Wednesday, 15 August 2012

London 2012 Olympics: Finally Over

‘Until yesterday I wasn’t much fussed about the Olympics. But when I watched Andy Murray win the gold medal, something changed; I found myself suddenly welling up with tears. I felt quite patriotic,’ the woman said. ‘Do you know what I mean?’ I didn’t, but I nodded nevertheless. ‘I can’t now wait to watch the athletics,’ the woman (weighing 15 stones) announced, taking a hearty bite of her cheese mayonnaise sandwich. ‘I am going to watch them waving Union Jack.’ She smiled, revealing rows of dirty horse-teeth.

I have met many people like this woman in the last two weeks who were suddenly brimming with pride and patriotism because Great Britain has won record number of gold medals (still comfortably less than China and USA, though) in I-can’t-believe-are called-sport.

They parked their two ton arses on the sofas and, stuffing their faces with Ben and Jerry, shouted themselves hoarse as some delinquent looking female boxer beat her Chinese opponent in the flyweight boxing final. The hysterical commentator shouted that she would now become the face of the British boxing (not a very pretty face if you ask me). She has apparently created history; she is the first British woman boxer to win a medal at the Olympics. Is she the first medal winner or the first gold medal winner? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am not interested. Female boxing? Give me a f**king break.

I don’t like sport. I hate exercise of any kind. Whenever I get an urge to exercise I lie down; always works.

I have a particular problem with the Olympics because it is full of non-sport events. Such as dressage. What in the name of Buddha is dressage? According to International Equestrian Federation, it is ‘the highest expression of horse training’ where ‘the horse and the rider are expected to perform, from memory, a series of pre-determined movements.’ And a British woman (who looked as handsome as her horse) won gold in this sporting (!) event. It is a bit like getting an award for being the tallest Munchkin in the Munchkin country.

Can somebody explain why running is called sport? Running is OK if, I don’t know, you are a dog, or are caught shop-lifting, or are a middle-aged fitness freak who goes running round the block every morning parading his (or her) flabby thighs. What is not OK is to call it a sport. What does it matter if someone runs 100 meter distance in 9.64 seconds or 9.57 seconds? I watched (purely by accident) the 100 meters final. After the event (which finished in 9.64—or was it 9.57?—seconds) the winner went round the stadium buzzing like a scalded flea. You felt like telling him, ‘Dude, calm down now. We know you run fast; you haven’t found a cure for bloody cancer.’ The guy was so cartoonish, he couldn’t be real. May be I am missing something here, but what exactly is there to enjoy watching grown men running as if someone had inserted lighted dynamites up their bums? Or watching cadaveric women run and jump over hurdles, then run some more, and jump over some more hurdles. You would be hard pressed to think of anything more ridiculous (other than perhaps triple jump or pole vault or a long jump).

Take weight-lifting. Why would anybody want to watch men and women who look like they gobble steroid tablets for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to lift ridiculously heavy weights? Invitation to hernia, or a prolapsed colon, or a burst artery, if you ask me. What exactly is being tested here? The strength? The stamina? I’ll tell you: how stupid you have to be to part with your cash to watch this rubbish.

I have no problem if someone wants to chuck discs in his back-garden (as long as they do not come crashing through the window of my house). But to call it sport? You’ve got to be kidding. What does it mean when someone is crowned in the Olympics as the best disc thrower in the world? How many people in the world are throwing discs? Is the winner really the best disc thrower in the whole world, or is he the ‘best’ amongst a handful of sad blokes (mostly Eastern Europeans, Germans and Russians I should guess) who have wasted the last 4 years of their lives trying to find out how far they can throw a f**king disc? 

