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.