a painful dialogue w/ some of his old neighbors, his view of the difference between fate and freedom - refusing to believe this imprisonment and liberation were his "fate" - that if we are fated to a predetermined end we have no freedom of action: to be "fateless" is in some measure to be free. At the end we see several reactions to the returning prisoners: some wanting them to tell their stories (the narrator at that juncture refuses to do so), others questioning: did you see evidence of the gas chambers? No? Then of course we don't really know that they existed? - this refusal to believe the horrors, this desire to expunge guilt - still going on today.

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