Last weekend I read Imre Kertesz’s slim novel, “Fatelessness”, a book about the experiences of a fourteen year old boy, George Koves, in the infernos of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I had bought this book last summer in New York but had been inspired to read it by seeing a theatre production of Vassily Grossman’s “Life and Destiny” (maybe I will write about that tomorrow) and seeing a film about Primo Levi’s return to Turin.
“Fatelessness” is astonishing because of the completely dispassionate and unsentimental narration. One day in Budapest, on the way to work with his friends, fourteen-year-old George Koves is plucked from the his bus by a local constable and made to pass a long and tedious day in the customs house. No-one knows why they have been arrested, not even the constable (although those there carry the yellow Jewish star). Before long, he and his friends are made to march across town where they are locked up for the night; thrown into some strange and terrible play. The next day they are faced with the option of traveling to Germany now, to work — or later, when, they are told, the trains will be even fuller. George thinks as a boy might think about his knowledge of Germany and Germans, wonders idly that perhaps it would have been better if he had studied more foreign languages at school, reflects perhaps that he might now get a chance to see something more of the world. So he travels on the first train leaving. They are sixty to a carriage; but the next trains, they are told, will be even fuller. No-one shows any special maliciousness, with the exception of the German camp guards in Budapest; it seems, this is just something that happens.
The rest of the story everyone knows, in outline: the long journey without water, the arrival after several days of sweltering summer heat. Through a gap in the carriages’ wooden slats George sees the words “Auschwitz-Birkenau”, but of course they mean nothing to him. Arrival is chaotic, and he is relieved to see German guards: surely they will be able to restore some order. Lines form, people queue; in the factual, bare way it is described, they could be queuing at a post-office. There is an inspection by a doctor. George lies about his age; he says he is sixteen. The doctor takes a few seconds to decide who is fit and who is unhealthy. The fit ones live. George realises soon afterwards what has happened to the people who waited in the other line.
And so life begins in the camps. He is transferred to Buchenwald. Work wears him down almost to the point of death. He is treated with incredible cruelty, his body becomes the body of another person. He becomes weaker and weaker until he can no longer work. He is transferred to the hospital. He is really too young for such work. But he does not die, he survives until the liberation of the camps by the Americans in 1945.
All this you may have read before in many other stories from the camps, but what is different here is George’s ironic, detached voice. There is no trace of bitterness. This is the “banality of evil” that Hanna Arendt wrote about. He says: “We hung around and waited in actual fact, if I think about it, for nothing to happen. That boredom, together with that strange anticipation: I think that is the impression, approximately, yes that is in reality what may truly denote Auschwitz — purely in my eyes of course” (p.119).
Incredibly, George survives, and in the final chapter he returns to Budapest. People see his camp uniform. Tell us about the hell of the camps, a journalist asks him. But George refuses to be led, saying only that he knows what a concentration camp is, but not hell. But wasn’t it hell? He says, “Then I would imagine it as a place where it is impossible to become bored”. You must find some way of filling each second of each day of each month of each year; in the camps, all knowledge, all understanding of one’s situation arrives crashingly at once, and must fill out years of time. The journalist gives him his address on a scrap of paper; he throws it away.
In the next scene, he returns to his old family apartment building to find others living in his flat; his father was deported to the camps before him, his step-mother has remarried. But he does find some people in the building he remembers. They invite him in, but he rapidly becomes exasperated by their conversation. They continually talk about how things “came about” while they were stayed in Budapest during the war — the ghetto, shootings, and finally liberation. George instead recounts the story of the queue at Birkenau, the entry to the camps, and he says …”but it was not quite true that the thing ‘came about’; we had gone along with it too. Only now, and thus after the event, looking back, in hindsight, does the way it all ‘came about’ seem over, finished, unalterable, finite, so tremendously fast, and so terribly opaque. And if, in addition, one knows one’s fate in advance, of course.” (p. 257) George does not want to “forget” or “put behind” what happened to him because “…I now needed to start doing something with that fate, needed to connect it to somewhere or something; after all, I could no longer be satisfied with the notion that it had all been a mistaken, blind fortune, some kind of of blunder, let alone that it had not even happened.”
But fate is arbitrary; in the queue, his path could have so easily led to the left or the right. Moreover, awful crimes can be committed by ordinary people in banal circumstances (he talks about the beautifully tended flower-beds near the Auschwitz crematorium); all this has become possible thanks to our complete control of systems and processes; no one person is responsible; instead, each instead are part of a larger process, a larger mechanism. That, for me, was the core of this book.