Can anything be more pointless than cycling unless you get your rocks off watching anorexic-looking men in skin-tight lycra, parading bulges in front of their thighs, going round and round for ages? Or men who look as though they breathe through their mouths row boats as if escaping from Alkatraz? Do it if you want to stay fit and think you could do with exercise. Doesn’t do anybody any harm, I suppose, and if it makes you feel better about yourself, go ahead. But it is no more a sport than those bizarre events listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The little bit of Athletics I watched, the commentators talked like they had taken the long distance correspondence course from Mumbai that promises to make you an expert (in a month) in speaking (the most stilted and clich├ęd) English. The dude who won the 100 meters running also won the 200 meters running finals. The BBC commentator screamed: ‘We can’t call him the greatest as that title has already been taken’; then, in case the listeners were not clever enough appreciate his clever remark, clarified: ‘Mohammad Ali.’ (The dude himself wasted no time in declaring himself a ‘living legend’ and got very cross when some windbag from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insisted that he (i.e. the runner) was not yet a living legend. ‘What else do I need to do to prove myself a legend?’ asked the dude. Well, he can do whatever he thinks he has to do to become extremely famous. That, I think, will qualify him—or anyone else who has an interest in becoming a living legend—to become a living legend. Maybe this chap is a living legend in the community of 100 meter runners; he is certainly a legend in his own mind.) When a British runner (no doubt unexpectedly) won a race, probably 800 meters, ahead of Ethiopians, the commentator shouted, ‘Now we have shown the Africans how it is done.’  . . . Er, the winner looked like African to me: British by nationality, but clearly African by descent.

The BBC expert commentators for athletics were Denise Lewis and Colin Jackson—Brits—and Michael Johnson, an American. (The anchor was John Inverdale who looks like a slimeball; keep your daughters away from him). Denise Lewis, I think, won an Olympic medal years ago and has been dining out on it ever since (I won’t be surprised if she has also received an OBE or an MBE for her services to the sport).  Johnson, too, I think, has won Olympic medals (I am going to make a wild guess, here—in running). Lewis and Jackson, surely, are the goofiest people dropped on this earth by the Almighty. They jumped, giggled, got very excited over nothing, gushed at everything, and a six-year old would have had more depth to his comments than these two had. The American, Johnson, by contrast, looked as if he had come straight from his mother’s funeral. He made serious observations about gangliness of runners’ legs. Must say Johnson came as a welcome relief from the British comedy duo.

I did not watch the opening ceremony as I was out of country at the time. A friend, who watched, told me that they wheeled out NHS nurses for a dance during the opening ceremony. That is British irony for you. The filthy Tories are doing to the NHS what Dr Bashar Al-Asad is doing to Syrian people, and in the Olympics we are parading it as a great British institution. (As an aside, shouldn’t these nurses have been changing bed clothes, cleaning bed-pans or whatever it is that people in caring professions do, instead of dancing at the Olympics?) The British actor, who plays James Bond, skydived into the stadium along with the queen, in pre-recorded film footage. So that was what Britain had to show the world as her heritage. A fictional character whose films are produced these days entirely by American money, and a health service that is melting down faster than ice in Sahara.

I didn’t watch the closing ceremony either, preferring to watch, instead, a taped cookery programme currently being aired on channel 4, called Simply Italian, fronted by a gorgeous Italian named Michela (and graced, from time to time, by her equally gorgeous sisters; as Michela and Emi sucked their gnocchi, smiling seductively at the camera, I wanted to suck their gnocchi too). I read in the Guardian that everyone from Rolling Stones to David Bowie turned down the organizers’ offer to sign of the closing ceremony and they ended up with Take That and Spice Girls. An appropriate ending.

The 25 or however many gold medals that Britain won at the Olympics are a bit like British monarchy. What’s the bloody point? I doubt whether anyone will remember the names of all these gold medal winners, or, for that matter, the categories in which they won them. What difference are these medals going to make to the lives of most people? I read in papers that people in Sheffield were ‘dizzy with delight’ because some woman from that city won a medal at the Olympics. Sheffield is a piss-poor city with more people on dole than in Soviet era Hungary. These ne’er-do-wells might get dizzy with delight, but they are still going to be piss-poor and unemployed, seeing as the economy is going down the toilet.

I read on the BBC news that after the ‘disaster’ of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (where Britain won a solitary gold medal) there has been massive investment in sport amounting to almost a billion pounds over the last 16 years. Since 2008 £ 265 million have been invested. This is also a period when Britain and Europe are in the midst of the worst recession since Black Death. The Bank of England has reduced the growth forecast to 0. The country is securely in the grip of double-dip recession. The imports in the last quarter exceeded exports by several billions, and economy is shrinking. But not to worry; we have won gold medals in cycling and dressage in the Olympics. Everything is shipshape.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Men and Women can Never be Just Friends

It is official. What Harry told Sally in Harry met Sally was not just a witty comment; Harry was telling the universal truth.

