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Posted 04 April 2016 - 01:18 AM
"Imre Kertesz, the Hungarian novelist, who has died aged 86, won the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature for what the Swedish Academy described as writing “that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history”.
Kertesz’s work had been shaped by the time he spent as a teenage prisoner in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. “When I am thinking about a novel,” he once said, “I always think of Auschwitz … I am a medium for the spirit of Auschwitz. Auschwitz speaks through me.”
His debut novel Sorstalansag (“Fateless”), the first in a trilogy of semi-autobiographical works in which he reflected on the Holocaust and which was singled out for praise by the Nobel panel, tells the story of a young boy, Gyorgy Koves, who is arrested and deported to a series of concentration camps. He manages to survive by adapting and facing the horrors that confront him with a combination of guilelessness and a mordant sense of the ridiculous.
For Gyorgy there is no benefit of foresight or hindsight; everything is happening to him for the first time. This makes his experience, disconcertingly, but also logically, an adventure as well as an ordeal. “I wanted to convey the innocence of not knowing what was happening,’’ Kertesz explained. “There is a dynamic character to the life of a camp. The faster things happen, the faster you adjust. It is the only way to survive.’’
In the camps Gyorgy finds kindness in unexpected places and discovers that the ordinary course of life yields moments of pleasure – the hour of idleness between work and the night-time roll call; the pleasure of discovering a scrap of meat or a potato in watery gruel; the “fatelessness’’ – the likelihood that his life will end at any moment – that he experiences as a perverse form of freedom.
“Even back there”, the novel concludes, “in the shadow of the chimneys, in the breaks between pain, there was something resembling happiness. Everybody will ask me about the deprivations, the 'terrors of the camps’, but for me, the happiness there will always be the most memorable experience, perhaps. Yes, that’s what I’ll tell them the next time they ask me: about the happiness in those camps. If they ever do ask. And if I don’t forget.”
If “happiness” in such circumstances shocked the reader, that was Kertesz’s intention. “I took the word out of its everyday context and made it seem scandalous,” he explained. “It was an act of rebellion against the role of victim which society had assigned me. It was a way of assuming responsibility, of defining my own fate.”
The novel was long in the making, taking Kertesz almost 10 years to write. Initially rejected by a state publishing company, it was eventually published in Hungary in 1975 but was received with near total silence. There was, after all, not a word in it about heroic communists leading the antifascist resistance in the camps, and the novel was scathing in its depiction of the anti-Semitism that led to the destruction of Hungary’s Jewish community, and the indifference that met the few who returned after the war.
On his return to Budapest, Koves confesses to a feeling of “homesickness” for the camps. Kertesz’s second volume, Fiasco, which was published in 1988, features Koves as an ageing author who has written a novel about Auschwitz and expects it to be rejected by publishers.
When, contrary to his expectations, it is accepted, Koves experiences a feeling of total emptiness and the complete loss of his privacy. Kaddish for an Unborn Child, published in 1990 in Hungary and in 1997 in the US, was the concluding work in the trilogy and in it the hero Koves refuses to father a child in a world that permitted the existence of Auschwitz.
Born in Budapest, Hungary on November 9 1929 into a secular Jewish family, Imre Kertesz was the only son of a furniture merchant. Aged 14 he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and a year later was transferred to Buchenwald in Germany from where he was liberated in May 1945."
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