Houston Book Club Book Review - Fateless by Imre Kertesz
* Houston Book Club Book Review - Fateless by Imre Kertesz- March, 2003

© 2002 - The Nobel Foundation


  Fateless by Imre Kertesz  

Review by Louis Hemmi - Houston Book Club


Published 1975. Translated by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson Hydra Books, Northwestern University Press ($14.95)

Houston Book Club - http://www.HoustonBookClub.com. March, 2003 book club selection. Selected by Linda R.

2002 Nobel Prize for Literature Winner
Gives Holocaust a Voice

In his first novel published in 1975, Kertész says he used the form of the autobiographical novel but that it is not an autobiography. Fateless is the first of a trilogy (Fateless, Fiasco, and Kaddish for a Child not Born) about George (György Köves), a fourteen-year old Hungarian Jewish boy who is sent to Nazi Germany's infamous concentration camps Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz in the last year of World War II. Where his father was sent a few days before George was sent to the camps, we are not told.

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, and he felt as though he did not fit in, but took it all in stride with faith that things would work out, and looked back on the experience of his year in captivity fondly because of the camaraderie resulting from sharing the ordeals with so many others of his own age.

He caught on quickly that the key to survival was to work, and that meant he had to claim to be sixteen, as those too young, too old, or too sick disappeared. He bore the indignity of being shorn of all body hair, cold showers, awful food, and beatings with an innocence and struggle to make sense of his undeserved fate.

The hard life was something he could tolerate, and this book is not a recounting of horror stories. The worst he saw was the display of three dead escapees, and a cart with assorted body parts. He spends some time documenting the complex system of stars, armbands, and letters on them, but not enough to be considered a primer on the identification system used to label prisoners as Jews, homosexuals, criminals, etc.

George was not a hero, did nothing extraordinary, and there is no love interest. He saw his introduction to this world only gradually tainted by despair. Early on, he thought it was pleasant to be with other young men, working hard, and did not realize he was a prisoner until his arrival at Auschwitz after a three-day journey by train with no water in a locked train car with seventy-nine other captives.

I learned in this novel that the concentration camps did not only operate during World War II, but opened as early as 1933, with some of the staff at Buchenwald being there the entire time.

Kertesz said in reference to receiving the Nobel Prize, "My immediate reaction is one of great joy. It means very much to me," he said. "There is no awareness of the Holocaust in Hungary. People have not faced up to the Holocaust." I hope that in the light of this recognition, they will face up to it more than until now."

Kertesz' lectures and essays have been collected in "A holocaust mint kultúra ("The Holocaust as Culture"), 1993." His non-fiction books also focus on the subject, including The Holocaust as Culture, Moments Of Silence While The Execution Squad Reloads and The Exiled Language.