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on 30 January 2006
This story of 15 year old Gyuri, as seen through his own eyes, begins with his Jewish family in Budapest in 1944.
At the beginning the protagonist is like any other boy on the threshold of manhood, embarrassed by displays of emotion, looking on distastefully at his father and stepmother’s affection for each other. Yet he too finds his emotions awakening and becomes attached to a girl living in the same apartment block.
Although we as readers are privileged and know the import of the events that are unfolding, Guyuri talks matter-of-factly about the ominous signs in his home city: the mandatory wearing of the yellow star, his father’s shopping preparations as he is called to a ‘labour’ camp, and then his own subsequent journey from working at a refinery for the war effort to Auschwitz. He is told that by taking the train he will be given a worthy job and, like all adventurous and naive boys of his age, volunteers for this opportunity with enthusiasm.
Briefly in Auschwitz, Guyuri is soon transferred to another concentration camp and it is here that both he and the reader are surprised by the acceptance of the slow, incremental degradation he observes in himself and in others.
His experiences not only age his body into that of a decrepit old man but also engender a wisdom that many who live to 100 years may never attain. Guyuri realises that survival is only possible because people live their lives one step at a time: to live with the knowledge of what is to come would be an unbearable burden.
Simply written, with some heartbreaking moments (“I would like to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp"), it is Guyuri’s astonishing, unique voice that makes this a hugely affecting and remarkable tale.
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Who every day must conquer them anew.
These words of Goethe provide the emotional context within which I experienced Imre Kertész' masterful novel Fateless.
Kertesz was an assimilated Hungarian-Jew living in relative comfort in Budapest. In the summer of 1944 he was picked up and shipped to Auschwitz. He was fourteen years old. He was transferred from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, from Buchenwald to Zeitz (a lesser-known concentration camp) and then back to Buchenwald. He was liberated a year later and returned to Budapest.
The life of György (George) Köves, the protagonist of Fateless, tracks the experiences of Kertesz. The novel is written in George's voice and we see the world through his recollection of events. (Kertesz has indicated in interviews that although Fateless takes the form of an autobiographical novel it is not an autobiography but a work of fiction.) George is a relatively care free, naive 14 year old leading a middle class life with his family. As the story opens, the family is preparing to say goodbye to George's father who is being sent to a labor camp. I was struck immediately by George's detachment as these early events unfold. George obtains a job at a factory. This provides him with a pass out of his neighborhood although he is still required to wear a yellow star identifying him as Jewish. One morning, on the way to work, he is swept up along with thousands of others and is sent on his journey into the seven layers of hell known as concentration camps. The rest of novel details George's experiences in the camps, his gradual physical deterioration that leaves him near death, the chain of events that kept him alive, his liberation and his eventual return to Budapest.
I expected that any book that had the Holocaust as a central theme would be filled with vivid descriptions of the horrors found there and the emotional turmoil that any prisoner experienced. In fact, the opposite was the case. George's narrative is, until the very end, devoid of emotion. It consists of a spare, narrative recitation of events. I think the book was all the more chilling and had a greater emotional impact as a result. No words can adequately describe the horrors and misery and Kertesz does not really try. Rather, the emotion is inferred from the factual context. At one point, George finds a mirror and looks at his image. He sees in himself the gaunt vision of shuffling prisoners that met him on his arrival at the camps. He doesn't complain, he simply observes. The observation is stunning not for its emotional content but for the very fact of it.
I was also struck by the irony expressed in many of Kertesz' passages. George, like Kertesz, was not particularly religious nor did he speak the lingua franca of many European Jews, Yiddish. Despite his presence in the camp he was rejected by many of his fellow prisoners because he was not, in their eyes, sufficiently Jewish. He didn't know Yiddish nor did he know enough Hebrew to recite the Kaddish, a prayer for the dead. George's camp experience was one of double isolation.
George's emotions only rise to the surface upon his return to Budapest after liberation. He is on a trolley, filthy and malnourished. He can feel the scorn and snickering of his fellow passengers and seethes with anger, an emotion seemingly permitted to enter into his life now that his freedom is assured. He returns to his family apartment only to find that it has been appropriated by another family. His family and friends tell him to put the camps into his past, but he can't, it is an experience that will never be `in the past'. Kertesz, in his Nobel Prize lecture sums it up thusly: "By which I mean that nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz. In my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense."
