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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Kertész Imre

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To purchase Fatelessness

Title: Fatelessness
Author: Kertész Imre
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 262 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Fatelessness - US
Fateless - UK
Fatelessness - Canada
Fateless - India
Être sans destin - France
Roman eines Schicksallosen - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Sorstalanság
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson
  • Fatelessness was previously published in an English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson, as Fateless (1992). (Interestingly, this book was also translated twice into German, in 1990 and 1996.)
  • Sorstalanság was made into a film in 2004, directed by Lajos Koltai

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stark, simple, effective -- and very different from many of Kertész's later works

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ A 30/3/1996 Ulrich Weinzierl
The Guardian . 20/8/2005 David Cesarani
The Independent A 19/12/2005 Carole Angier
The LA Times . 24/10/2004 Richard Eder
The Nation . 31/1/2005 John Banville
Neue Zürcher Zeitung A+ 17/4/1996 Andreas Breitenstein
New England Review* . (1-2)/2004 Gary Adelman
The NY Rev. of Books* A 25/9/2003 István Deák
The Observer . 28/8/2005 Toby Lichtig
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/1/2005 Elizabeth Gold
Sunday Telegraph A+ 4/9/2005 Julian Evans
Sunday Times . 2/10/2005 John Spurling
The Times A 13/8/2005 George Szirtes
TLS* . 15/1/1993 Peter Sherwood
TLS A 19-26/8/2005 Paul Maliszewski
The Village Voice . 20/12/2004 Ben Ehrenreich
World Literature Today* A Fall/1993 Clara Gyorgyey

Reviews with an asterisk (*) refer to reviews of the earlier English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson

  Review Consensus:

  Impressive, haunting work.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wer allerdings das Buch von Imre Kertész gelesen hat, der wird es kaum je vergessen können." - Ulrich Weinzierl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The result is a powerful work that transcends the specific tragedy of the Hungarian Jews. Kertész recalls the iniquity of imposed difference through the eyes of a naive teenager. He writes in a bleakly matter-of-fact tone, superbly captured by Tim Wilkinson's new translation, that recreates the perception of a self-absorbed youth. It is almost like reading Catcher in the Rye transferred to Auschwitz." - David Cesarani, The Guardian

  • "For writing like this, and for taking us somewhere no other writer has, Kertesz fully deserved his Nobel Prize in 2002." - Carole Angier, The Independent

  • "Fatelessness is such a powerful and coolly horrifying work that, for all their fine qualities, its successors may seem hardly more than variations on a theme, making their refinements and discriminations in an area that is, in the Adornian sense, almost beyond contemplation; yet Liquidation and Kaddish are in their subtle ways just as troubling and profound as the earlier book." - John Banville, The Nation

  • "Gezielt entzaubert der Autor die Mythologie des Leidens, wenn er die komplexe Opfer-Täter-Dynamik herausarbeitet. Wo sie nicht religiös begründet ist, kommt die jüdische Selbstbeschwichtigung im Roman als Rationalisierung daher. Kertesz führt solches Denken ad absurdum, indem er sein naiv-vorwitziges Alter ego bis in die Logik des Rassenwahns hinein einen "vernünftigen Jungen" sein lässt." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Kertesz describes the guilelessness of his young hero powerfully and convincingly, conveying the perceptions and observations of someone with littler foresight or hindsight." - István Deák, The New York Review of Books

  • "His tone is formal, dispassionate, his writing peppered with evasions and disclaimers such as 'naturally' and 'in all fairness'. Despite the gravity of its subject, his story is punctuated with bursts of adolescent facetiousness; though narrated in the past tense, it is told as if he were still in denial." - Toby Lichtig, The Observer

  • "The matter-of-fact tone and candor of Fatelessness, as well as its dry wit, make it the Holocaust novel that will never be filmed by Hollywood." - Elizabeth Gold, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Written from the simplest materials, Imre Kertész's Fatelessness is a beautiful glimpse of the wide open spaces of storytelling" - Julian Evans, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Dreadful as its subject is, Fatelessness is a masterly, subtle and constantly surprising novel, which, in this fine translation, reads as if it were written in this century, not the last." - John Spurling, Sunday Times

  • "It is greatly to Tim Wilkinson’s credit that this work, which ought to stand beside Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, remains compulsive throughout, so, after a while, we forget we are reading a translation." - George Szirtes, The Times

  • "What is briliant about his novel is its deceptive plainness, and Kertész's insistence that the plain detail must matter, even in a Holocaust novel; perhaps especially in a Holocaust novel." - Paul Maliszewski, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Fatelessness is an eerie and painful novel, shocking not for its by-now familiar subject matter, but for the tone of earnest goodwill with which the young narrator attempts to understand his situation." - Ben Ehrenreich, The Village Voice

  • "Imre Kertesz's unique, deeply moving, and truthful autobiographical novel (.....) What makes Gyorgy's story so authentic poignant, and radically unsentimental is precisely the ironic contrast between his utter idealism, even bemused detachment, and the reader's logical expectation of the opposite, Kertesz's purposeful distancing between himself, the hero, and us is masterful and thoroughly effective." - Clara Gyorgyey, World Literature Today

