Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Extreme Life


Nominally this is a story about a young boy who is sent to the Nazi concentration camps from his home in Budapest in the last year of World War II. Narrated in the first person by young Gyorgy Koves, the novel is the story of an outsider -- one who does not belong to any group or anyone even as he is brutally incarcerated and his life is severely restricted almost to the point of death.

Gyorgy is an outsider in several senses. The week before he leaves home his Father is sent away to a "labor camp". When Gyorgy arrives at the concentration camp to which he has been transported he has to claim to be sixteen when he was not, surviving by being one of a small number of youths among many older prisoners. He was not from a particularly religious family, and knew neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. So, while he wore the obligatory yellow star, fellow Jewish prisoners looked down on him because he only spoke Hungarian, again he was an outsider and felt as though he did not fit in, but took it all in stride with faith that things would work out. His narrative underscores the feeling of being an outsider by a focus on the his individual interaction with the camp with little mention of specific interpersonal connections. The one exception, his friend Bandi Citrom, is the only boy whose name we learn.

The author uses his young narrator's lack of knowledge about his surroundings to maintain a distance from his new world. It is a distance that also constrains Gyorgy's connection with other individuals he meets in the camp who, when referred to at all, are given generic nicknames like "traveller", "fancy-man", and "the Gypsy". It is only Bandi that we learn anything about and it is about him that Gyorgy says: "all these things, and much else besides, all of it knowledge essential to prison life, I was taught by Bandi Citrom, learning by watching and myself striving to emulate."

The horror of the story is in the way Gyorgy describes his slow descent into a shadow of his former self as his body becomes a living ghost. It is his striving, which ebbs lower and lower, that keeps him going. This is a difficult book to read in its unrelenting presentation of an extreme experience of degradation of an individual. Like others who have shared similar experiences Kertesz connects with the reader on a very human level sharing the story of an ordinary young man whose experience was extraordinary.

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz. Tim Wilkinson, trans. Vintage Books, New York. 2004 (1975)

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