Men and women can’t be just friends, because sex always comes in the way. Men, it seems, are incapable of having purely platonic relationships with women. They are, by nature, debarred from forming friendships with women without also wanting to have a sexual congress with them.

According to a recent ‘research’ carried out (a hyperbole, if you ask me, to label a survey as a research, a bit like calling American baseball the greatest sport on earth) and published in British newspapers, a significantly higher proportion of men admitted that they secretly fancied their female friends, and fantasized about going out on a date with them. The percentage was much higher amongst younger men than older men. (In other news Pope is Catholic and dogs like to shag your leg.)

Interestingly, amongst middle-aged persons, the proportion who fancied a friend of opposite sex was roughly the same amongst men and women. With one difference: women were more likely to fancy unattached male friends, while men had no such compunctions. 

So there it is. Men are not to be trusted. If, say, you are an attractive young woman with a chest worth pressing, and are meeting a male friend in order to have a shoulder to cry on, because you are, say, going through a personal crisis, your boyfriend, say, has cheated on you with a woman-you-can’t-understand-why anyone-would-want-to-sleep-with, then it is not at all unlikely that your friend, who, you think, has no sexual interest in you, and who is listening to your woes with a show of concern worthy of a Samaritan, is in fact wondering whether you have saucerised areoles and harbouring a desire to tweak your nipples as if turning the knobs on his transistor to get Radio Ceylon in record time.

I have a friend who doesn’t do platonic relationship (he says). As far as looks are concerned, he is (like the majority of blokes I know) neither sensationally good looking nor stunningly ugly, but average, give or take a few points depending on the fat-muscle ratio on a given day and other factors such as the angle at which the sunlight is falling on his face. He is a good raconteur and the desire to be interesting has a tremendous force for him; he is always devising ingenious, intricate schemes to make himself interesting to women.

This friend tells me that there isn’t a single woman among his friends and acquaintances he wouldn’t sleep with given half a chance. To the best of my knowledge he has not been offered even a quarter of a chance (although I don't think that is for want of trying).

We have a few common female friends between us, and he is secretly obsessed about one of them. She is more of his friend than mine; I meet her mostly at parties and gatherings where both of us are invited (2-3 times a year; if she gives parties I am not invited; as for me I do not give parties). However, I feel as if I know her very intimately because my friend can’t stop talking about her, especially when he is drunk. In so far as I can see, she is a pleasant enough woman of pasty complexion whose face would be more ogleworthy if she did not have a large nose placed on it at an awkward angle, irregularly arranged teeth, a mircognathia, and large ears (although she hides them under her tresses). She has a warm enough personality although I wouldn’t have thought she would win medals in the IQ Olympics. She has big(ggish) breasts, chunky thighs and legs like French furniture. As for her buttocks, I am reminded of Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s extremely funny novel, the protagonist of which has a theory that the way people park their cars has much to do with their intimate self-image and how they feel about their own backsides; I have not seen this woman parking her car, but I should imagine that she needs a lot of parking space and, after parking the car gingerly, she rushes away so as not be noticed as the owner of the car. I have to say that I do not find this woman, who, for me, is between an acquaintance and a friend, particularly attractive, physically; but as far as my friend (the male friend) is concerned, he would like nothing more than to—paraphrasing Mohammad Al-Fayed, the erstwhile owner of Harrods—f**k her up and down, then from front and behind (Fayed was describing how the British system treated him when he applied for a British passport). He (my friend, not Fayed) used to tell me that while having sex with his ex-partner he used to imagine that he was screwing this woman (quite a feat of imagination on his part, I thought, as his then girl-friend was so skinny that had she taken off her clothes in front of me, I’d have been tempted to give her lumps of sugar than do anything else). He is single now, and I guess the mental image of this woman helps him to pass lonely nights.