The novel ends with George pondering the meaning of life and fate. He posits that those that accept fate can never be free and those seeking freedom cannot do so if the live by the axiom "it is written". The closing puts George's whole camp experience in a new perspective. Some struggle outwardly for freedom. George's struggle was completely internalized. His struggle for life itself was a struggle to be free. As the Russian novelist Vasily Grossman asserted in his book Forever Flowing, "there remained alive and growing one genuine force alone, consisting of one element only - freedom. To live meant to be a free human being."
The story of George Koves is the story of a young boy who struggled every day for freedom and for life and conquered them anew. It is a powerful book and one that I cannot recommend too highly.
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on 25 May 2007
I have just finished reading this and I just feel blown away.

I began reading this with the expectation that it would be worthy but unpleasant in its detail and subject matter, but in fact what is really breathtakingly chilling about it is the emotionless way in which one step after another, the narrator Gyuri relates the string of events that lead him to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Zeitz. There is something about the way in which Gyuri (a 14 year old boy) seeks to rationalise everthing that is happening to him, that really took my breath away. There is something too about the escalation of events up against the coolness of the description, which also made this impossible to put down, which I really wasn't expecting.

I have been to Auschwitz and read various testimonies, but the beauty of the Kertesz's prose in rendering Gyuri's efforts to explain the little details of everyday life (even down to seeking out the good things of concentration camp life)through to trying to rationalise his fate and that of other Jews will stay with me for a very long time. I can't recommend this book enough.
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An account of the author's teenage year spent in a concentration camp: yet written in a passive, unemotional way, reminiscent of Camus' "L'Etranger".
From the first chapter, when the family are still together in Budapest, preparing for the father's departure for a labour camp next day, we witness young Gyuri's detachment - or perhaps innocence, not realising what a labour camp actually means.
"After that he sent me off to bed. By then I was dead tired anyway. All the same, I thought, at least we were able to send him off to the labour camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day."
Shortly afterwards Gyuri too is sent off to a camp. Yet here too he has benign recollections: the youths being hauled off the bus - laughing and enjoying the sunny morning. The subsequent lies of the Germans that prompt the boys to accept the 'adventure' of going to work abroad...and the beginnings of his new life in a camp.
Gyuri doesn't dwell on the atrocities; so much so that it comes as even more horrific when he first mentions what this new life has done to him and his comrades - the fact they can hardly recognise one another in this regime of filth and hunger.
Yet as Gyuri observes, "one's imagination remains unfettered even in captivity. I contrived ,for instance, that while my hands were busy with a spade or mattock...I myself was simply absent."
When he is finally freed, Gyuri argues that "if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible...if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate...we ourselves are fate."
Very moving and readable account, very different to other works on this subject.
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on 10 June 2016
Not an easy read, it seems like a very literal translation but you soon get immersed in it. It's a heartbreaking, strange and moving view of a youth and his reaction to being in a concentration camp. It's quite unlike anything I've come across in this genre.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 October 2005
This book is a harsh and realistic account of the holocaust seen through the eyes of the author as a 15 year old boy.
What makes this story particularly impressive, is the innocence of the adolescent - and his family - who obeys all police commands and who discovers only very slowly what is really going on.
The home coming is also gripping.
Why 'fateless'? Because if there would have been an interchange of babies at his birth, he would have had a totally different destiny.
Nevertheless, the author is also very harsh for himself: he went, he did undergo his fate. He didn't realize like he says afterwards 'that we are our own fate'. As Nietzsche said, he chose the wrong conjugation: he didn't live, he was lived.
This novel is to be put on the same level as other impressive novels about the holocaust, like as an example those of Primo Levi and Jorge Semprun.
A masterpiece.
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on 9 December 2003
I don't know how the English translation is but the original is unforgottable. I read it in one go. It's very realistic, no false sentiment. He mixes present and future tense what makes it very intense.
I could compare it with the greatness of Semprun's Great Journey.
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on 14 April 2003
I have read the German translation of the book, not the English translation.
Brief Summary: From Budapest to Forced Labour in a Factory near Budapest. After a while arrested from there, send to NS concentration camp Auschwitz. In Auschwitz selected for Labour not for Gas-Poisening. From Auschwitz deported to NS concentration camp Buchenwald. Forced Labour there, and also in sub camp Zeitz (sub camp to Buchenwald). Severe illness caused by exhaustion. Survival in the hospital barrack of camp Buchenwald, thanks to the secret communist Lager-Organisation, the men with the red triangles on there jackets. Return to Budapest after liberation of Buchenwald. After the return, the boy refuses to be labelled as a "victim" because such a label would deprive him from all his steps he has done... but nobody wants to understand him...
