Man against his­tory

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS/ - DAVID HER­MAN

In 2002, the JewishHun­gar­ian writer, Imre Kertesz, was awarded the No­bel Prize “for writ­ing that up­holds the frag­ile ex­pe­ri­ence of the in­di­vid­ual against the bar­baric ar­bi­trari­ness of his­tory”. That was the sub­ject at the heart of the tril­ogy that made his name, be­gin­ning with his ac­claimed first novel, “Fate­less­ness” (1975). It echoes through this latest work.

The ques­tion of what it means to be Jewish, es­pe­cially to have been Jewish in mid-20th cen­tury Hun­gary, res­onates through “Liq­ui­da­tion”. One of the cen­tral char­ac­ters, known only as B was born in Birke­nau and strug­gles to live as a writer in Com­mu­nist Hun­gary. Al­though the nar­ra­tive is set 10 years af­ter the fall of Com­mu­nism in 1989, there is lit­tle sense of lib­er­a­tion. The scars are too deep, the losses too great.

The char­ac­ters mostly live alone, un­able to con­nect with each other. Only one char­ac­ter — B’s ex-wife, Ju­dit — has chil­dren. This un­der­lies the ter­ri­ble sense of steril­ity that runs through the novel. Th­ese peo­ple are weighed down by the past. Any kind of fu­ture seems in­con­ceiv­able.

Most of the cen­tral char­ac­ters are writ­ers or edi­tors for a Hun­gar­ian pub­lish­ing house that is to be liq­ui­dated (one of sev­eral kinds of liq­ui­da­tion in the book). King­bit­ter is an ed­i­tor, ob­sessed with B’s lit­er­ary ge­nius and the pos­si­bil­ity that he wrote a novel be­fore he killed him­self. Much of the novella fol­lows King­bit­ter’s in­creas­ingly des­per­ate search for his friend’s miss­ing man­u­script.

This is a very lit­er­ary kind of book, pre­oc­cu­pied with the dif­fi­culty of sto­ry­telling and the gaps be­tween re­al­ity and fiction. There are sto­ries within sto­ries and a play (it­self called “Liq­ui­da­tion”) within the novel. Even the end­ing is one of sev­eral pos­si­ble end­ings as new manuscripts turn up.

What saves all this from a ster­ile post-modernism is Kertesz’s moral se­ri­ous­ness. B’s in­abil­ity to es­cape the mem­o­ries of Auschwitz is de­scribed with tremen­dous power. When B first meets King­bit­ter, he leaves a man­u­script on his desk, a short story in which “B first ex­pounded his fun­da­men­tal view that Evil was the life prin­ci­ple.” Yet, strangely, it de­scribes an eth­i­cal deed and ac­counts “for the oc­cur­rence of Good.”

This may seem a trite sum­mary of a com­plex book but “Liq­ui­da­tion” is about the ex­is­tence of good in an evil world and how peo­ple ir­repara­bly dam­aged by his­tory strug­gle to make a life for them­selves. The dark­ness comes from the fail­ure of such strug­gles, fail­ure that can be at the cen­tre of a life and can­not al­ways be re­deemed, even by lit­er­a­ture. “Liq­ui­da­tion” may be not only the dark­est book you’ll read this year, but also one of the very best.

Kertesz at a Jewish func­tion in Bu­dapest

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