Neal Ascherson

‘There is an hour of the day which falls between returning from the factory and the evening Appell, a distinctive, always bustling and liberated hour that I, for my part, always looked forward to and enjoyed the most while in the Lager; as it happened, this was generally also suppertime.’ This is the voice of Gyuri, a 14-year-old boy from a Jewish family in Budapest, remembering life in a German concentration camp in the summer of 1944. It is also the voice of Imre Kertész. His own experiences in the camps gave rise to his masterpiece, a novel whose utter originality sets it apart from all other writing about the Holocaust. Fateless, which won Kertész the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, is not – he has said – an autobiography, but ‘uses the form of an autobiographical novel’.

Gyuri is seized in a vast, random round-up of Hungarian Jews and herded onto a train for Auschwitz. Selected for work rather than the gas chambers, he is soon moved with a transport of ‘labour Jews’ from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, and from there to a satellite Lager at Zeitz. Returned to Buchenwald on the verge of death from starvation and infected injuries, he survives the winter through a series of strokes of luck and acts of friendship until the camp is liberated by the Americans in April 1945. He then makes his way slowly back to Budapest across the wreckage of Central Europe. But his reappearance, a gaunt figure still wearing his striped camp uniform under a Polish officer’s cap and over American army boots, makes him an object of fear and suspicion to many. Even old friends who welcome him are unable to grasp his feelings. He stops in a Budapest square, as evening falls. ‘It was that peculiar hour, I recognised even now, even here – my favourite hour in the camp, and I was seized by a sharp, painful, futile longing for it: nostalgia, homesickness.’

Homesick for Buchenwald? Fateless does not fit into any convention there may be for fiction about the Holocaust and the camps. On the very first page we meet in Gyuri an observant, detached, self-obsessed boy who notices all details with crystal precision, and yet has no interest in the motives of other people, or in the background to what is taking place, unless they impact on his own hour-to-hour life. ‘I didn’t go to school today,’ the novel casually begins. But it turns out that the reason for his absence is that his father is being ‘called up for labour service’ – in other words, he is being deported to a camp (he will die in Mauthausen). At home, Gyuri listens indifferently to agitated talk between his father and stepmother, as they turn over their timber business to a gentile; he is more concerned with his own boredom and with getting himself a drink of water. When they go shopping to find his father a rucksack and provisions for the camp, he finds that the yellow star they have to wear in the street, which is ‘a source of amusement to me when I am on my own’, is now ‘close to embarrassing’. He manages to cry a little in a last embrace with his father, but reflects that ‘all the same . . . at least we were able to send him off to the labour camp, poor man, with memories of a nice day.’

Gyuri is not a rebel. He is a solipsistic adolescent who just wants to get by, who has already learned that the best way to avoid hassle in the adult world is to play by the rules rather than challenge them. Indeed, Gyuri has an almost Candide-like respect for rules. He assumes that those who make them are acting for the best and cannot be evil at heart, however unlikely that may seem from moment to moment. When he arrives at Auschwitz, after a horrible cattle-wagon journey, he finds it all overwhelmingly impressive. The gravel, lawns and flowerbeds amaze him by their neatness; the SS guards seem relaxed rather than intimidating; the uniformed doctor who conducts the ‘selection’ awes him with his calm authority and smart uniform. The orderly way in which the fit are directed to one side while the old, the sick and the mothers with children are sent to the other strikes Gyuri as wonderfully logical. He even feels resentment when an elderly and unfit man is assigned to his own group.

By the end of the first day, the new arrivals are beginning to grasp – through rumours and hints from other prisoners – what is really going on under those smoking chimneys, what has happened to the others from the train and what deceptions were used to lull them. And yet Gyuri, while sickened, thinks all this detailed craftiness is like an awful student prank, a joke, and imagines the planners slapping each other’s palms as they think up one wheeze after another: the nice flowerbeds, the offer of shower and soap, the gas from the ceiling. He is amazed to realise that this huge institution, the universe of Auschwitz-Birkenau with all its satellite camps, has been secretly running for years. Why did his school fail to prepare him for this? ‘I ought to have been learning all along exclusively about Auschwitz.’ Now he has to learn how to act and how to behave here, all at once.

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