My friend’s sexual attraction, bordering on obsession, with our common female friend, means that he has, over the years (usually after a few pints), forced me to listen to his sexual fantasies involving her. The content of the fantasies changes from time to time, but the common element of all of them is what can be described as the element of surprise. The latest one involves him creeping on the woman from behind and, in one swift motion, pulling down her skirt and knickers, exposing ‘the globes of her buttocks’. She then turns towards him, revealing a dense triangle of pubic hair (my friend wouldn’t have it any other way; he insists on a luxurious bush; she has to be so hairy, he says, that when she sits down, naked, it must look as though she has a fat squirrel in her lap; experience has taught me to let him continue unchallenged; it’s all fantasy-island, anyway) and (instead of giving him a resounding slap) kisses him full on the mouth.

‘No offence,’ I said to my friend on one occasion, ‘but what exactly do you see in this woman? Granted she is not ugly and can be said to have a decent figure if you go for fuller figures, but come on, you must have been with women more attractive than her. What’s the deal here?’

My friend agreed with me. He said that he could not explain what it was about this woman that gave him an erection every time he thought of her. ‘There is rumble in the horn section,’ he said after a while, doing with his hands the universal male gesture to emphasize his point. ‘I bet she is dirty in bed,’ he concluded. I doubted that, but all that it told me was that he wanted to have sex with her; he couldn’t explain the attraction.

Once I interrupted him in the middle of his graphic (and brutal) description of the angle from which he would apply pressure on her bare arse with his penis, and said, ‘But she is your friend!’

My friend made a grimace ‘I know,’ he said. ‘It is not right, but I can’t help it. I think it would help if I can somehow get it out of my system.’

We then had a further discussion on the subject and came to the conclusion that the only way to get the whole thing out of his system was to have sex with this woman (preferably from behind). That, my friend ruefully admitted, was never going to happen.

‘Do you think she is at all interested in you?’ I asked.

‘She might be,’ my friend said.

‘Why do you say that?’  

It then turned out that once when he (with his then partner) had gone out for an outing with this woman and her husband, she had brushed her breasts against his arm.

‘On two occasions. In quick succession,’ my friend said, and looked at me as if he had presented me with the final clue that would solve a particularly vexing problem I was struggling with.

I looked back at him.

‘Come On!’ my friend said. ‘Can brushing of tits by a woman against a man’s arm ever be accidental? You know where your breasts are. You know where the man is standing. How can you accidentally press your tits against his arms?’ Then, looking at my face, ‘OK. Once might be accidental. But twice?’ 

‘Do you have,’ I asked, ‘any other evidence that ___ is succumbing to your sexual allure?’

He had. My friend told me that there were occasions when, during parties, he had (strategically) placed his hand on the small of the woman’s back and gradually slid it down on to her buttocks. ‘She just stood there. Didn’t even change her position,’ he concluded.

‘Did you touch her buttocks with the back of your hand or with your palm?’ I asked.

‘Is that important?’

‘Well, if in a crowded room the back of your hand touches someone’s bottom, it may be construed as accidental. But if you use the palm, that might denote an intent. Did you apply pressure?’ I asked.

‘I can’t remember. To be frank, I was slightly drunk myself,’ my friend said. ‘But,’ he added, in case I had not heard him correctly first time round, ‘she just stood there. She obviously didn’t mind.’

‘So how are you going to take this further?’ I asked him. ‘The signs are ominous. She is clearly falling for you.’

‘That’s the problem,’ my friend said. ‘I don’t want to ruin our friendship.’

‘But you think she might be interested in you,’ I pointed out.

‘I think she is, but what if she isn’t? Or, does not want to go all the way? It might create complications.’

‘Do you want to have a relationship with her?’

‘Oh God! No!’ My friend was scandalized at the suggestion. ‘I just want to sleep with her. Don’t look at me like that. Haven’t you fancied your female friends?’

‘I can say with complete confidence that I have not fancied___. I have no wish to press my penis against her buttocks,’ I told him.

‘Not her, maybe. There’ve got to be others you must have wanted to shag,’ my friend appealed to me.

‘Never,’ I said. ‘I don’t look at my female friends like that.’

‘You are a f**king lier.’

