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Fateless Fateless is the first English translation of a moving and disturbing novel about a Hungarian Jewish boy s experiences in German concentration camps and his attempts to reconcile himself to those experiences after the war I m not often proud of my brother Much of the time, and in most circumstances, our personalities and values are very different However, some time ago a friend of his tried to get him to watch one of those execution videos, in which some poor sod gets his head lopped off And he refused, quite aggressively so, he told me he wanted nothing to do with it It occurred to me then that one thing my brother and I do have in common is an aversion to violence and suffering Hold on, you ll say, doesn I m not often proud of my brother Much of the time, and in most circumstances, our personalities and values are very different However, some time ago a friend of his tried to get him to watch one of those execution videos, in which some poor sod gets his head lopped off And he refused, quite aggressively so, he told me he wanted nothing to do with it It occurred to me then that one thing my brother and I do have in common is an aversion to violence and suffering Hold on, you ll say, doesn t everyone No, I don t think they do Or certainly only an aversion to that which is directed at themselves I believe that many normally functioning people by which I mean people who are not dangerous criminals are drawn to violence and other people s suffering, they seek them out, at least at a safe distance I m sure there are complex reasons for why this is the case most of which are, in my opinion, based around power and sex I can imagine many of you shaking your head as you read this I accept that this is not a popular view yet to me it is undeniable one only needs to look at the popularity of certain kinds of TV programmes, or films or books Take the recent torture porn craze, films that amount to nothingthan 90 mins of people being butchered And why dopeople tune into the news thehorrific, the bigger the tragedy Who, likewise, is watching all those murder documentaries Murderers Maniacs I don t think so Who is reading all those brutal crime novels The evidence is overwhelming, despite how uncomfortable the reality of it makes people feel We human beings haven t changed since large crowds gathered to watch public hangings, we just get our kicks insubtle ways these days.I think that this attraction to violence and suffering accounts for why many people appear to find Imre Kertesz s Fateless or Fatelessness, in another translation boring or disappointing Very few people will admit it, of course, but, in a number of the reviews I have read, there is a very real sense of expectations not having been met, without anyone actually truly giving voice to what these expectations were I can tell you these people expected grand horror Fateless is a book about the holocaust, it is a partially autobiographical account of a young man s experiences in some of the worst concentration camps These disappointed readers wanted, perhaps sub consciously, to read about the boy s suffering, they wanted him to be severely psychologically and physically oppressed Yet the book lacks these things, in large part, and therefore it is, I believe, for a certain kind of reader, a huge let down.For me, however, Fateless is one of the most extraordinary books I have ever read Indeed, one of the things I like about it is how novel it is, how, in essence, it does not conform to expectations The horror is there, of course, because the holocaust was absolutely, undeniably horrific, so to side step it completely is impossible, but it is nearly always in the background, is not lingered over The book is a first person narrative, and the boy s voice is detached, relentlessly ironic, and this creates a weird form of tension, because you know precisely what kind of awful things are happening around him, and to him, but he seems, at least for the first two thirds of the book, unable to see them himself The boy isn t stupid, nor particularly na ve, he just appears to take everything in his stride, to see the common sense in, the rationale behind, everything For example, one of the most powerful, poignant and moving scenes takes place as Gyorgy and his friends arrive at Auschwitz and are seen by a doctor who divides the inmates into two groups on the basis of who is fit for work and who isn t The reader knows what this process is really about, of course, we know what the outcome will be for those unable to work, but Gyorgy, who at this stage does not, mentally joins in the selection process, justifying to himself or questioning the doctor s decisions to pass or condemn his fellow man Even when confronted by officers with whips he feels littlethan discomforted or wary and when he finally comes to understand what the crematoriums are for he takes this in his stride too.Kertesz apparently once said that it was important to him that he did not present the holocaust as something in retrospect, as something that has already happened and is being commented on, but rather as something happening, as something being revealed bit by bit to the people involved by which I mean the victims However, while I think that is both an interesting approach and one the author makes good use of, I don t believe that it explains why this book is special It suggests that Gyorgy would behave as expected i.e wringing his hands, beating his chest and wailing at the stars once he understands what is happening, but he doesn t It is the boy s voice, his take on events, that makes Fateless something of a masterpiece for me Until I read the book I thought it impossible that anyone could bring a freshness to a subject I already knew a great deal about, but Kertesz does exactly that Fateless is, it is worth pointing out, also strangely funny I have seen it compared to Candide by Voltaire, in which a character attempts to keep a sunny, positive outlook in the face of every kind of disaster, and while I can see some of that in Kertesz s novel, the humour is less slap stick, is darker,subtle and sophisticated indeed, in tone it reminded meof Gulliver s Travels, or Kafka, it is similarly deadpan, so that one isn t sure, at certain moments, whether one is meant to laugh or not For example, when Gyorgy is moved to Buchenwald he sets off on a long description of the place, which sounds eerily like a holiday brochure