Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz, trans. Tim Wilkinson

We are masters of our destiny, even in a concentration camp
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The Independent Culture

The so-called Muselmänner, those inmates who experienced the depths of the Nazi camps, first lost awareness and then died. Consequently, Primo Levi said, the full story of the camps would never be told. But nothing was impossible there; and in Fatelessness we have the Muselman's tale.

Imre Kertesz's novel is the equally brilliant opposite of Levi's If This Is a Man. Levi's portrait of humanity reduced to inhumanity is rigorously honest, but dominated by high moral reflection. Kertesz's honesty is, by contrast, of a different order.

He shows us that extreme events happen to ordinary people, whom they do not change. As the Nazi net closes in on 15-year-old Gyuri's divorced parents, they think only of their custody battle. When his father is ordered to the camp where he will die, they go shopping for rucksacks; when Gyuri ends in the camps, the hostility between him and religious Jews doesn't disappear, but deepens.

As Levi's strong, clear style is perfectly adapted to his high-human purpose, so is Kertesz's to his low-human, or simply human one. His sentences advance and retreat, guess and doubt, so that we feel the fear and uncertainty that Levi (deliberately) only describes.

In If This is a Man the characters are profoundly understood essences of good and evil; in Fatelessness they are messy, absurd people: the uncle "in the know" who gets everything wrong; the bad-luck man, who repeats his bad-luck story all the way to starvation; Gyuri himself, owlish but appealing, so that everyone helps him.

Gyuri only just survives, the most remarkable part of this remarkable book. We are inside the flickering consciousness of a Muselman, not feeling anything any more; roused only by the smell of soup to the irrational desire "to live a little longer in this beautiful concentration camp". For writing like this, and for taking us somewhere no other writer has, Kertesz fully deserved his Nobel Prize in 2002.

In the end, he is as moral a writer as Levi. When Gyuri returns to Budapest, he tries to tell two old family friends, Steiner and Fleischmann, the conclusions summed up in the title. Everything happens step by step, and we are not fated but free; so we are responsible for every step, even in a concentration camp. "So it's us who're the guilty ones, is it?" they cry. But we all are, all the time. What steps are we taking, minute by ordinary minute, right now?