I can say with complete candour that of my current group of female friends (about 6 to 8) I don’t fancy any one. (That one has a skin condition and another has bleeding gums helps, I suppose). I should like to think that sex does not play any part, at least not consciously, when I form friendships with women. My friend, mentioned above, who wants to sleep with each and every person of his acquaintance with XX chromosome, is an exception (I hope). I think that men might fancy some but not all of their female friends and acquaintances. Whom they will fancy will depend, in no particular order, on how good looking the women are, how they dress, and (there is no escaping this) the size of their breasts and peachiness of their arses. And no; it doesn’t matter whether the women are single or attached. Disgusting, I know; but there it is.

Many years ago I read a novel titled Alchemy of Desire by the Indian author Tarun Tejpal. I do not remember much about this novel other than that it was pretty dire, with repeated (and repetitive) cringe-worthy descriptions of sex. But I remember a conversation in the novel between the protagonist and his girlfriend. The protagonist explains to his disbelieving girl-friend the male psych when it comes to fairer sex. Essentially a man wants to have sex with any woman he finds sexy. It doesn’t matter who the woman is. She could be a friend, friend’s wife, friend’s sister (or mother), a colleague, a casual acquaintance he has met at a party, the woman at the Tesco till, or a complete stranger he has happened to have looked at in passing. (Thus, if a man happens to glance at a woman, a complete stranger, for a few seconds, with tennis-ball breasts or legs longer than Marathon, even in passing, in a crowded London underground, he will make a mental note of her: one for the wank bank. Indeed—and this is important—the woman does not even have to have a terrific figure (it could be Claudia who cleans his house and weighs 200 pounds); but if there is anything about her anatomy that triggers the man’s fancy, there will be a nightly deposit in her name.) 

Doctor Obvious says that men are able to make a differentiation in their minds between love and sex. A man may have no crisis of conscience while bonking woman A (whom he doesn’t love but wants to f**k) while in a relationship with woman B whom he loves (and also bonks). Women may be more likely to equate sex with love.

Men, as they say, are from Mars . . .

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Book of the Month: Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Imre Kersetz)

Imre Kersetz, in an interview he gave soon after he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize in Literature, said that he believed that Auschwitz was the ultimate embodiment of a radical event in European history: totalitarian dictatorship. Europe’s 20th century totalitarianism, explained Kersetz—who was unknown in his native Hungary until his Nobel triumph, he became the first Hungarian to win the award—, created a completely new type of human being. ‘They (Fascism and Communism) forced a person to choose in a way we were never forced to choose before: to become either a victim or a perpetrator,’ Kersetz said. Even surviving involved collaboration, compromises you had to make if you wanted to bring a bigger piece of bread home to your family. This choice, Kersetz believes, deformed millions of Europeans.

Kersetz, who was deported to Auschwitz when he was 14 (and later to Buchenwald), claims to have experienced his most radical moments of happiness in the concentration camp. ‘You cannot imagine what it is like to be allowed to lie in the camp’s hospital or to be allowed ten minutes break from indescribable labour,’ Kersetz said in another interview. ‘To be closer to death is also a kind of happiness. Just surviving becomes the greatest freedom of all.’

These themes—what it means to be alive, what it means to survive indescribable horror—have dominated Kersetz’s body of fictional work. Starting with Fatelessness (which first appeared in the 1970s in Hungary and was completely ignored, but was selected for special praise by the Nobel committee) Kersetz has published four novels devoted to this theme.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is third in the sequence of four novels, and was first published soon after the Iron Curtain came down.

Kaddish, for those who may not know, is a Jewish prayer of mourning. Kaddish for an Unborn Child, like all of Kersetz’s work highly autobiographical, is an extended monologue of an unnamed Auschwitz survivor explaining in a self-lacerating manner that is at times painful to read why he could not bear to bring a child into this world.

The narrator of Kaddish for an Unborn Child is an irrepressible monologist. For a person who does not like to talk, he can’t stop talking.

The novel starts with an emphatic ‘No!’ Many of the sections of the novel start with this word. The ‘No!’ is in response to a question the narrator is asked by a philosopher at a writer’s retreat whether he (the narrator) has children. This is how the narrator narrates his response to the philosopher’s question:

‘ “No!” I said instantly and at once, without hesitating and virtually instinctively since it has become quite natural by now that our instincts should act contrary to our instincts, that our counterinstincts, so to say, should act instead of, indeed as, our instincts—I am joking, if this can be regarded as a joking matter; that is, if one can regard the naked, miserable truth as a joking matter, as what I tell the philosopher approaching me . . .’