The book provides valuable insights about the essence of the NS time, especially the Kapo system in which the prisoners were not directly controlled by SS men but by other prisoners of higher rank.
The leitmotiv is "making your steps", who ever you are, where ever you are, in any circumstances. A second leit-motiv is the meaning of happiness in those extremely nasty circumstances.
For me, one (of many) important implicit conclusions of the book is, that Judaism is not a race. The boy, though labelled as "Jew" by the yellow triangle, is not a jew, he doesn't believe in god, he doesn't know how to pray. He can't speak Hebrew nor Jiddisch. There is a nice description of the other boys who were also labelled jews: one has red hair, one has dark hair, one is blond and has blue eyes... It was the Antisemitists who invented the lie that judaism would be a "race" - and it is one of the sadest (and most persisting) results of the NS time that many of those yellow-labeled individuals startedto believe the lie invented by their enemy...
Further Reading:
In his book with the german-translation title "Der Spurensucher" (The trace-seeker; I don't know the proper english translation title) Kertesz describes the return of the boy, now as a mature man, to the factory near camp Zeitz, where he was a working prisoner some decades ago. Also that book is very recommendable.
P.S.: "NS" means National-Socialist, a more accurate term than "Nazi", which was a sloppy nickname invented by German socialists (themselves nick-named "Sozi") before that nickname made its way into the international use of language.
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on 15 June 2010
'Fatelessness' is a translation of 2002 Nobel Laureate Imre Kertesz's arguably most acclaimed piece of work. The book is a seemingly quasi- autobiographical account of a 14- year old Hungarian Jew's life during the Holocaust. It traces the journey of the unassuming and carefree Georg, who, for no fault of his own, ends up inside a train to Auschwitz. Life then takes him further on to the concentration camps at Buchenwald and Zeitz. How the boy holds himself together and finally makes it back home is the plot of this disturbing yet thoroughly engaging book.
The Holocaust stories, now told and retold several times through different media, may not be new to you. What is however amazing about this book is the way the author recounts his experiences in a factual and almost stoic manner. He has done away with melodrama, and at times seems to recite his story with the sole purpose of documenting a phase of his life that is, to the outside observer, so difficult to surmise, to comprehend, that it borders on mythical. This almost detached rendering of everyday struggle in the concentration camps makes the saga all the more heart- breaking. The style is laudable as well. I didn't think it was possible to write prose in a way that is simplistic, but also complex, all at the same time. Yet, here is a sample. Some sentences have to be read several times over in order to fully grasp what the writer is trying to convey. During the course of Georg's story, one comes across several interesting reflections (some will set you thinking), that are extremely quotable. One of my favourites is, 'I would never have believed it, yet it is a positive fact that nowhere is a certain discipline, a certain exemplariness, I might even say virtue, in one's conduct of life as obviously important as it is in captivity.'
The incidents towards the end of the book are equally compelling. For instance, Georg's conflict with his uncles on the approach he should take towards his future, or his inability to convince them that what he wants most is not to forget the past, but to accept it as part of his destiny, perhaps even learn from it, to remember and appreciate his resilience, his perseverance, his optimism, his will to survive. Georg's unshakable faith in reason was perhaps what kept him sane and gave him the strength to battle adversities and pull through at the end. There is great irony reflected in the fact that Georg probably wasn't even qualified for a concentration camp; a Jew by birth but not by choice, who cannot even understand Yiddish, who is not the least religious, was punished for a heritage he did not choose for himself.
There is a lot to learn from this book. Kertesz's message is one of perseverance, never to give up on life. And to find purpose and consequently happiness, in whatever life brings your way. You need to choose to be happy, to be happy. He also mentions fleetingly, through his protagonist, how we make our own destiny. What we choose, the decisions we take, how we conduct ourselves and how strong we are, decide what kind of life we eventually receive. This book is about surviving all odds, purely by virtue of one's strength of character, and coming out triumphant.
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on 5 September 2010
...which reminded more of Camus's 'The Outsider' than of any other holocaust novel I've ever read. This is not a typical holocaust novel. The horror is massively understated, in favour of something else that is hard to characterise. What is most striking is the strangeness of the narrator's emotional reactions to his experiences. Most of the time it's flat, or inappropriate - he focuses on trivia when big things are happening to him, he finds curious upsides and moments of pleasure in the most dire circumstances (he is struck by how orderly Auschwitz is, and how smart the guards appear, at his arrival). The book is worth reading just for the bizarre description of arrival at Auschwitz. While the character's experiences on return to Budapest after the end of the war is somewhat more conventional, it's still very powerful.
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