By Rory Winston
He wants every sentence to speak out of its own experience. -Elias Canetti
As Woody Allen noted ‘It’s not astounding that the Holocaust happened – what’s amazing is that it doesn’t happen more often’. Ironically, this seemingly flippant comment would undoubtedly get a nod of approval from Imre Kertesz, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Though Kertesz is an Auschwitz survivor who acknowledges the holocaust as the absolute point zero for Western civilization, he also sees it as a natural outgrowth thereof – ‘just a continuation of the grand tradition of anti-Semitism and the ongoing saga of human suffering’. Like the late Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, Kertesz believes that genocide is in perfect harmony with mankind’s “development”. Born in Budapest in 1929, Kertesz grew up believing he was Hungarian. That is, until the age of nearly 15 when he was deemed a Jew and deported (by those referring to themselves as “real Hungarians”) to Auschwitz. “Luckily” he was not sent to the Birkenau sector of the camp for immediate extermination but placed in Auschwitz Monowitz where he was expected to die of exhaustion and starvation instead. Even more “luckily”, Kertesz was transferred to Buchenwald – another concentration camp where Jews – though expected to die within a 4 month period – got a chance to eat up to 200 calories a day while serving the Reich. The use of the word luckily is already a good indicator as to how adjectives are relative to prevailing conditions and therefore subject to inflation or deflation.
In extreme conditions, words can utterly lose their meaning till they represent something else entirely. In the drastic case of a holocaust survivor, language can become forever severed from the world it was intended to represent. As poet Paul Celan (himself a survivor) wrote: A language for neither You nor Me – for this earth is not meant for you and for me – a language without ‘I’ or ‘Thou’, merely ‘It’…and nothing more.” Kertesz became acutely aware of this concept as he returned to that nebulous realm known as “home” – a place from which few from his immediate family had survived. After all, he began life as a Hungarian, became a Jew by default, and returned home as “one of those victims” whose existence, in the new communist state, was intended to remind people of the dangers of nationalism.
Like the other Nobel Prize winner and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, Kertesz first pursued a career in journalism – a reflection, perhaps, of the survivors’ urge to place incomprehensible atrocities within an objective framework. Unlike Wiesel who won a Peace Prize, however, Kertesz never fancied the role of becoming a holocaust expert whose mission it was to give voice to other victims. He was primarily a writer who slowly began to realize that he had no identity, no language save that of a former camp inmate.
Kertesz invents a Language As Kertesz stated: “Every civilization but mine has a dominant ‘I’ – one which represents the collective – I was a spiritual refugee, constantly seeking asylum in strange languages; I was an alien from another world who while inevitably employed the language of my persecutors while trying describe what they did to me. Mine was a lost language – in musical terms, an atonal language.”
After years spent searching for the right way to depict what he had lived through, Kertész finally settled on an absurdly matter-of-fact tone to relate horrors. In his first novel Fateless he writes, “I adapted to my own extermination and therefore survived… With weary good will I fainted into my well-bred neurosis – a humbly diligent and progressing member of the taciturn conspiracy against my life”.
Like Primo Levi, Kertesz realized that “elevating the Holocaust into poetically macabre images detracts from its meaning”. The horrors were not things that happened in old black and white films or soapy horror flicks. These things happened while ‘the sun was shining and birds were singing – they happened in the most advanced country of Europe, a world very much like the one we inhabit.’ Kertesz realized that many writers overwhelm their readers with descriptions and facts. His mission became to relate the diurnal matter-of-factness of atrocities.
The political philosopher, Hanna Arendt, voiced the idea that mass extermination was committed not by evil geniuses but by ordinary bureaucrats doing their job. Likewise, Kertesz’s idea is that after a given period, spiritual destruction comes to all victims as they adopt the rationale of their irrational oppressors.
Words like naturally and of course begin to appear in the victim’s mind at the oddest of times. A victim trying to make sense of one of the Commandants concludes: “Naturally, he couldn’t see Jews as people or he’d feel too bad about having to kill them”. So too, the distancing of victims from their own bodies: “Certainly we were disgusting skeletons. Weird, that some worms were feeding on my wound and still found something in me worth eating that was not entirely repugnant”.
With his oddly dark humor and his journalistic delivery when it comes to the most personal emotions, Kertesz creates his own language – one that is at a remove from the Hungarian language in which he chooses to write. The text is from an alien realm – it is as removed from the ordinary logic and constructions of language as was Nazi Germany from the democratic Weimar Republic that gave birth to it. The people were the same, the country was the same, even the words being relied upon to convey messages were the same; but, in some unknown way, everything had changed forever. Words would never mean what they had once meant.
Liquidation, a new beginning: Primo Levy, Paul Celan, Jean Améry, Jerzy Kosinski, Tadeus Borowski – the list of authors who have survived the holocaust, only to commit suicide years later is prodigious. Elias Canetti and others speculated how initial euphoria of liberation often turns to guilt and breakdown. Kertesz attributes his own resilience to a ‘lack of post-war euphoria’.
Whereas many emigrated to democracies, Kertesz returned to a quasi-Stalinist communist dictatorship. He wryly remarked: “I thank one dictatorship for helping me survive another”. For Kertesz and many like him, the totalitarian communist regime that followed Nazism was a blessing in disguise. While sudden freedom could have resulted in a form of ideological shock comparable to suddenly over-feeding a starved person, the barely perceptible increases in liberties gave them time to adapt.
Kertesz’s Liquidation is set in the newly democratized Budapest of 1999. Our narrator, Keserü – in Hungarian, the name means bitter – works for a publishing company that faces liquidation. Though the publishing house used to be subsidized by the communist regime, the recent policy of privatization was allowing such institutions to go under. This corporate ‘liquidation’ reminds Keserü of his dead friend B. In 1990, B liquidated himself (a euphemism for suicide) while leaving behind a play called – appropriately enough – Liquidation. Ironically, it is this very play that foretells all the events leading up to the present.
As in Paul Auster’s Moon palace and NY Trilogy, coincidence and recurring names are employed to evoke metaphysical speculation. B – like Kertesz’s own identity – was not only someone who survived Auschwitz but someone born there. Even more ironically, B kills himself only after the communist regime that suppressed his work is overturned in favor of a democracy. Why after living through Auschwitz, communism, and unemployment would someone do this? Keseru thinks the answer may be in an unpublished novel alluded to in B’s play. So begins a detective story that leads our protagonist from B’s wife whom he once had an illicit affair with, to his own wife who it turns out B was having an affair with, to a final realization that B had his novel burnt before he died.
With Kafkaesque scenes of urban dystopia and Beckett-like ritualism and repetitions in dialogue, Liquidation reflects the inner world of those who survived the camps solely in order to make sense of their ordeal in the years that followed. Though all had been taken from them, they lived on in the hopes of deciphering “the code called Auschwitz” – as if the concentration camp was not an inexplicable catastrophe but a given that can shed light on why the world is what it is. In the end, the question becomes not why B committed suicide but why the others ever thought it was worth staying alive.
Liquidation is a book about telling stories that resist being told. It demonstrates how bland good taste is really an offense in a world of barbarity and why kitsch sounds kitsch even if it is the truth and really happened. As Keserü says, “Man may live like a worm, but sometimes he manages to write like a god”. Clearly, Kertesz has been forced to live the first but does the latter with exceptional eloquence.
The article above has been syndicated and has appeared in this and other forms in several major publications in the US as well as abroad. This Republication has been authorized by the author.