Imre Kertesz makes no effort to test that premise, that it's impossible to write about happiness, in this dense and dark little book. Writing, he declares often enough, is his necessary act to stay alive long enough to die: "...for my ballpoint pen is my spade," he repeats several times, "and if I look ahead, it is solely to look backwards." Don't suppose, dear reader, that this is another 'life-affirming' memoir by another Shoah survivor. Kertesz's only affirmation is of the necessity of understanding one's life as long as one is stuck with it. "One's religious duty," he writes, "totally independently of the crippling religions of the crippling churches, is therefore understanding the world; yes, that when all is said and done, it is in this, in understanding the world and my situation, and in this alone, that I may seek ... my salvation." Oh, the likelihood of any such salvation is slim indeed, according to Kertesz, but "we must at least have the will to fail."
That last quotation is second-hand; Kertesz quotes it from a book by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. If you know Bernhard's work, you'll recognize the influence it must have had on Imre Kertesz. At least in this volume, their styles are nearly identical: the same endlessly extended and qualified sentences, the same throbbing repetitions, the same parenthetical avoidance of any chronological narrative. If you don't like Bernhard at all, you'll probably hate Kertesz. On the other hand, if you can handle Bernhard's tyrannical mannerisms, you may well find Kertesz blessedly accessible and affective, though every bit as difficult. I do find this style -- Kertesz's as well as Bernhard's -- tyrannical, in that the hyper-run-on sentences, with all their adverbial qualifiers and compulsive repetitiveness, deliberately require me not to "think back" at them, not to pause to respond or reflect, simply to plough on to the end, with sometimes no more than the barest hope of recalling and reassembling enough in my mind to be justified in claiming that I comprehend. You have to read such stylists on their terms, and their terms only, whether those terms are acceptable or not. You can quarrel with the author later, but he won't be there to listen.
The "Kaddish" is a synagogue prayer for the benefit of a recently deceased family member. Strictly speaking, Kertesz's Kaddish for an Unborn Child isn't a prayer at all. Eventually, as you read, you come to realize that it is an 'apology' addressed to Kertesz's own unborn child, that is, to the child he refused to bring into life. There is, of course, nobody to hear it, no child to resent or to be grateful for not being born. Much of the tension of Kertesz's non-narrative comes precisely from "looking backward", as he re-assesses the reasons he gave his ex-wife for refusing to father her child. The wife obviously doesn't have her own voice, as Kertesz would surely admit; her thoughts are only Kertesz's thoughts about what he thought she must have been thinking. Yes, that's the kind of book this is: utterly hermeneutic and self-referential.
Kertesz writes that "NO!" which he says he said, both to his wife and to the philosopher-acquaintance whose question about having children stimulates the meditation qua Kaddish, at the head of each subsection of the text. "NO!" is the refrain, the burden, the moral of Kertesz's Kaddish. It's the complexities of meaning in Kertesz's NO! that make the book worth reading. Because, of course, Kertesz IS an Auschwitz survivor, although there's very little description in this book of his death camp experiences, and therefore has some certified claim to authority on the subject of NO!, of evil. As he tells his unborn child that he must have told that child's would-have-been mother, "...what is truly irrational and genuinely inexplicable is not evil but, on the contrary, good." It may well be too simple an explication of Kertesz's moral outrage, but it seems to me that his NO! has to be taken as the most ready incidence of 'Good' in his world.