Tag Archives: World War II

Fateless / Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

Fateless is a novel by 2002 Nobel Prize-winning author Imre Kertész.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Vintage Books, 2006 edition (first published 1975), paperback, 262 pages - library copy

I borrowed it from the library in advance of my recent trip to Budapest. It isn’t set in Hungary, but I thought I should sample some writing by local authors. I’m really not a big fan of the cover (left), as I have an aversion to movie-versions of books and if I’d have been buying it for myself would have had to get the 2004 Vintage International, or the 2005 Harvill Press edition which, also incidentally both have the more accurately translated title – Fatelessness.

The story is told by Gyuri, a fourteen-year-old Hungarian Jew. Gyuri has the day off school so that he can witness his father signing away the family timber business before being sent to a labour camp. Two months later school is closed due to the war (World War II) and Gyuri is placed in a group of boys tasked with physical jobs such as bricklaying. It’s not long before he is unexepectedly pulled off a bus and detained without explanation. This is the beginning of his journey to Auschwitz.

As it is told in the first person, one of the most striking things in the book for me is Gyuri’s voice. When I first began reading Fateless, I couldn’t help but draw parallel’s with John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (read my review here). Although Gyuri is older than Bruno, there are similarities in the way that the author has chosen an innocent-sounding tone for the narrator. This made me wonder, especially because this book in concentration camps, whether Boyne had been inspired at all by Kertész’ novel. Quite honestly, to begin with I thought that Gyuri sounded a bit simple, and then wondered if it was something to do with the translation, but actually as I read on the innocence of his tone felt authentic – especially the teenage-sounding comments such as “as far as I should know” at the end of nearly every sentence!

As the book continues, Gyuri does become less naive. He becomes aware of what is happening in the camp – previously he had just been going along with events, as I suppose a child on a school trip might. His simple reasoning though is actually an effective way of conveying the true horror of the the human decisions behind the circumstances:

“After all, people would have had to meet to discuss this, put their heads together… in all likelihood – gentlemen in in imposing suits…One of them comes up with the gas, another immediately follows with the bathhouse, a third with the soap…”

Through Gyuri, Kertész causes the reader to observe the many ironies of the situation: How a man who previously fought on the side of the Germans in World War I, is now in a concentration camp. How a young man like Gyuri who is actually considered an outsider by other Jews because he isn’t actually religious is singled out purely because of his race. I felt that the discursive quality of the book was very effective. It really drew me in, and while I never felt emotionally attached to Gyuri, the distance made his experiences feel even more chilling.

I interpreted the idea of fatelessness as freedom. Through a series of chance decisions, such as the choice to lie about his age, he survives the camp and also leaves with his sense of self intact, in spite of a gruelling experience. It is by an arbitrary fact of birth that Gyuri is in the camp to begin with but so too are the circumstances by which he makes it through. In this respect, while Fateless is not a cheerful book, it is actually uplifting. It is a provocative book, because the narrator has a unique view on the situation – he is very accepting, and in a way, it is as if this saves him. I wonder how many people who had been in a concentration camp would though, have the same perspective as Gyuri in the following passage;

“…even there, next to the chimneys, in the intervals between the torments, there was something that resembled happiness. Everyone asks only about the hardships and the “atrocities,” whereas for me perhaps it is the experience which will remain the most memorable. Yes, the next time I am asked, I ought to speak about that,of the happiness of the concentration camps.”

Fateless is a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas – for instance the description of the tattooed numbers on prisoners as “celestial phone numbers”. I can’t help but compare it to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and I definitely think it was more hard-hitting. A less ‘enjoyable’ read, but more complex and intense. This would be a brilliant book group choice as there are so many elements to discuss. A fascinating perspective from a character who is neither hero nor victim.

Have you read any books with an unexpected perspective like this?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

After submerging myself in the Victorian world of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone
, I fancied a quick, light-hearted read to bring me back into the 20th Century. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society written by Mary Ann Shaffer and completed by her niece Annie Barrows, was just what the doctor ordered.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is written in the form of a series of letters starting in 1946, just after WWII has finished. Author, Juliet Ashton is having trouble thinking of what to write next. Out of the blue, Juliet receives a letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey who has found her old address in a book that once belonged to her and Dawsey and Juliet begin to correspond. Details about the Guernsey islanders life during the German occupation are discovered and about a special society that was formed during that time – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. As Juliet digs deeper into the origins of the society she writes and receives letters from an array of characters who between them illuminate the story of the society and the occupation. As Juliet unravels the pieces of the story she not only becomes fascinated with the islanders’ experiences, she makes lasting friendships.

Had this novel not been so highly recommended to me, I don’t think I would ever have picked it up, thinking that it wouldn’t be my cup of tea. In fact even halfway through reading it I didn’t want to like it, but in spite of myself I found it to be one of the most heartwarming and poignant pieces of writing I have read in a while. In some ways it reminded me of Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip (my glowing review of it is here), in the way that it combined bright humour with darker undertones. Usually I would be put off by the correspondence format of the novel, but I found that the letters were well arranged so that the story flowed and the different characters were revealed through their unique voices.

One of the most important things for me was that I liked the character of Juliet. In fact I liked all of the characters I was supposed to like! At first I thought she was a little bit flippant, but as the story developed I came to like her more and more. She seemed sparkly and vibrant – someone you’d like to know! I think this is one of the great successes of the novel, as it’s so easy to ruin a book by having a downright unlikable character as the main voice. I felt as if I was being drawn into the lives of the islanders along with Juliet and they all seemed such lovely people, especially Isola who has a pet parrot and is the perfect scatty hostess.  Her description of herself was so honest and frank without being slyly self-depreciating:

“I do not have a pleasing appearance. My nose is big and was broken when I fell off the hen-house roof. One eyeball skitters up to the top, and my hair is wild and will not stay tamped down. I am tall and built of big bones.”

I loved John Booker’s philosophy on learning:

“I think you learn more if you’re laughing at the same time.”

I also loved the descriptions of the little girl Kit, and her assessment of Juliet during their first meeting:

“Kit sat beside me in the cart and sent me many sideways glances. I was not so foolish as to try to talk to her, but I played my severe-thumb trick – you know, the one that makes your thumb look as though it’s been sliced in two. I did it over and over again, casually, not looking at her, while she watched me like a baby hawk. She was intent and fascinated but not gullible enough to break into giggles. She just said at last, ‘show me how you do that.'”

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society strikes just the right chord between being witty and enjoyable whilst revealing heartbreaking moments and experiences. The painful stories about the German occupation, close friends being sent to prisoner of war camps, and petty betrayals are weighed out in equal measure with little triumphs, discoveries and wonderful friendships. I can’t fault it – it’s just a truly lovely story.