or the script used by an estate agent who is showing you around a property you may wish to purchase, a property that isn t of the highest calibre, of course It would be possible to read this description and be slightly bewildered, because it is absurd, yet there is no doubt in my mind that the author is playing for laughs, albeit bitter laughs There are, however,obviously comedic moments, although these too are shot through with bitterness and a kind of searing irony, like when Gyorgy s father is taken away All the same, I thought, at least we were able to send him off to the labor camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day Or when the boy describes one of the concentration camps as golden days indeed, or when he states, perhaps most movingly of all I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp In terms of style the novel is written in Kertesz s recognisably overly precise manner He is a fan of clauses, that s for sure, some of which do not make a great deal of sense to me, although you could put this down to a translation issue The narrator is also, as with the author s other work, pedantic, and partly because of this the sentences are inelegant, ugly even Further, Kertesz, much like Dostovesky, uses repeated words or phrases, such as so to say and somehow, which can make reading him laborious However, lyrical is certainly not what the writer was gunning for here, so none of this is intended critically One thing I would like to say, before I finish, is in response to the review by the usually excellent The Complete Review, which called Fateless something like the autobiography before the art the art being Kertesz s later novels I don t agree with that at all In fact, i think the opposite Kertesz s other novels including Fiasco and Kaddish for an Unborn Child despite many qualities to recommend them, are the imitation after the art Fiasco is one part Beckett, one part Kafka and one part Bernhard Kaddish is Beckett and Bernhard Fateless, on the other hand, is all Kertesz, it is a singular vision Fatelessness, the quasi autobiographical novel and reworking of Kertesz s own experiences at Auschwitz and other camps during WW2 is narrated by Gyuri, an awkward, and I have to say not fully likeable 14 year old Jewish boy from Budapest, who suffers from the usual teenage sensations of estrangement and diffidence, and is at a highly sensitive age to endure such tyranny and his response is to rationalise everything His tone is formal, dispassionate, his story peppered with evasions and disclaim Fatelessness, the quasi autobiographical novel and reworking of Kertesz s own experiences at Auschwitz and other camps during WW2 is narrated by Gyuri, an awkward, and I have to say not fully likeable 14 year old Jewish boy from Budapest, who suffers from the usual teenage sensations of estrangement and diffidence, and is at a highly sensitive age to endure such tyranny and his response is to rationalise everything His tone is formal, dispassionate, his story peppered with evasions and disclaimers such as naturally and in all fairness Despite the gravity of its heavy subject, the narrative is punctuated with bursts of adolescent facetiousness, and is almost told as if he were still in total denial of what s going on around him After his father is taken away, he would take his own train ride into a hellish world he doesn t yet realise Gyuri arrives at Auschwitz deluded that it will be a normal work camp and marvels at the emaciated criminals Before noticing strange chimneys, and a smell in the air he can t quite make out He describes his situation almost scientifically, and there is a marked lack of compassion to his thinking There is even the argument he would have made a good Nazi He sizes up fellow inmates with disgust and feels no affinity what so ever with other Hungarians, and even less so with other Jews He simply does what is necessary to endure and survive In places though it feltlike a holiday camp to him than one run by the Nazi regime, and apart from hunger pains, and the time he got some wounds infected whilst at Buchenwald, there was little else that made me feel the plight of his ordeal Gyuri s tragedy is his failure to fully accept the meaninglessness of Nazi brutality But then this could also be seen as his triumph By focusing perversely, on the so called happiness of the camps, rather than on the atrocities, he is somehow victorious in winning the battle of the mind, leaving him less traumatized when he finally returned home Considering this was Kertesz s debut novel, it was an accomplished piece of writing However, and disappointingly for me, as a piece of Holocaust literature, it didn t hurt, and struggled to really get under my skin I expected to pained by the horrors, haunted by the suffering, kicked where it hurts, have my blood chilled, make me feel something at least But no, hardly anything On a harrowing level compared to other books I have read on the same subject including Tadeusz Borowski s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen it all came across as pretty tame Maybe he witnessed such horrors but chose to exclude the worst bits from his novel I would rather they would have been included As there is nothing comfortable about Holocaust experiences, and yet I sat there, comfortable Through the middle sections based at the camps I never truly got the sense that right around the corner mass exterminations were being carried out.There is no denying this is a work worthy of merit, but it wasn t the book I was hoping for, as it never really hit me with any real significant power But at least it s another unread Nobel laureate I can now tick of the list Nobel prize winner Imre Kert sz survived stays in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps While he was there, I have no doubt that he suffered a great deal both physically and psychologically so I was understandably, I think hesitant to dislike his semi autobiographical Holocaust novel Fatelessness It seems at the very least very inconsiderate of me to criticize his book for failing to entertain me Entertainment is a strange, nebulous word Are we entertained in whatever Nobel prize winner Imre Kert sz survived stays in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps While he was there, I have no doubt that he suffered a great deal both physically and psychologically so I was understandably, I think hesitant to dislike his semi autobiographical Holocaust novel