Novel by Imre Kertész, 1975
Imre Kertész insists that in Sorstalanság (1975; Fateless, 1992) he did not intend to write a Holocaust novel, or indeed a novel in the conventional sense. "The greatest danger for me lay in the temptation of giving way to anecdotal digressions, intriguing, colorful but inessential details, singularly interesting little stories," he said in a 1999 interview. "The action had to follow a clearly devised structure, it had to be reduced to essentials. The story of Auschwitz has become part of the repository of European knowing and European memory. I had to fashion my story as a collective myth." Indeed, each scene, each episode and character in the novel is at once concrete and emblematic; each detail used is crucial and representative.
Nevertheless, on the surface Fateless reads like a typical concentration camp narrative about a 14-year-old Hungarian boy's journey to Auschwitz and back. In light of what we know about the world he enters, nothing out of the ordinary happens to him. And because the story is told from the perspective of an "innocent" narrator, this ordinariness is further highlighted, with the result that the boy's responses to what he sees and experiences strike the reader as odd, inappropriate. When he first sees men in prison stripes in Auschwitz, he is "curious to discover what their crimes were." Later, in Buchenwald, he reflects on the difference between prison and a concentration camp. One can eventually get used to prison life, but in the camps "they didn't give you enough time to try." When he becomes very sick and is removed from his barracks, he waits apathetically for the end; but when he realizes he is in the hospital, he says yearningly, "I would so much like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp."
Throughout his ordeal Kertész's young hero assumes nothing; he doesn't anticipate, judge, or rebel. At first his compliance and passivity appear to be shocking evidence of a victim's self-denigration, his identification with the aggressor's view of him. But as we read on we realize that his readiness to accept and understand actually enables him to retain his sanity and even a modicum of dignity. What he discovers for himself in the camps is the "banality of evil," and his "normal" reaction to the process of dehumanization is at once a confirmation of this banality and an unconscious rejection of it.
When the boy returns to Budapest, weighed down and enriched by his experiences, people want him to act like a victim and say things a survivor might say. But he can't—and won't. "We can never start a new life," he tells a journalist who expects appropriate—that is, stock—answers to his questions. "We can only continue the old one. I took my own steps. No one else did. And I remained honest to the end to my given fate … Do you want all this horror and all my previous steps to lose their meaning entirely? … Why can't you just see that if there is such a thing as fate, then there is no freedom? If, on the other hand … there is freedom, then there is no fate."
Fateless may be seen as a universally valid meditation on evil in the twentieth century or an existentialist novel in which an absurd universe appears in the guise of a totalitarian system that strips one of his or her real self and imposes a role, a fate. Yet there is nothing abstract about the novel—for Kertész, lived reality is too important. He is a survivor who bears witness, but he is also a writer. Implicit in Fateless (as well as in Kertész's other works) is the belief that there is—there must be—art after Auschwitz.