Stream of Consciousness
Kertész uses stream of consciousness to tell the story in his novel. This form requires that the inner thoughts of the speaker, in the order in which they occur naturally to the speaker, form the sequence in which the plot is revealed. This technique permits the narrator of the novel to move from topic to topic as he explores his thoughts, memories, and feelings about his childhood, his imprisonment at Auschwitz, his failed marriage, and his subsequent life and career, without the constraint of chronological order. It permits him to tie together seemingly unrelated topics which are linked meaningfully in his own thoughts. The narrator loops and curves through the past, avoiding an objective timeline of his life, filling in details as events arise in memory.
Stories told in stream of consciousness follow the subjective associations of the character, the way his mind moves from one thought to another. It is appropriate then that Kaddish for a Child Not Born has no chapter breaks and is comprised of seventeen long paragraphs. Most action is conveyed indirectly through reflection and memory, and the novel is engaging not because of what happens but because of the way the character remembers and now thinks about what happened.
The kaddish is a prayer recited over the dead body or at the burial site. Ironically, in this case, Kertész wrote a mourner's kaddish, or prayer, about a child who is not only not dead, but was never born and does not exist. The narrator in this novel is mourning something he never had, but he remains committed to not bringing a child into the world.
It is also ironic that the traditional mourner's kaddish itself never mentions death or the dead. The Jewish prayer for the dead is about the greatness of God, which is believed to be a comfort to mourners. Kertész and his narrator are secular Jews so perhaps they are not comforted by this prayer. But it is a prominent text in the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, (known as Shoah in Hebrew), because of the 6 million Jews who were killed.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Adelman, Gary. “Getting Started with Imre Kertész.” New England Review 25, nos. 1/2 (2004): 261-279. Useful introduction to the author’s work and life.
Braham, Randolph L. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2000. Historical account of the Hungarian experience of the Holocaust and its effects on the nation and its people.
Hoffman, Lawrence A., et al. Tachanun and Concluding Prayers. Vol. 6 in My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries. Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 2002. Includes a discussion of the Kaddish, its liturgical role, and its evolution into a mourner’s prayer.
Kertész, Imre, and Ivan Sanders. “Heureka.” PMLA 118, no. 3 (May, 2003): 601-614. Kertész’s acceptance speech from the Nobel Prize banquet. He addresses the problems of memory of the Holocaust and discusses the presence of the Holocaust in European art.
Vasvári, Louise O., and Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, eds. Imre Kertész and Holocaust Literature. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2005. Twenty-three chapters about Kertész’s life, his work, and the Holocaust in Hungary.