Fatelessness It seems at the very least very inconsiderate of me to criticize his book for failing to entertain me Entertainment is a strange, nebulous word Are we entertained in whatever sense when we watch The Sorrow and the Pity How about when we read Elie Wiesel s Night I would argue that, yes, we are Admittedly this is an entertainment only dimly related to that alleged enjoyment afforded by a rerun of The King of Queens, but it is a diversion that intends to please its audience Now don t only think of pleasing as giving an audience what it asks for, but also think of it as giving an audience what it didn t even know it wanted to begin with.When we think about the Holocaust, unless we are aberrant or sadistic, we are unlikely to be pleased by it, in and of itself, but when we read a text in the postmodern sense of texts, including films and art, etc concerning the Holocaust, if it is well done, we will be pleased by it Why Because it gives us insight into human experience even of the horrific kind or it helps us to understand our world in some small way or, alternately, it helps us to experience what is incomprehensible about our world or it offers a critique or diagnosis of the systems in our culture which enable things like Holocausts which may inform our future actions or behavior And of course there are other possibilities of pleasures we might derive from unpleasant subjects some certainly less honorable It isn t without an acute awareness of how it sounds that I claim that Imre Kert sz s Fatelessness didn t please me It sounds terrible, doesn t it As if I asked for the monkey to dance for me and it failed to dance But don t confuse these pleasures with the baser forms Fatelessness is unsuccessful because it has nothing much to say, but it manages nevertheless to say it at great length It s littlethan a neutered story of a boy spending time in concentration camps There s no insight there s no emotional weight there s no humanity besides which, stylistically speaking, the Wilkinson translation of Kert sz is a mess The sentences are long, dissected by countless clauses, phrases, and parenthetical asides, and often pointless They accumulate detail but not purpose Perhaps this is a commentary on life an existential grammar but if so, how trite Our suffering is long and meaningless At only 260 pages, this book feels long and meaningless itself An efficacious art Cynically, this could be recommended as a handbook for survival should you find yourself arrested one fine morning thanks to your offensive identity or favoriting a thousand resist related tweets in a single week I don t think expert knowledge eg, it s best to be toward the end of the soup line so the ladle is filled with weightier chunks of veggies and maybe some meat will really come in handy any time soon, but this does have an important function now, the same as it always has, in that it Cynically, this could be recommended as a handbook for survival should you find yourself arrested one fine morning thanks to your offensive identity or favoriting a thousand resist related tweets in a single week I don t think expert knowledge eg, it s best to be toward the end of the soup line so the ladle is filled with weightier chunks of veggies and maybe some meat will really come in handy any time soon, but this does have an important function now, the same as it always has, in that it shows how things can escalate step by step and all along the way human nature acclimates to whatever happens, gets used to regulates whatever horror comes next, makes it so you become accustomed to seeing carts filled with body parts or even seeing three Latvian escapees caught and displayed as a lesson not to run, for example and all of it somehow doesn t blot out the ability of the sun as it sets to memorably illuminate the world, even when that bit of the world is Buchenwald The image of the Auschwitz crematorium chimneys at first they thought the nasty smell was coming from a nearby leather factory stretching into the distance made me say aloud on the subway something like whoa dude fuck For the first few chapters it functions like a suspense thriller in that the reader knowsabout the horrors up ahead than the narrator, but after a while rumors start to circulate and they have a better idea about what s going on, not that such knowledge changes anything for them really All the minor instances of luck and goodwill that kept the narrator alive All the facial features distorted by time spent as a prisoner Lager means camp in German didn t know that and will remember it forever after and associate it with this book whenever I drink that style of beer Loved isn t the right word but I laughed out loud when he made it back to Budapest and someone asked what he felt and he said hatred and when asked who he hated he said everyone Loved the last parts where he s trying to describe what it was really like, how it wasn t all horror all the time, or hell, as everyone wants him to say, but that it was boring everyday life, a twisted cousin of freedom in that he was living a fate imposed on him, as though he had no fate hence the title , and now that he was actually free he felt homesick for when he had no choices to make Note that this is about FATELESS, the original translation published by Northwestern University Press, not FATELESSNESS, the newer translation published by Vintage I bought both and A B d them before choosing which one to read after the first paragraph it was clear that I preferred FATELESS I just tried to read FATELESSNESS, thinking I d read it again in a different translation but I couldn t make it very far the new translation seems maybe too loyal to the original Hungarian, too often it offers up awkward English phrases and switches tenses oddly The first translation may have regulated the text a bit and, to me, it reads better, without a doubt Anyway, this is the third Kert sz novel I ve read Detective Story a few years ago by the translator of FATELESSNESS and Kaddish for a Child Not Bornrecently by the couple who translated FATELESS and this one is clearly the strongest and most significant of these three, although the other two are definitely worth it If you re interested in giving this writer a try, this his first novel is probably the one to start with.For interesting takes on Kert sz related translation issues, see this review by Joshua Cohen and scroll down about midway

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