Imre Kertész Essay - Critical Essays


Imre Kertész’s first novel, Fateless, is a fairly conventional, chronological narrative of an adolescent boy’s reminiscences. It begins with the family’s preparations for and farewells to their father after he receives notification that he will be taken to the Mathausen labor camp in Austria. The emphasis is on plain, unsentimental detail in a novel where the young and unsophisticated narrator tries to understand his situation in the concentration camps to which he is dispatched and where death is a constant possibility. The tale, however, has a dreamlike quality and at times is upbeat as its author allows that everyday life in the camps contains moments of happiness—even as the youth adapts to a radically threatening reality, where individuals are ciphers and where survival becomes a collective act.

In contrast, another one of Kertész’s novels, Kaddis a meg nem születetett gyermekért (1990; Kaddish for a Child Not Born, 1997), is a breathless, obsessive, unrelenting monologue. It is part meditation, part memoir, part highly abstract, nonchronological, and inconclusive narrative in the first person touching on a series of scenes, images, and issues, all written in a somber tone about a man who refuses to father a child in a world that has produced, and can again produce, an Auschwitz. The work gives the impression of being written in one long paragraph and in endless sentences. It is a novel of repetition, ambiguity, and uncertainty narrated by a middle-aged Holocaust survivor, his life work being the translation of experience into fiction.

Felszámolás (2003; Liquidation, 2004) is an investigation into the suicide of an Auschwitz survivor focusing on a play of the same name within the novel. Along the way, important details about the private lives of some of the leading characters come to light. Despite some humorous touches, the book is brooding and exudes melancholy.

Viewing the Holocaust in the context of the Communist rule that followed Nazism, Kertész concludes that the totalitarianism that both events typified was not peculiar to the Nazi or Communist regimes but was a general and human condition. Thus for Kertész, the concentration camps of the Holocaust were not a coincidence but a logical and unavoidable consequence of European culture—especially in Hungary, where extreme nationalism and anti-Semitism had resurfaced several times and where laws defining work and other quotas for Jews preceded the Nazi occupation of 1944.


First published: Sorstalanság, 1975 (English translation, 1992; also as Fatelessness, 2004)

Type of work: Novel

A Hungarian Jew recounts his adolescence spent as a prisoner in three concentration camps during the last months of the Holocaust.

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 moments of joy are derived from some of his idle time between the end of the working day and the evening roll call, and, more generally, his happiness stems from the solidarity he feels with some of his fellow inmates. He is especially happy that the medical personnel among the political prisoners, who enjoy more privileges than the others, are willing to assign him a hospital bed and treat his severely infected, injured knee before the officials discover that he has become a disposable resource. Joy also flows from his occasional thoughts of possible freedom.

In fact, Köves even feels some rapport with his German captors, whose presence is sensed only remotely in the camp, since the immediate supervision of prisoners was often left to other...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)