Adorno said, as we all know, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. This is not to say, as many imagine, that writing poetry after Auschwitz is to be forbidden, or is impossible. The word Adorno used, barbarisch, is worth pondering. Presumably he was applying it prescriptively to poets in the same way that he applied it to Stravinsky, whose music he reproached for what he saw as its murky neo-primitivism, as against Schoenberg’s pure, clear-sighted modernity. Stravinsky, by fleeing to the prehistoric past of jungle rhythm and sacrificial dance, or, later in his career, by leading the Gadarene regression to an ersatz classicism–“Back to Bach!”–was in Adorno’s opinion evading existentialist man’s duty to confront his own times in all their complexity and atrociousness.
Of course, poets, like Stravinsky, took not the slightest notice of Adorno’s stricture. Indeed, one of the greatest of twentieth-century poets, Paul Celan, not only continued to write poetry after Auschwitz but wrote poetry about Auschwitz itself, if we take “Auschwitz,” as Adorno evidently did, as not only the name of a specific and terrible place but as a collective term for all the camps, and for the Holocaust itself.
In Liquidation, the latest novel by the Hungarian Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész to be translated into English, one of the characters, the writer B., or Bee, who was born in the death camp,
applied his whole talent to Auschwitz… he was a past master and exclusive artist of the Auschwitz mode of existence. He felt that he had been born illegally, had remained alive for no reason, and nothing could justify his existence unless he were to “decipher the code name Auschwitz.”
Early on in the book, Kingbitter, the narrator, if such he may be called, a translator and editor and a friend of Bee’s, tells how as a student in the 1960s he chanced upon Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus–Kingbitter, or Kertész, does not name the novel, but the references in the text identify it. In the course of the “adventures of the imagination” that the book took him on, Kingbitter tells us, he was struck in particular by the notion that “the Ninth Symphony had been withdrawn.” (In Mann’s novel his protagonist, the composer Adrian Leverkühn, writes an apocalyptic cantata aimed at negating Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”) Later in Liquidation Bee echoes the notion, but in a more positive application, in the posthumous letter his ex-wife, Judit, receives from him after his suicide, instructing her to burn the manuscript of his final novel: “by virtue of the authority I have lived through and suffered for you, and for you alone, I revoke Auschwitz….” To this, however, Judit’s present husband, the non-Jewish Adam, retorts: “No one can revoke Auschwitz, Judit. No one, and by virtue of no authority. Auschwitz is irrevocable.”
If this sequence seems complicated, it is only one strand of the vertiginously intricate web of cross-reference, echo and self-contradiction that Kertész weaves both within individual books and between one book and another. Torgny Lindgren, speaking at the Nobel Prize presentation in 2002, remarked how in Kertész’s work “the separate parts appear to have grown together, with common root fibers or circulatory systems.” The narrator of Kaddish for an Unborn Child, published thirteen years before Liquidation–and with an epigraph from Paul Celan’s poem “Todesfuge”–also experienced Auschwitz, but as a boy or young man, not as a newborn child, as was the case with Bee. Internal evidence tends to suggest, however, that this narrator is none other than Bee himself, and that Kaddish is in fact the novel that Bee’s wife Judit burned on his instructions.
Where Kertész’s work is concerned, the term “unreliable narrator” is wholly inadequate to denote the twists and turns, the evasions, turnabouts and sheer effrontery of the narrative voice. Still, we have been warned. The epigraph to Liquidation is from Beckett’s novel Molloy: “Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.” These, the closing lines of the book, are a devastating and characteristically Beckettian negation of all that has gone before–if it was not midnight, if it was not raining, then there is nothing to prevent us from recognizing that the whole thing is a fiction, which, of course, it is. Yet it would be a mistake to imagine that Liquidation, any more than Molloy, is the product of postmodernist game-playing. Kertész, like Beckett, is deadly serious–in the case of both writers that adjective is in no way figurative–and his work is a profound meditation on the great and enduring themes of love, death and the problem of evil, although for Kertész, as we shall see, it’s not evil that is the problem but good.
Kertész was born in 1929 into a Jewish family so deeply assimilated into Hungarian society that they did not even consider themselves to be Jews. The Nazis took a different view, of course, and in 1944 the young Imre was rounded up with thousands of others of his kind and sent first to Auschwitz and then on to Buchenwald, where he remained until the camp was liberated in 1945. After the war he worked as a journalist, playwright and translator. The awarding of the Nobel Prize in 2002 came largely as a surprise to what used to be called the West, since not many readers outside Hungary even knew his name, although two earlier novels recently reissued by Vintage–Fatelessness and Kaddish for an Unborn Child–were published under slightly different titles by Northwestern University Press in, respectively, 1992 and 1997.
Of the three Kertész novels translated into English, Fatelessness, first published in Hungary in 1975, is the most easily accessible. One might say that it is also the best, save that comparison between it and its two successors would be invidious. Liquidation and Kaddish are, for lack of a better word, experimental in form and, indeed, in content, while Fatelessness, based, closely one assumes, on the author’s experience in the camps, is relatively straightforward. It tells the story of 14-year-old Georg Koves’s abrupt apprehension by the police on the streets of Budapest and his transportation first to Auschwitz and then to the Buchenwald labor camp. Straightforward the book may be, but it is also an extraordinary and devastating testament to the banality of evil–the by now clichéd phrase of Hannah Arendt’s is entirely apt here, for what gives the book much of its peculiar power is the plodding doggedness of Georg’s effort to report accurately what happened to him, and to make sense of it.
