A great deal more than a Holocaust story
Fatelessness is powerful, carefully presented concentration camp fiction. Dreadful though the story is, it is a masterly, subtle and constantly surprising novel, told through a narrator with a naive and innocent attitude towards life. First published in 1975, Fatelessness won Imre Kertész the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. It bears some biographical traces, though is largely reimagined, told through protagonist Gyuri Köves, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Budapest. Gyuri remembers life in a German concentration camp in the summer of 1944, starting with his arrival in Auschwitz to the liberation of Buchenwald.
‘I didn’t go to school today,’ the opening lines read, as Kertész proceeds to describe the moment of Gyuri’s deportation with bleak, matter-of-factness. On his way to school, Gyuri is seized in a roundup of Hungarian Jews and forcefully deported to Auschwitz. He does not resist capture, and upon arrival, observes the concentration camp with eerie calmness. Having lied about his age to the SS doctors, he is transferred to Buchenwald labour camp, and subsequently manages to survive until the camp’s liberation the following year. Gyuri’s stoicism is a recurring theme, as he experiences the horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald in a way contrary to reader’s expectations; he perceives them with childlike serenity. He becomes accustomed to the rules and norms of Buchenwald, unquestioningly assuming that those in charge are well-intended, never considering otherwise. Kertész presents an unusually optimistic perspective of life in Auschwitz; not only does Gyuri become accustomed to the life in the camp, he even manages to retain a somewhat positive outlook:
“There is an hour of the day which falls between returning from the factory and the evening Appell, a distinctive, always bustling and liberated hour that I, for my part, always looked forward to and enjoyed the most while in the Lager; as it happened, this was generally also suppertime.”
Such optimism only heightens the monstrosities of this existence, but Kertész never turns to hyperbole. Gyuri records and recounts, but does not overstate his experiences.
Fatelessness is a great deal more than a Holocaust story. It is an indictment of the Nazi and the subsequent Communist era, while the struggle that Gyuri faces in finding his identity and consolidating after the traumas of the camps characterises the struggles that most survivors underwent after World War II. After liberation, many Jewish survivors feared to return to their former homes. For many of them, the prospect of rebuilding their lives was daunting. The novel is a remarkable text that, in its sincerity, does not demand an emotional response from the reader. Rather, the author gives an opportunity to form a balanced opinion of the real-world events that the novel parallels. Perhaps the most important aspect of the novel is its treatment of the topic that was forbidden to talk about for decades: the Holocaust.