Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Although his perspective is cool and calm, the story George Köves tells of his arrest and incarceration by the Nazis builds to a harrowing vision of evil. His ordeal begins in his home in Hungary, where things are already unraveling. George’s parents have divorced, and his father, because he is a Jew, has been forced to relinquish his successful business and work instead in a German labor camp. Although George’s Uncle Lajos tells him that he must accept what is happening and understand that such persecution is the Jewish fate, George does not agree. Similarly, he resists his little girlfriend’s suggestion that his Jewish identity is fated by biology. George upsets his uncle and his playmate when he refuses to accept the premise that his life is somehow in the hands of a predetermined collective destiny. Nevertheless, it is as a Jew rather than for any more personal reason that George is first forced to labor at an oil refinery outside Budapest and then sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. His identity is made even more impersonal and abstract when his name is taken from him in the camps and he is known only as #64,921.
Along with the other boys with whom he was arrested, George has claimed to be one year older than he really is because he has been told that as an older boy he is more likely to be put to work rather than slaughtered in the gas chambers. After a short time at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, George is transferred to Zeitz, a work camp where he labors in a quarry. He begins to understand that, despite everything, he and his fellow prisoners are still not completely under the rule of the Nazis; they are free to dissent from the Nazi perspective and to resist its perverse logic.
George describes this resistance to himself as stubbornness. His own detached perspective is one instance of this stubbornness; another is the way the prisoners help one another rather than descending to the law of the jungle as the Nazis expect them to do. For instance, a fellow prisoner makes sure that the young George’s food ration is not purloined. Even more important, a fellow Hungarian, a resourceful twenty-year-old man named Bandi Citrom, befriends George. Bandi gives him numerous tips that will help him survive the hardships of his circumstances.
Bandi’s belief in the value of an ordered, ethical daily life rescues George from confusion and despair and represents another way to dissent from the demoralizing, dehumanizing world of the camps. Another form of resistance is George’s imagination: Even though he is captive,...
(The entire section is 1052 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The book’s title refers to the fact that there was no certainty in the destiny of those sent to the Nazi labor/extermination camps. It is a disturbing novel about a guileless Hungarian Jewish boy’s experience in the last months of World War II, including the freezing winter of 1944-1945, at the Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald camps. As such, it is a highly autobiographical tale about the coming-of-age and survival of an innocent youth, whose lack of sophistication makes him focus on everyday questions of existence rather than on his dismal and threatening environment.
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the most notorious camp in occupied Poland, the boy is advised by other prisoners to add a couple of years to his declared age so he may be assigned to a work detail rather than be “eliminated” as excess baggage as a matter of course. The narrator, György Köves (Imre Kertész), dwells on the minutiae of daily camp life, also of concern to his captors, so that perpetrators and victims are perversely though unintentionally bonded. For example, the narrator is constantly worried about his daily turnip and kohlrabi soup, concerned whether his portion will be ladled out from the top of the urn, so he will get mostly broth, or whether he will be lucky enough to receive his share from the bottom, where there are vegetables, and, on a lucky day, even a potato or a piece of sausage.
In the camps he tries to adjust to his situation by imposing the logic of a bright, sensitive teenager. His...
(The entire section is 616 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Adelman, Gary. “Getting Started with Imre Kertész.” New England Review: Middlebury Series 25, nos. 1/2 (2004): 261-278. Discusses Fateless as a redemptive novel in which the mental clarity of the conclusion promises a successful future.
Bachmann, Michael. “Life, Writing, and Problems of Genre in Elie Wiesel and Imre Kertész.” Rocky Mountain Review 63, no. 1 (Spring, 2009): 79-88. Compares and contrasts the works of Kertész and Elie Wiesel in terms of their status as “witness literature.” Examines Kertész as keeping his work alive in a zone somewhere between testimony and fiction.
Kertész, Imre. “Eureka! The 2002 Nobel Lecture.” World Literature Today 77, no. 1 (April-June, 2003): 4-8. Kertész’s Nobel Prize lecture discusses the Holocaust as a trauma of European civilization, but affirms liberty as the greatest European value.
Nádas, Péter. “Imre Kertész’s Work and His Subject.” Hungarian Quarterly 43, no. 168 (Winter, 2002): 38-40. Discusses the impact of the Holocaust on Kertész’s work and the connections Kertész makes between Nazi and Communist dictatorships
Sicher, Efraim. The Holocaust Novel. New York: Routledge, 2005. Discusses Kertész’s work in the context of Holocaust literature as a major postwar literary genre—and in terms not only of fiction but also of history and autobiography. Chronology and annotated bibliography.
Vasvári, Louise O., and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, eds. Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2005. This important study of Kertész features essays by scholars from various countries; discusses narrative techniques, film treatment, the Holocaust, and Jewish identity. Includes a bibliography.