Man against history
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