Gyuri finds himself on a train, thirsty. The others tell him that the initial thirst will go away and will be forgotten. Unfortunately, it will eventually be replaced by another thirst that will not go away. They inform him that people can last six or seven days without water if they can avoid sweating, eating meat, and such. The question on everyone’s mind is how long they will be aboard the train.
The boys have little idea of where the train is going. They were asked if they wanted to work and said they did. They were also told that people who volunteer to work early will be given preferable treatment. For example, they will be put in train cars holding just sixty people rather than eighty. Among the prisoners, there is already a lot of discussion about what to do, but Gyuri feels the choice is obvious: volunteer to work. There is also discussion about the nature of the Germans, and Gyuri overhears some saying that the Germans appreciate hard work and organization, so it is best to demonstrate those traits.
When the train finally does reach its destination, Gyuri learns by reading a sign that he has arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, he still does not realize the nature of the location. A prisoner asks Gyuri his age, and when Gyuri responds, the prisoner says that he and his friends must present themselves as sixteen-year-olds when they are inspected. The boys enter a line and see two groups forming at its end. One group radiates a sense of success and fitness, and Gyuri hopes to join it. The boys present themselves for inspection, thrusting out their chests before the doctor, and claim to be sixteen. They are proud when they are placed in the "fit" group.
Next, they are taken away to be cleaned. They are told to give up all objects of value; those who do not will be punished. They remove their clothing and are told to give up their shoes. All of the hair on their bodies is shaved off, and Gyuri is bothered when his pubic hair is removed. Still, the boys look at Fancyman and tease him that he will no longer have his hair to impress girls. They are sent to showers in groups of three with a single bar of soap. Finally, they are given ill-fitting clothing and new shoes. Gyuri notes that the clothes are worn, that they have blue and white stripes, and that no matter how he looks at them, he cannot deny that they are the clothes of a convict.
Outside, Gyuri has finally arrived at his destination. The boys look at each other feeling dumbstruck by what has happened to them. They look around and see barbed wire and fences everywhere.
Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975)French title:Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)
|Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable.||As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.|
Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)
It starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.
Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.
I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.
Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”
Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.
The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.
He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?
His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.
|C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne.||It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.|
Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.
A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.
|J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr.||I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.|
While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.
But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.
Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July , Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.
|S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais.||If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.|
Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.
Here’s another review by Lisa.
Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.
Categories: 1970, 20th Century, Highly Recommended, Hungarian Literature, Kertész Imre, Novel, TBR20, WWIITags: #TBR20, 1970s, 20th century Literature, Highly Recommended, Hungarian Literature, Nobel Prize in Literature, WWII