The brilliance of Kertész’ terrible novel is bound up with the tone of its narrator, Gyuri, a laconic boy who is incapable of seeing the worst in life, even when it’s placed in front of his nose. This boy happens to have been born Jewish and living in Budapest during the 2nd world war. He approaches life as would any other teenage boy, curious about girls, trying to work out why his parents separated, phlegmatic, reluctant to fall into the trap of self-pity when there’s so much to live for. This same boy is then sent via Auschwitz, to the Zeiss concentration camp. At no point could it exactly be said he was an innocent, because the writer is wise enough to know that children are no more innocent than anyone else; but equally, no more than anyone else, this is not a fate which he has in any way merited. The way in which the narrator struggles to maintain his dispassionate attitude towards life, something which it seems helps him to stay alive, whilst coming to terms with the cruelty of his destiny, is told masterfullly.
I know nothing about Kertész, but one imagines that this book is autobiographical. The author’s capacity to resist cliché, to not necessarily say those things we as readers want to hear, suggests a degree of honesty which is frequently present in the writings of Holocaust survivors, although rarely present in the writings of those who choose to visit the holocaust as fiction writers (or filmmakers). The last sentence of chapter seven in the book is worth quoting in full to demonstrate Kertész’ remarkable, ambiguous take on his plight: “Despite all the deliberation, sense, insight and sober reason, I could not fail to recognise within myself the furtive and yet - ashamed as it might be, so to say, of its irrationality - increasingly insistent voice of some muffled craving of sorts: I would like to live a little bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp.”
The camp in question is Buchenwald, which Gyuri survives. It’s only when he gets back to Budapest that the real weight of his suffering seems to catch up with him. All too often, writers are accused of not showing enough “heart” or “emotional truth” if their characters fail to emote sufficiently, to talk about their pain or their suffering. Kertész’s novel, would appear to suggest that the privileged world’s need for emotional catharsis is a self-indulgence. The character who is genuinely immersed in a world of terror requires their energy, their cynicism and a certain dispassionate sang-froid to resist. It’s more important to find reasons to live than seek reasons to lament.