I didn't go to school today. Or rather, I did go, but only to ask my class teacher's permission to take the day off.
–Imre Kertész - Fatelessness - c.1975, 2006
On the 31st March 2016 Imre Kertész died. I hadn’t heard of him before I saw the post on Metafilter marking his passing, but in the thread his first book, Fatelessness was mentioned. It is a fictionalised account of Kertész’s own experiences as a teenager in Hungary and then Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He was fourteen when he was sent to the concentration camps.
It is a fascinating book. It deals with the horrifying events and details of the Holocaust in an almost dispassionate way. Georg, our narrator, starts out as almost any other, slightly awkward teenager. His parents have divorced, he is learning to live between them, as well as discovering girls. And at the same time he is in a special class at school, he has to wear a yellow star, he expects to be cheated and hated simply because he is a Jew. But all this is almost normal for him.
I think that it is precisely that everyday, normal feeling that makes the events so real to the reader. The true horror comes across all the more because Georg does not know any different, but also, he doesn’t know what is to come. He, and many others, almost volunteer to go to Auschwitz. They believe they will be forced in any case, so they may as well go along and maybe they’ll be treated slightly better. And when they arrive and the “criminals” warn them to never be sick. To say they are sixteen… it is just heartbreaking. Georg believes the other Jews are criminals because their heads are shaved, and they are wearing criminals’ uniforms. Even when he is one of them there is a sort of disbelief, but also a weird acceptance of the fact.
Georg is so naive, so innocent that you almost look at the Holocaust with fresh eyes. I think that we are almost used to it today. We know all about the millions murdered, and the horror, that I think maybe we gloss over what it actually was. That is impossible in this book. The very ordinariness of Georg’s narration emphasises the true horror of it all. He never really protests or rails at the injustice of his life; it simply is how it is.
And one of the truly gut-wrenching things is that on his return to his hometown one of the first people Georg comes across is a Holocaust denier. Words fail, they really do.