Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Imre Kertesz: 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature

In the Sunday Times in 2002, I read that Imre Kertesz had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn't know his name but I did know the name of the photographer Andre Kertesz, and I think that was the hook that kept me reading.

I read that Imre Kertesz had written <em>Fateless</em>, a semi-autobiographical novel of the experiences of a teenager in Hungary in the closing years of the Second World War. He is rounded up with other Jews and finishes up in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.

I looked for the book and couldn't find anything translated into English. I remember thinking ruefully that it was ironic that there were no English translations of any of the books of a man who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Then in Tel Aviv airport a couple of years later, I saw the book and read it.

I had read other accounts of experiences of the holocaust, but this one was different because it was written without the reflection of hindsight and as though without the benefit of an understanding of what was going on.

The writing is very immediate as in for example the moment when the transports reach Auschwitz and the doors of the cattle cars open.

The camp prisoners come in among them to get them off the train and the young man thinks they are criminals with their desperate hollow eyes and closed cropped hair and striped clothes.

In fact one of them saves his life by telling him to tell the guards he is 16 and not 15. Had he said he was 15, he would have been sent straight to the gas chambers.

<strong>State of mind</strong>
But what has stayed with me out of the book is another experience he describes. One where he reflects on his state of mind at a very difficult time.

What happened was that he became ill to the point that he was tossed into a wheelbarrow with corpses and dumped by a wire fence. By a stroke of fate he was left on the <em>other</em> side of the fence. The other side was where captured soldiers were held as prisoners of war.

Provided he was not discovered by the guards, and provided he survived his illness, he was saved.

So he is lying in the barrow, nearer to death than to life, and around him he can see men who are properly dressed; who look reasonably well fed.

And he reflects, as he looks back and sees his state of mind then, that even so near death he was too proud to lose his reserve and call out to ask where he was.

He comments that pride accompanied him even almost to his death.

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