Fatelessness by Imre Kertész

Happiness in Hatred – Fatelessness by Imre Kertész

Recently, some of my bookish friends did a group read of The Catcher in the Rye, that novel where we read about the 17-year-old Holden. Just then, I’m reminded of Fatelessness, hence, this delayed write-up. I remember its 14-year-old narrator nicknamed Gyuri (I can’t recall the name just now due to the diacritical marks on it), which by comparison, makes Holden a wimp.

Certainly, the two have different issues, and although it is not fair to compare the whining Holden and the hungry Gyuri, I cannot help it. And when I think of the latter, I remind myself that I am still fortunate to have experienced only unrelenting typhoons, occasional budgeting-induced headaches, bad customer service at book stores, and none of those horrible things that survivors of the second world war relate to each other or worse, none of the horrors that one survives from concentration camps.

Do you see now see why Gyuri becomes Superman when placed beside Holden or any other teenage drama king or queen? If you are not convinced, here are a few lines that broke my dam of tears that I had to shut my book and stop reading to make room for breathing.

Here and there, more suspect plumes of smoke mingled with more benign vapors, while a familiar-sounding clatter drifted up faintly my way from somewhere, like bells in dreams, and as I gazed down across the scene, I caught sight of a procession of bearers, poles on shoulders, groaning under the weight of steaming cauldrons, and from far off I recognized, there could be no  doubting it, a whiff of turnip soup in the acrid air. A pity, because it must have been that spectacle, that aroma, which cut through my numbness to trigger an emotion, the growing waves of which were able to squeeze, even from my dried-out eyes, a few warmer drops amid the dankness that was soaking my face. Despite all deliberation, sense, insight, and sober reason, I could not fail to recognize within myself the furtive and yet–ashamed as it might be so to say, of its irrationality–increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.

A background: Gyuri is nearly dying of severe hunger and extreme labor, and his senses of touch, sight, and hearing have become incapable of reacting to any stimuli due to conditions that one can barely imagine in such a place and time. And yet, the smell of turnip soup, which in my opinion doesn’t seem to be so appetizing, stirs his stoic and decrepit body back to life despite the irony of a beautiful concentration camp.

Gyuri is plucked out from the normal life when one day, he is told by his school teacher that he needs to go home. He, his parents, and other Jews in their town are sent to different camps, and this I find strange for I could never understand why this hatred against them is so strong. You see, I have yet to encounter a full-blooded Jew here in our country, and despite the research that I did regarding the matter of the Jews, I will never fully understand it as much as Westerners would not understand why we couldn’t really care too much about the ongoing collapse of economies since my people are so used to hard times that recessions could hardly hurt us.

Anyway, Gyuri’s story is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own experiences during the war. It is told with a straightforward, matter-of-fact tone bereft of sentimentality that makes it only more piercing and more provocative. It seems like the tale of the human spirit trouncing the adversities thrown at it, but it is more of surviving the odds with chance and circumstance. Also, it touches upon the themes of happiness and freedom.

The narrator talks about finding happiness in the hellish camps. This seems like a lie, and yet, instead of the narrator burying the memories of those days, he cherishes them and holds them dear to his heart. It looks like a case of Stockholm syndrome. Being detained in camps for a couple of years, he has learned to deal with the conditions and make the most out of it. He looks forward to that moldy lump of bread that he would have to make to do for the next three days and focuses his energy on mindless labor to keep himself happy.

Or it’s more like resigning his fate to these circumstances. Abandoning any hope of escape might be the better solution in surviving than fervently struggling to keep one’s sanity intact, and there must be truth in this irony as we would later see at the last chapters of the novel. Gyuri achieves a sense of peace despite the senseless torture that his mind and body are subjected to, and when the war comes to an end, he is unshackled and let go on his own. He goes back to their town and knocks on their old apartment door, only to realize that the new tenants regard him with caution. He is now free, and he doesn’t know what to do with his regained independence.

5 star - it was amazingAnd thus, the question of fate and freedom is brought up: is it possible for the two to coexist? If fate is a force that controls the course of our lives, then what role does freedom have? Fate will decide where we come from, but it is necessary that we have freedom to make our choices and weave the pattern of our lives.

These are the initial thoughts that I have on the top of my head as I try my best to recall the events in the novel, but really, the question is hardly resolvable. Questions about intrinsic ideals only end up being over-mired with more questions, and this write-up is merely an attempt for me to seek out my own and others’ considered opinions.

As Gyuri ponders about fate and freedom, we find out that we, as a generation bred after the war, might never be able to understand what he had gone through at the camps. Hunger, disease, and death have become normal to him. He was able to be make himself happy in a place uprooted from hatred. When he goes back to the life he used to own, he is baffled at the strangeness of it. He confronts life with his new philosophical insights tested on new waters, and finally wonders whether the concentration camp is hell or not.

Thoughts? Feelings?

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