Fatelessness is the first novel of Imre Kertész (1929–2016), a work that played a significant part in the author’s receipt of the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature. A novel about a Hungarian-Jewish adolescent boy who is deported to Auschwitz and then imprisoned in Buchenwald, Fatelessness is written in a peculiar ironic-sarcastic tone that differentiates it from common Holocaust representations. The experience of the concentration camps has remained a central topic for Kertész in his subsequent works. Without questioning the singularity of the Holocaust, Kertész considers the postwar communist dictatorship in Hungary to be a “continuation” of the Nazi horrors. Having experienced several dictatorships, Kertész uses his oeuvre to find responses for the position of the individual within totalitarian systems and generally in the face of history.
Fatelessness consists of three main parts: the introduction to the world of György Köves, the 14-yearold protagonist, in the first chapters; his arrest and deportation to Auschwitz and his imprisonment in Buchenwald, comprising the major part of the book; and his return to postwar Hungary in the last chapter. The reader meets Köves, a Hungarian Jew, at the moment when his father is obliged to go to a forced labor camp. Although he does not reject religion explicitly, he is sceptical toward it as he speaks about everything around him with academic distance and reservation.
Köves accepts everything that happens to him and always seeks to understand the motives for even the most irrational and horrific events. His alienated character enables him to see through anti-Semitic ideology. In an emotional discussion with some girl neighbors, he explicates the significance of having to wear the yellow star, which upsets one of the girls. According to Köves, the yellow star needs to be worn so that Jews can be differentiated from the other people. Thus, there is no real internal or external difference between Jews and non-Jews, otherwise one would not need a sign to stigmatize them. This explanation, though, makes the girl even more despairing since it reveals the senselessness of her sufferings.
One of the novel’s main motives is precisely to show this senselessness of mass murder, the breakdown of reason in and after Auschwitz. For this, Köves often uses reason to justify what happens to him, without ethical considerations. For instance, he describes the death of an elderly woman on the train trip as “understandable,” since she was sick and suffered from lack of water for such a long time. Such justifications become more and more absurd and immoral to an extreme point, where Köves seems to “understand” the crematoria of Auschwitz. By this Kertész evokes and subverts the tradition of the Enlightenment and romanticism, both of which cherished the idea of the human individual who is able to know the world through reason, and by that progress to a better future. In contrast to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, who through his adventures ends up being an experienced person, Köves is thrown into a world where the sequence of events leads to his own diminishment.
In the concentration camp, Köves is less and less able to preserve his will for life. Not only must he go through total physical deterioration, but he is also excluded from the community of the religious Jews, who all speak Yiddish and help one another. Soon he comes to a point where he is not able to keep up further, and he is transported to an infirmary nearby. After a minor recovery, he becomes the object of exclusion again. One of the other patients, for instance, is from Slovakia and does not like Hungarians. Thus, after having been excluded from the Hungarian society due to his Jewishness, he is now in the concentration camp stigmatized as Hungarian. Further, he is not considered as a real Jew by the orthodox inmates. These moments of the novel provide excellent examples of Kertész’s subversive prose that touches on sensitive issues of national, religious, and ethnic identity.
After his liberation, Köves returns to Hungary, where the first man he meets denies the horror of Auschwitz and demands from Köves proof of the gas chambers’ existence. Later, the conductor wants to fine him because he does not have a ticket. He cannot return to his home because someone else now lives there already, though he is eventually able to enter his neighbor’s flat. Köves learns from the two elderly Jews who live there that his father never came back and that his mother remarried. In this discussion the motif of senselessness relates to the notion of fate. To accept his life as his fate would justify the Nazi mass murders and concentration camps. On the other hand, he cannot just forget his life story, as it needs to be rendered into a narrative. He comes to the conclusion that even though one needs to exist within circumstances contingent on fate, one needs also to make one’s own destiny.
Fatelessness is a unique piece of literature that denounces the senselessness of discrimination and totalitarian systems, whereas it also expounds the problems of identity construction and linguistic representation. It is a novel that is able to talk about Auschwitz without a demand for moralization and discuss the possibility of human self and human agency in the face of history.