Fatelessness, by Imre Kertesz. This edition published 2004 by Vintage International. Literary Fiction. Translation.
Fatelessness is a Holocaust novel, a semi-autobiographical account of author Imre Kertesz's time in the Auschwitz and Burkenau concentration camps; as such, I knew right away it would be pretty grim going. The teenage protagonist, Georg Koves, is on his way to work when he's taken off a bus and put on a train to the camps. He has no idea what's happening to him, or what's about to happen, and tells his story with breathtaking emotional detachment.
This detachment is the main characteristic of the novel, which takes place over an indeterminate period of time from just before Georg's capture to just after his release after the Soviet army liberates the camp. He tells the story in the first person, and mostly through exposition; there is very little dialogue and throughout his experiences Georg registers very little awareness and very little emotion. When he's taken off the bus he obeys every authority figure with perfect docility, unaware of why he was pulled off or what's next. When he first arrives at Auschwitz and sees other prisoners wearing prison garb, he immediately assumes he is in the company of real convicts- murderers and the like- and seems to have no idea that these are most likely ordinary people just like him, people who have done nothing wrong. He even recounts painful medical procedures with equanimity, as if it's really all no big deal.
Of course the reader is acutely aware of what's going on, and it's this heightened, stretched dramatic irony that gives this novel much of its flavor. I felt intensely frustrated and even irritated at Georg for his naivete, until I realized that the way this character was experiencing these events was probably the way a lot of people experienced the Holocaust as it was happening, because how overwhelming would it be for a person to have to assimilate it otherwise? Then after his release, he can't understand what people mean when they refer to the "atrocities" he must have witnessed. Georg says if there were atrocities he didn't see them, still either unable or unwilling to really confront what he's been through.
Fatelessness is a Holocaust novel of uncommon power and impact, mostly owing to this extreme detachment and lack of awareness. For me every experience was magnified and amplified because I had to fill in the gaps in Georg's narrative with my own understanding of the history behind his story, and the imagination is always more gripping than anything on the page. It's a tough read but it was a rewarding one, and I would recommend it for readers with more than a casual interest in the subject. Kertesz is a Hungarian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work, including this stunning novel; unfortunately only a small portion of his writing is available in English- Kaddish for an Unborn Child and Liquidation, although two more translations (The Pathseeker and Detective Story) are in the works for release in 2008. Fatelessness was also adapted into a film in 2005. His is a strong voice in world fiction and deserves a listen.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.