The above is only a part of a sentence that is at least five times longer (and there are several such sentences which go on for pages while the narrator equivocates, contradicts himself, and makes repetitive rhetorical observations).

Unlike Fatelessness which had a conventional narrative approach, Kaddish for an Unborn Child does not have a linear approach to narration; it goes to and fro in time, and not always in a manner that makes it easier for the reader to comprehend. In the main the novel narrates the happenings on two, perhaps three, nights: the night the narrator met the philosopher at a writer’s retreat, the night of a very long conversation between the narrator and his now-ex wife when he explains to her in a very circumlocutory and dilatory manner why he is loath to beget a child, and another night when the ex-wife tells him that the marriage is over along with some home truths. It’s only in the last pages of the novel that the reader realises that all of these nights have been in the past and the narrator is telling the story—either to the reader or to the unborn child (it is left ambiguous)—in the present, which is yet another night.

However, this is probably the least difficult part of the novel.

The narrator—either deliberately or by nature—is an uncertain, ambiguous narrator. And he is not precise, following perhaps the dictum: why use ten words when twenty would do. Perhaps this style is used to emphasize the tortured nature of the narrator’s memories and the uncertainty he is plagued with, linked to his long-ago decision not to have children. A flavour of what is to follow is offered in the opening pages:

‘ “But it would seem there is no getting round explanations, we are constantly explaining and excusing ourselves; life itself, that inexplicable complex of being and feeling, demands explanations of ourselves, until in the end we succeed in annihilating everything around us, ourselves included, or in other words explain ourselves to death,” I explain to the philosopher with that compulsion to speak, to me so abhorrent and yet irrepressible, that always grips me when I have nothing to say for myself—and that, I fear, has roots in common with the stiff tips I hand out in brassieres and taxies, or bribing etc. official or semiofficial personages, along with my exaggerated politeness, a politeness exaggerated to the point of self-denial, as if I were continually apologizing for my existence, for this existence.’

There is nothing in his past that the narrator can bring himself to see in a positive light. A childhood memory surfaces. He is sent by his parents to live with his relatives. These relatives, ‘real Jews’, unlike the ‘non-Jewish Jews’ that his family is, observe religious rituals. While at his relatives’ house the young narrator opens a bedroom door and sees a bald woman (the wife of the relative) sitting in front of the mirror wearing a red negligee and putting on make-up. The sight fills the narrator with disgust which his father’s explanation—that the woman’s family belonged to Poylish Jews and for religious reasons Poylish women shaved theirr heads and wore wigs—shaytl—does nothing to lessen. Later, when the Second World War engulfs Hungary and the narrator is deported to Auschwitz he sees himself for what he is: a bald Jewish woman in front of a mirror, even though he sees nothing in common between him and her. 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a lamentation for a life that has lost its meaning for the one who is living it. It is a meditation on what it means to survive horror and the profound effect on the survivor, not least being the guilt of having survived, which haunts him, the passage of time doing nothing to lessen the pain. Indeed, everything he does, including his writing, is aimed at not confronting the emptiness that would otherwise engulf him.  He writes compulsively, but the writing offers no solution or solace; it is merely an escape route for him. Escape from what? From existence. At one stage in the novel the narrator remarks that if he did not write he would have to exist; and then what would he do? It is a grim vision that fills the reader with a sense of desolation.

The novel is not just about what it means to be childless; it is a powerful reflection on being Jewish and an Auschwitz survivor. The remainder of the naraator’s life is a search for what happened to him in the concentration camp, a search that proves to be ultimately futile. At one stage in the novel the narrator declares:

‘ “There is no explanation for Auschwitz”, that Auschwitz was a product of irrational, incomprehensible forces, because there is always a rational explanation for evil, it may be that Satan himself, just like Iago, is irrational, but his creatures are very much rational beings, their every action may be deduced, in some way as a mathematical formula may be deduced . . .’

