This is going to be a hard one for a few reasons. The book is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s/main character’s experience in concentration camps, so yeah, that’s heavy. And as it’s a translation from Hungarian, a language that I have zero familiarity with, it carries with it the usual tangle of curiosity – how much of the style of the prose is the author’s and how much the translator’s? And the ending may not be what you expect, either. The ending is difficult.
The style of the prose is quite a distinctive one as well: long, meandering sentences going off on tangents, the teenager’s frustratingly apolitical worldview denying us a full view of what’s going on. The tone is quite stiff and almost pompous sometimes, a proper stuck-up young man caught up in one of humanity’s worst atrocities. Our main character, Gyuri, is a Hungarian Jew whose concerns are small and young, school and work and the girl who lives in his building. He’s aware of what’s going on in the world around him but not particularly interested. He comes face to face with antisemitism, and has his reluctant part to play in the preparations his family is making for the worst, handing their business over to their Gentile employee and Gyuri’s father being sent off to a labour camp. And when he wants to, Gyuri can see quite astutely. He has interesting things to say about the things we tell ourselves about other people in order to justify our behaviour.
His experience in the concentration camps he spends time in is an outsider’s experience in a lot of ways – this isn’t the story of “what it was like in the concentration camps”, it’s very much the story of “what it was like for Gyuri in the concentration camps”. Being Hungarian, he finds himself quite isolated, as there are few other Hungarians there. He was picked up on his way to work one morning and put on a train without water to Germany. Even the other prisoners are surprised at his story. He speaks German, the only other language he can communicate in, which is both helpful and not. Furthermore, he does not speak Yiddish, which isolates him culturally and makes him appear less Jewish in the eyes of some of the other prisoners.
The whole book is equally heartbreaking and… interesting? I wish there was a better word for it. Gyuri’s first look at Auschwitz, where he has an unwitting narrow escape (lying about his age saves his life, though he doesn’t learn this until later) and the people who are held there, dressed as prisoners, skinny and dirty and maltreated, and his unquestioning assertion that these are bad people, prisoners for a reason, is just… And then of course he learns the truth about them, and about why he is there, that he is considered to be like them though he knows he isn’t, though they all know they aren’t. Powerful stuff.
Kertész recreates very well the way that when you’re young you sometimes just miss what’s going on, see everything but understand nothing. And he sees the different concentration camps through those eyes, through the eyes of someone who knows he will be living there for an unknown period of time and can’t afford to look at them in any other way. They’re all different places with different characters, from the industrial scale processing of Auschwitz to the ramshackle camp in Zeitz to the almost comfort and purpose of Buchenwald.
It’s a way that I’ve never heard concentration camps described before, because I’ve never really read fully a firsthand account (even if fictionalised) of someone who was kept in one, and it was difficult. The greater aspect of them is drilled into us, the awfulness, the inhumanity, and it’s hard to pull out of that the experience of the individual, who experienced them more closely, without the global context, and it’s hard to know what to think, or what is good or offensive to think, or whether we should in fact be thinking at all and not just listening.
When Gyuri is freed and comes home to Budapest, and finds himself longing for the routine and stability he’s learned to navigate rather than the almost hostile, daunting freedom of being back home, where his experience is either resented or politicised with no regard for his own self, his own needs, we can’t judge him. We may have followed Gyuri’s journey, we may have learned things he didn’t know, but we were not there.
When he says in the end of the book that he’ll remember the happiness of the concentration camps, we can’t tell him he isn’t allowed to. After seeing people presume on his trauma as the general trauma of a people and not his individual experience, after seeing people try to use his words as a denial of the Holocaust literally five minutes after the freed Hungarians have got off the train from Germany, we can’t be the experience police. Fateless is a story about the wider atrocity and the individual experience within that. but it also reminded me that we can sometimes help the most by really listening.
*There is another translation which is titled “Fatelessness” so the book will appear sometimes as one and sometimes as the other