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?