The narrator’s life, post-Auschwitz, is, so he sees it, a continuation of his life in the concentration camp, pervaded as it is by a feeling of transience and uncertainty, as he moves from one sublet to another, never tying himself to anything other than books.  The reader is told that the narrator continued to live in the camp for some considerable period after the German defeat: that phase of his life, he realises, was no longer real camp life, insofar as liberating soldiers had taken the place of the incarcerating soldiers, yet it was camp life all the same because ‘I was still living in a camp’.

In the first half of the novel, the narrator recounts a poignant scene. He is being transported in a cattle wagon; he is ill and lying down on a stretcher. A skeleton of a man, known as a ‘Teacher’, picks up the narrator’s ration. And then, when the roll call—of allocated rations and men—does not tally, the narrator (whose ration is missing) is snatched up and dumped in front of another wagon.  In his delirium of starvation, the narrator, at some level, is thinking cold-bloodedly that his rations would double the ‘Teacher’s’ chances of survival when he sees the ‘Teacher’ staggering towards his wagon, a single cold issue of  ration in his hands. When he notices the narrator, the ‘Teacher’ places the ration on his stomach. The narrator’s astonishment must have been written all over his face; because, in the middle of rushing back to his own wagon—if they don’t find him there he would simply be beaten to death—the ‘Teacher’ says, with clearly recognizable sings on indignation on his little face, ‘You didn’t imagine for one moment . . .?’

Reflecting on this incidence many years later, this is what the narrator has to say in his characteristic discursive style:

‘ . . .in an extreme situation such as the concentration camp, and giving particular consideration to the total breakdown of body and mind, and the resulting almost pathological atrophy of judgment, what generally guides anyone is solely one’s own staying alive, and furthermore, if you think about it, that ‘Teacher’ had been offered a two-fold chances of staying alive, yet he rejected that double chance, or to be absolutely precise, an extra chance on offer over and above his own chance, which, in point of fact, represented someone else’s chance, this suggests that precisely the—how shall I put it?—very acceptance of the second chance would also have nullified the sole chance he still had to live and stay alive; so according to this there is something and I can again only ask that you don’t try putting names to it, there exists a pure concept, untrammelled by any foreign matter, such as our body, our soul, or our wide selves, a notion which lives as a uniform image in all our minds, yes an idea whose—how shall I put this?—inviolability, safekeeping, or what you will, was for him, ‘Teacher’, the sole genuine chance of staying alive, without which chance of staying alive would have been no chance at all, simply because he did not wish, and what is more in all likelihood, was unable, to live without preserving this concept intact in its pure, untrammelled openness to scrutiny.’

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a prolonged burst of tortured introspection by a writer who is marked by the Holocaust. In one of the interviews Kersetz said that he wasn’t surprised that many great Holocaust writers eventually killed themselves: they found it impossible to live in a world which could conceptualise and actualise an idea which aimed at erasing a race from the face of the earth. The context of the novel—indeed of the quadrilogy of Kersetz’s novels—may not be universal: Holocaust was a uniquely European monstrosity, but the themes Kersetz pursues are universal: a meditation on the nature of evil and how the those benighted by it can never come to terms with what has happened to them.  The novel is more about non-existence than existence; the life—such as it is—that the narrator leads, is, in his own words, ‘a piece of good luck only slightly more astounding than the accustomed bad luck’.

A word about the translation. The translation is not easy to get into with its ultra-long sentences, which go on for pages. I do not know whether the original Hungarian was written in this manner; if it was, then the translator (Tom Wilkinson) has brought the English readers close to how it is for the Hungarian reader.  It is not a stream of consciousness novel, strictly speaking; but the first half of it comes close to it and perhaps the narrative style, certainly in the translated version and perhaps also in the original Hungarian, too, is adapted to convey that experience.  This can be trifle annoying; the intricacies of the philosophical arguments run the danger of getting lost in the verbiage. There are only two ways of reading such novels (and I found myself employing both at different times): go over and over with the sentences and try to decipher what is hidden behind various clauses and sub-clauses; or read manically, not agitating about what you may or may not have retained, trusting your subconscious.  You may even feel, as I came to feel, that the repetitive phrases and rhetorical questioning  even enhance the sentiments the novel tries to portray, all the more remarkable since the novel is written in a manner that is very obviously unemotional.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a complex work that subtly articulates powerful ideas but which, in the end, leaves the reader with profound despair for the human condition.