SEPTEMBER 28, 2011
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 Holocaust, which he considers an “an absolute moment in the history of Europe”: an endpoint in the development of society’s capacity to do evil that has roots going back centuries. Kertész has articulated variations on this idea in interviews, and it also appears in Kaddish for an Unborn Child, the third novel in a trilogy comprising Fatelessness and Fiasco.
Although Kertész claims that his work isn’t autobiographical — and that 10 years after the camps, most of his memories of his experience had faded — Fatelessness is about an apparent Kertész alter ego, György Köves, a 15-year-old sent to Nazi concentration camps. Köves relates his experiences in an affectless manner in which he seems to accept what is happening to him. Like much of Kertész’s later work, the novel shows marks of Kafka in its bleakly comic depiction of a character caught up in machinations he cannot fathom, and of Camus’s The Stranger, which Kertész has cited as an important influence.
Fiasco addresses both the writing of Fatelessness and life in post-war Hungary under a communist dictatorship. The first 118 pages of Fiasco are about a character named “the old boy,” a writer struggling to start on a new novel. Told in a looping, playful style, full of parenthetical phrases (many of them arriving consecutively, as if the parentheses are in place of commas), this section is occasionally frustrating, but it also provides some key insights into how a survivor deals with transmuting his experiences into art. The old boy has written a novel about his experiences in Auschwitz, but a publisher rejected it. Like Camus’s Meursault, who was looked upon suspiciously for his impassive reaction to his mother’s death, the old boy’s novel is criticized as being “in bad taste” for the protagonist’s “odd reactions.” “His behaviour, his gauche comments repel and offend the reader,” the publisher writes, claiming that he was “annoyed on reading the novel’s ending, since the behaviour the main protagonist has displayed hitherto, his lack of compassion, gives him no ground to dispense moral judgements, call others to account.”
Essentially an extended piece of reflection and literary criticism, this first chapter is an unusual way to foreground a novel, but it is essential to understanding the rest of Fiasco, which represents the old boy’s attempt at a second novel. This novel begins with the arrival of a character named Köves in Budapest after some time spent “abroad.” Köves’s story is clearly a continuation of the story from Fatelessness, the novel rejected by publishers (both in real life and in the fiction of Fiasco).
But the old boy’s second novel is also a rejection of the Holocaust as a literary subject. (Or, to complicate the issue further, it could be a response to his critics’ rejection of his first novel, in the form of an extremely elliptical depiction of the Shoah.) Köves’s past is hardly mentioned; we know he was abroad, that he has no family, that he has been a journalist, and that he is returning to a Budapest still filled with rubble and half-reconstructed buildings. Like scientists looking for distant planets, we know that the Holocaust is there only by the slight ways its gravity disrupts the bodies around it. We observe minor reverberations but not the thing itself. Köves’s Jewishness is never mentioned, but we briefly learn that, like the protagonist of Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Köves is a survivor “dogged constantly by a painful sense of provisionality.” He feels that he should have died in the camps or, perhaps, in a sense, he already has.
Beyond this early revelation of existential distress, we learn little about Köves, except that he wrote a novel about his experiences, which was rejected. (He receives the same rejection note as the old boy.) Nor do we have much sense of the state of Hungarian society. Köves faces an ominous interrogation from customs officials at the border, who confiscate his suitcase and promise to return it to him later. (They don’t.) After renting a room in a widow’s apartment, he must register with certain civilian authorities. But like the younger Köves in Fatelessness, this man is a naïf, carelessly unaware of his surroundings. He’s not helped by the fact that no one seems to want to tell him things. A pianist, whom he meets on a park bench at night, claims that he sleeps outside so as not to be caught at home, but he only hints at the notion that he fears arrest.
Köves’s return does not go well. Before he can even start his job at a newspaper, he’s dismissed. That’s followed by a brief stint at a steelworks and later at the Ministry of Production. He seems to have no idea how to navigate this new society — where jobless people are treated almost as lepers — nor much desire to. It’s not that he fails or misbehaves at work so much that he simply doesn’t fit in.
As the narrative progresses, Köves settles into his new life, if fitfully. He makes friends and hangs out at a popular restaurant and plans to write a “light comedy” with another out-of-work journalist. But Köves seems totally ignorant of civic life in Budapest, which makes the occasional references to people deported on trucks or being arrested by strange men all the more disturbing.
What is really happening to Köves is that he is living in “the twilight happiness of eternal forgetting” — a state of mind in which nothing is acknowledged, not even his deliberate ignorance, which may threaten his delicate equilibrium. This condition cannot last, of course, and if Kertész preserves it for too long, that only makes Köves’s eventual awakening more devastating.
“[M]aybe I had started writing in order to gain my revenge on the world … and regain from it what it had robbed me of,” the old boy muses, “to become the name-giver instead of the named.” In a sense, Kertész does just that in Fiasco. In refusing to name his subject, he has called the greatest attention to it. Here what is unacknowledged is frightfully omnipresent, an invisible noose draped around the novel’s neck, ready to be cinched.