AT YAD VESHEM, THE OFFICIAL MUSEUM and memorial to Holocaust victims in Jerusalem, there is a room called the Hall of Names. In the center of the room, visitors can look up into a 10-meter tall conical formation plastered with 600 photographs of victims and pages of testimony. The curvilinear walls of the room are taken up by massive floor-to-ceiling shelving. Some of these shelves hold black binders that, taken together, contain the names of more than two million Holocaust victims, part of the museum's effort to collect as many such names as possible. (A number of the shelves in the Hall of Names remain empty, ready to be filled with more binders; Yad Vashem's online database has more than 3.8 million names.)
While the act of naming has been central to Holocaust remembrance, and vigorous cataloging and documentation have been equally important in fending off Holocaust denial, the refusal to name has become an important element in some Holocaust fiction. In the short story "Untitled: A Review," by the young American writer Joshua Cohen, a book reviewer named Benjamin Kline receives an enormous package in the mail. It's a six-million-page book, every page blank (Kline calls it Untitled by Anonymous). Kline obsesses over the book, counting and numbering each page, calling it the best record of the Holocaust because it is not a record at all. In fact, he considers it "the only way to write about the event, the idea. Or not."
There is satire here, but Cohen (who has been dismissive of second- and third-generation Jewish American novelists like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer, both of whom have written arguably sentimental books about the Holocaust) is also crafting a complex argument about the perils of Holocaust writing. About this mammoth book, Kline says, "So, what does it mean? Nothing, possibly. And what does it have to teach? Nothing, maybe ... But it is not mawkish. It is not patronizing. It's not insulting."
There is a refuge, then, in refusing to name, in looking away from the event itself, or, as Cohen has done here, in writing around the event. One can summon the memory of the Shoah and show all the difficulty in fictionalizing it by writing asymptotically: that is, approaching it but never quite reaching it. That is the method used by 2002 Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész in his novel Fiasco, originally published in Hungarian in 1988 and only recently translated into English by Tim Wilkinson. Like other books in Kertész's oeuvre, Fiasco is about the struggle to live after having survived the Holocaust. It is also about the difficulty of writing about the subject at all, with one argument being that "cumulative images of murder become just as lethally tedious and discouragingly tiring as the attendant work itself."
Kertész was a 14-year-old Jew from Budapest when he was deported to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald. After surviving the war, he spent some time in Germany but later returned to Hungary, where he translated books from German and wrote fiction. Despite his international renown and the awards bestowed upon him in recent decades, Kertész was little known in his home country until the late eighties, and had a difficult relationship with its literary establishment, which he accused of anti-Semitism. (He now lives in Berlin.) He has similarly criticized Hungarian society for its neglect of the Holoca...