Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész
Review by S. D. Stewart
The back of the book describes it as ‘one of the most eloquent meditations ever written on the Holocaust.’ To associate the Hungarian Kertész with the Shoah is, of course, inevitable, considering that as a teenager he survived life in Auschwitz. However, to place The Holocaust as a monolith in the foreground when describing Kertész’s writing is misleading. Some critics of Kertész’s novel Fatelessness (or Fateless, depending on the translation) complained that it was boring, and not what they expected of a book describing life in a series of concentration camps. Yet Kertész was doing just that, as part of his efforts to show how in the camps that life went on and because life went on, that even in a concentration camp one could be bored. With Fatelessness, Kertész tried to bring the Shoah within the realm of understanding of the reader who did not live through it. It would make sense that some readers would be uncomfortable with that or even confused by such an approach, for many of us were conditioned from a young age to have a certain type of reaction to The Holocaust as an idea, a concept, something terrible in the past that we cannot adequately conceive of from where we sit now in history.
At one point in this book, when someone at a party brings up a quote, ‘There is no explanation for Auschwitz’, from a recent book and everyone at the party solemnly accepts this, Kertész’s narrator launches on a tirade, for to him, when looking at the world and the people in power, Auschwitz has a perfectly logical explanation. Later, he tells his (ex-)wife that ‘Auschwitz seemed to me to be just an exaggeration of the very same virtues to which I had been educated since early childhood’ and certainly that he didn’t need to be at Auschwitz to ‘learn about this age and this world’.
It is this insistence on treating the Shoah as something comprehensible that marks Kertész’s work in such a powerful way. While it may always be in the shadows of his writing, and thus his reputation as a writer, it is never the focal point, and instead this placement beyond the reader’s constant roving eye broadens the significance of his work. Once the Shoah is fixed as reality in the continuum of humanity’s capabilities, and indeed accepted as a comprehensible outcome of the course that humanity marches forth on, the dynamics and directions of conversation shift away from the light to confront the darkness head on. (In fact, Kertész has criticized the film ‘Schindler’s List’ for avoiding just this type of conversation.)
Readers of Thomas Bernhard will likely find a similarity in style here, as Kertész also strings together long, circuitous sentences bursting with digression, repetition, and rephrasing wielded as a hammer to drive home his nail-hard points. He even quotes Bernhard in a few places within the text (Kertész has translated Bernhard). There is in fact a Bernhardian sense permeating the book as a whole. A kinship between these two writers would make sense, for they both survived horrible childhood experiences (WWII, boarding school, parent issues, and for Bernhard, lung disease), both of them in turn struck by the absurdity of their own survival while also accepting it as the impetus for their work, both of them wedded to this work, to writing, unyielding in their need to write. And finally, both of them indignant at the unwillingness of people to confront and engage with the reality of humanity’s darkness, for it is this indignance juxtaposed with their own willingness to engage with this darkness, and indeed accept it as a natural outcome, that is at the crux of both writers’ work.
The book is short, though deceptively so. It was not instantly engaging, requiring some adjustment in the reading mind, but once in focus, it felt like a home, like Kertész’s austere city apartment to be exact. Kertész touches on a lot of themes, and one of the most compelling threads is his narrator’s ongoing description of his writing life, what feeds it and what stifles it, how it affects and is affected by his relationships, how it is representative of his identity and, as such, something to be protected ‘from all intruders’, how his work saved him, though saved him only for destruction.
During those years I dreamed I also became aware of the true nature of my work, which in essence is nothing other than to dig, dig further and to the end, the grave that others started to dig for me in the clouds, the winds, the nothingness.
Note: Merits of the translations of Kertész’s earlier novels, including this one and Fatelessness, are a subject of ongoing debate. Both of these books were first translated by Christopher and Katharina Wilson and later by Tim Wilkinson. For this book I read the Wilkinson, and for Fatelessness I had read the Wilson translation. I didn’t find serious issue with either book’s translation, so won’t comment on that, but this review provides some interesting commentary. Additional information can be found online easily enough. (For what it’s worth, Kertész objected to the earlier Wilson translations, though not sure if he’s commented publicly on the comparative merits of Wilkinson’s work, which itself has also drawn criticism.)