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52 Books # 30: Fateless

August 4, 2011

Originally published as Fatelessness, but with a syllable lopped off for a film adaptation in 2006 (hence horrible tie-in cover; and believe me, I debated a long time in Foyles over whether I should buy this or the much handsomer Fiasco), this is Hungarian author Imre Kertész’s novel about a fourteen year-old Jewish boy, Gyuri, who is sent first to a labour camp and then to Auschwitz.

Gyuri is a curious creation — though not a curious character — and Kertész uses him to present an intriguing new take on a familiar genre, if one whose horrors never pall. Here are pointless labour-intensive tasks, trains filled with abducted Jewish families, the sadly familiar depictions of near-dead prisoners struggling to hold onto a life that has lost any meaning or appeal, simply because it’s life. All of this is coldly, meticulously recorded by Gyuri, an incurious observer, whose own experiences of the concentration camp are, except in a very literal way (there are a lot of medical incisions in this book), curiously bloodless. He’s rejected by his fellow Hungarians, and by his fellow Jews; he’s a man alone, and there is no sense of enduring solidarity with other prisoners. Gyuri’s progress from prisoner to sickbay patient feels dreamlike and detached, and has a strange tinge of inevitability about it; there isn’t much sense of personal risk, and so no sense that the irony of the book’s title (the argument between ‘fatelessness’ and ‘free will’) really has much bearing on the events on its pages.

This lack of subjective horror does not of course preclude the reader’s discomfort: I’ve yet to read any book about the holocaust which doesn’t move and terrify, and Fateless isn’t the exception. Gyuri’s affectlessness makes this book more uncomfortable; somehow one reads it feeling he’s more interested in the (internecine) structure of his sentences rather than what he’s describing with them. Reading them, you see that this coping mechanism, a form of denial, is more damaging than distancing.

And in the end, the true horror of Fateless is that, once freed, Gyuri will look back on his Auschwitz experience with something he describes as ‘happiness’. It’s a wrenching sort of twist, though again in some ways it comes out of nowhere. Similar territory is covered in György Faludy’s excellent gulag memoir My Happy Days in Hell, but in that case it was companionship and a healthy sense of the absurd, sharpened rather than quashed by imprisonment, which justified the title and conceit. While Gyuri sidesteps the horrors of Auschwitz, in no small part by failing (or refusing) to report, and thereby acknowledge, them, it is difficult to view his incarceration as positively as a period of happiness, unless happiness obtains in an enforced solitude — but the text doesn’t supply this interpretation. Despite his protestations, the reader doesn’t come away confident that Gyuri will resume anything approaching a normal life.

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