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Liquidation, by Imre Kertész, trans Tim Wilkinson

Chronicle of a death untold

Ian Thomson
Friday 06 October 2006 00:00 BST

Primo Levi's suicide in 1987 deprived European literature of one of its most humane and civilised voices. Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock paid anguished, if comic, tribute to Levi's memory. And Woody Allen surely had Levi in mind when he made his film Crimes and Misdemeanors: a philosopher called Louis Levy kills himself by leaping, like Primo Levi, from a high place.

Imre Kertész, the Hungarian Nobel Prize-winner, has read Levi's harrowing account of Auschwitz, If This is a Man. Kertész himself survived the Nazi camps and in Liquidation, a novella, he imagines an Auschwitz survivor's suicide and its effect on friends and family.

The survivor, Kafkaesquely referred to as B, is a celebrated author and the toast of literary circles in early 1990s Hungary. His suicide note - "Forgive Me! Good night!" - is shocking in its casual brutality. What could have led B to his self-destruction? Was it a sudden folly? Or was the author a delayed casualty of Auschwitz?

Speculation is fruitless. Kertész is less interested in the causes of suicide than its effects: the suffering of those who kill themselves, he seems to be saying, is always private and inaccessible.

That, at any rate, is the apparent message of Liquidation, an exceptionally bleak fiction set in Budapest 10 years after the collapse of Communism. With the death of the old ideological certainties, the Hungarian capital appears to have lost its identity. Into this confused world Kertész introduces a Hungarian publisher, Kingbitter, and his group of intellectual friends.

One day, Kingbitter discovers among his papers a play entitled "Liquidation": a work of Ionesco-like grotesquerie that B had completed shortly before his suicide. The play hints at the existence of a novel by B which, mysteriously, has gone missing.

Among other things, Liquidation is a bibliographic mystery that goes in search of the missing book. As B's literary executor, Kingbitter sets off on a frantic quest for the novel, which may or may not have been written. The search also uncovers B's caustic personality. Having survived Auschwitz B is, effectively, a nihilist.

The absence of any metaphysical conviction in his writing (no belief in the afterlife, no suggestion that life has a purpose) reveals him to have been a man who sneered at dreams and had no faith. With the defilement of Auschwitz deep inside him, not surprisingly B has contemplated "self-murder" all his life.

Nevertheless, the news of his suicide comes as a blow to his friends, who see in it "a jeering and unchallengeable rebuttal" to their cherished beliefs. Some are secretly disgusted, and see B's self-destruction as an abnegation of responsibility towards fellow survivors. Others are disturbed by the apparent uselessness of the act.

But, as the realisation of the loss sets in, the friends come to understand that B's suicide was an act almost of heroism: my life is mine and mine alone to take. Meanwhile, Kingbitter's quest for the vanished novel has become complicated; it emerges that B had been conducting an affair with Kingbitter's companion, Sarah, while Kingbitter himself had flirted brazenly with B's former wife, a doctor named Judit. Disturbingly, it was from Judit that B had procured sufficient morphine with which to kill himself.

Judit's motives for dispensing the drug remain obscure; Kertész likes the mystery of the unresolved. His novel of the camps, Fatelessness, likewise eschewed trite explanations. Liquidation, suspenseful and bleakly comic, reads like a treatise on the mystery of the end of life and the mystery of suicide. I found it a compelling if deeply unsettling work.

Ian Thomson's biography of Primo Levi (Vintage) won the Heinemann Award

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