When he arrives at Buchenwald, a “small, mediocre, out-of-the-way, so to say rural concentration camp,” Georg, who had unwittingly survived the selection process at Auschwitz by adding two years to his age, is asked by one of the long-term inmates how he “got mixed up in this here,” and answers: “Simple: I was asked to get off the bus.” It is Georg’s tone of sweet reasonableness, his slowness to comprehend fully or to credit the true nature of what Bee in Liquidation calls the “corpse-mincing machine” into which he has been flung, that makes Fatelessness so harrowing. However baffling, cruel or tormenting the circumstances in which he finds himself, Georg is ever anxious to adduce the simplest, most rational and even most benign explanation for the behavior of those who have been set above him as his masters and tormentors. His attitude to anti-Semitism is entirely understanding. In the opening pages he visits the local baker to present the family’s bread coupon:
He did not bother returning my greeting as it is well known in the neighborhood that he could not abide Jews. That was also why the bread he pushed at me was a good half pound short. I have also heard it said this is how more leftovers from the ration stayed in his hands. Somehow, from his angry look and his deft sleight of hand, I suddenly understood why his train of thought would make it impossible to abide Jews, for otherwise he might have had the unpleasant feeling that he was cheating them.
Nor is Georg’s own attitude to “the Jews” without its ambiguities. On his arrival at Auschwitz there occurs one of the book’s more appalling instances of black and bitter irony, when he catches his first glimpse of the inmates already there, “real convicts, in the striped duds of criminals, and with shaven skulls in round caps”:
Their faces did not exactly inspire confidence either: jug ears, prominent noses, sunken, beady eyes with a crafty gleam. Quite like Jews in every respect. I found them suspect and altogether foreign-looking. When they spotted us boys, I noticed, they became quite agitated. They immediately launched into a hurried, frantic whispering, which was when I made the surprising discovery that Jews evidently don’t only speak Hebrew, as I had supposed up till now…
The reason for their agitation, we learn, is that they know that Georg and the other boys of his age will automatically be sent to the gas chambers, unless they pretend to be 16, in which case they will be deemed fit for work and spared from extermination.
The title of the book is explained, or at least accounted for, in a remark by another character in Liquidation, the philosopher Dr. Obláth: “Man, when reduced to nothing, or in other words a survivor, is not tragic but comic, because he has no fate.” When at last Georg arrives home, after his year at the heart of the whirlwind, he is regarded less as an object of compassion than of embarrassment, a reminder to those who survived of how little they did to prevent the terrible things that have happened and that are now being firmly thrust into the past. Even the radical journalist who strikes up a conversation with him is baffled by Georg’s unwillingness, or inability, to fill the role of victim. When the journalist asks if he will collaborate in writing a series of articles describing to the world the “hell of the camps,” he has “nothing at all to say about that as I was not acquainted with hell and couldn’t even imagine what that was like.” Pressed, he ventures that hell would be “‘a place where it is impossible to become bored,’ seeing as how that had been possible in the concentration camp, even in Auschwitz.”
Georg explains how time was a help, since each new enormity arrived as another step in a process: “Were it not for that sequencing in time, and were the entire knowledge to crash in upon a person on the spot, at one fell swoop, it might well be that neither one’s brain nor one’s heart would cope with it.” This is something that the journalist, in turn, finds impossible to imagine. Georg is as accommodating as ever: “For my part, I could see that, and I even thought to myself: so, that must be why they prefer to talk about hell instead.”
Fatelessness is such a powerful and coolly horrifying work that, for all their fine qualities, its successors may seem hardly more than variations on a theme, making their refinements and discriminations in an area that is, in the Adornian sense, almost beyond contemplation; yet Liquidation and Kaddish are in their subtle ways just as troubling and profound as the earlier book. Kaddish in particular, a breathless, unrelenting monologue in the manner of Beckett or Thomas Bernhard, poses some large and deeply unsettling questions. The narrator tells of an incident in the camps when he was close to death and a man known as “Teacher” returned to him the food ration that he had inadvertently made off with. The gesture is literally fatal, since by keeping the extra ration Teacher might have saved himself, and without it the narrator would certainly have died. Teacher’s selflessness brings the narrator to the conclusion that “what is truly irrational and genuinely inexplicable is not evil but, on the contrary, good,” and to put forward a possibility that represents a glimmer of what, in the circumstances, one hesitates to call hope, the possibility that
there exists a pure concept, untrammelled by any foreign matter, such as our body, our soul, our wild selves, a notion which lives as a uniform image in all our minds, yes, an idea whose–how shall I put this?–inviolability, safekeeping, or what you will, was for him, “Teacher,” the sole genuine chance of staying alive, without which his chance of staying alive would have been no chance at all, simply because he did not wish, and what is more in all likelihood, was unable, to live without preserving this concept intact in its pure, untrammelled openness to scrutiny.