  • "Imre Kertesz, who lived through Auschwitz as an adolescent, has produced an extraordinary autobiographical novel called Fateless, which conveys a chillingly convincing sense of how a young person by rapid stages comes to adapt himself to the terms of a radically altered reality in which people are no more than dirt and it is assumed as a matter of course that almost everyone is going to die very soon. Fateless is an instructive contrast to Fragments: free of rhetorical insistence and of sensationalistic accounts of violence, and firmly resisting the temptation to translate the camp experience into any symbolic register beyond the bleak facts, the tale itself persuades us, whatever we may know or not know about the teller." - Robert Alter, The New Republic (30/4/2001)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Fatelessness is narrated by György Köves, a Jewish teenager living in Budapest in the later years of World War II. It begins with preparations for his father being sent to a labour camp: the buying of supplies (almost as if this were an extended business cum camping trip he were setting out on), entrusting a former employee with the family jewels and the like (a man who, as a non-Jew, had also had taken over the family business on their behalf -- surprisingly, without taking advantage of them), as well as the final good-byes. György is no longer a child, but not fully part of the adult world yet either, and he is clearly shielded from some of what is happening. In his innocence he also isn't as deeply troubled by all that is happening as one might expect: day-to-day life -- including young romance and school -- keep him sufficiently preoccupied.
       At the beginning and throughout he is a close but not deep observer, describing detail but rarely probing deeper or considering all the implications -- in part perhaps a defensive mechanism.
       A few months after his father's departure, György is assigned to work at an oil works, repairing the bomb damage caused by the Allies. It's even "a privilege of sorts", since his yellow star would generally mean he is forbidden from travelling outside the city, but because of his work he gets legitimate identity papers allowing him more freedom of movement.
       One day his bus is stopped on the way to work, and all Jews asked to disembark -- a process György soon discovers is being repeated on every passing bus. He and others are rounded up, though there's little sense of what might be coming. Some bolt once the scale of the round-up is clear; György thinks he could have too, but didn't really see a reason to, used to deferring to authority and doing as he is told.
       Soon enough, he is packed along with some sixty others in a train wagon bound for parts unknown. Where they wind up is Auschwitz, soon enough in the line where they will be examined and their fate -- it's clear even there -- determined.
       György spends only three days in Auschwitz before being transported to Buchenwald, and from there to a smaller concentration camp, Zeitz. The descriptions of his time in these places is fairly simple and straightforward -- occasionally jarringly so:

I had arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp.
     Buchenwald lies on the crest of one of the elevations in a region of hills and dales. Its air is clear, the countryside varied, with woods all around and the red-tiled roofs of the village houses in the valleys down below delightful to the eye.
       The first days stick prominently in his mind, after that much is lost in the wearying, deadening routine and basic struggle for survival.
       György eventually gets ill, offering him a brief respite in the relative comfort of the hospital, but then also leaving him more vulnerable. Weak, ill, he is eventually also much closer to giving up on himself. He also is returned to Buchenwald, the larger, more anonymous camp where it is both easier to avoid being noticed and to get lost. But György survives, and after the camp is liberated slowly makes his way home to Hungary, there facing incomprehending strangers and family members alike.
       Fatelessness conveys the horrors of the concentration camps, in particular their dulling and deadening effect. György writes of "three means of escape in a concentration camp", whereby he avails himself only of "the most modest", a retreat into the world of imagination -- but even here:
Still, even the imagination is not completely unbounded, or at least is unbounded only within limits, I have found.
       The camps are dehumanising: at one point György is asked his name but can only reply with his identification number; pressed to give his name he has difficulty recalling it. (That it is an autobiographical text is further underlined by the fact that Kertész assigns his character the same number as he himself had.)
       Returning home, people want to know about his experiences, but he doesn't really know how to relate them: there's little "that would be of much interest", he believes. Relatives advise him to forget about it and get on his with his life, a notion that baffles him, as: "what happened had happened" and he couldn't conceive of pretending it had not.
       Fatelessness is an attempt to relate these experiences and their impact, with little interpretive embellishment. György is a youth, thrust into inconceivable situations, dealing with them (or giving in to them) as they arise. These are clearly formative experiences, but there's little hint or consideration of what they lead to -- that is largely left to Kertész's later books, where the autobiographical character reappears and one see what has become of him. It is, indeed, as this -- a straightforward description the experiences that are the foundation behind many of Kertész's later texts -- that Fatelessness is most interesting.
       Fatelessness is a powerful and carefully presented concentration camp fiction. In context -- first published in 1975 in Hungary, where presenting such material was still almost unheard of -- it was surely a remarkable text (though it apparently made little impact at the time -- as was then also the case with the first German and English translations); some three decades later it doesn't have quite the same resonance because so many variations of the stories have been told, making for a very familiar feel. No matter how disquieting and how honest the story is, the novelty has worn off and it is hard not to see this as one book among many.
       Fatelessness also stands in striking contrast to many of Kertész's later works. It is a well-written and effective text, but also a very carefully written one, the author very aware of everything he is saying and seemingly concerned about getting it just right. (In contrast, the later texts positively revel in ambiguity and uncertainty, a constant reminder and admission that certainty is almost impossible to capture.) He also doesn't want to be in any way obtrusive -- the circumlocutions of his loud screams when his knee is being lanced typical of the understatement -- and he follows this approach almost to a fault. It is good writing, but almost workmanlike; in contrast, Kertész's later works are emphatically literary works, using language to different (and ultimately much more powerful) effect.
       Fatelessness is a fine work, but -- unlike Kertész's later works -- ultimately not a truly remarkable one. Nevertheless, in laying the foundation for almost everything he wrote afterwards (and for understanding the man) it remains an essential text. It is good place to start on Kertész, but should be just that: the start. In moving from this book to his later works one moves from a simple, affecting story to true literature, from reality to art.

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Fatelessness: Reviews: ( Reviews with an asterisk (*) refer to reviews of the earlier English translation by Christopher and Katharina Wilson )

Sorstalanság - the film: Kertesz Imre: Other books by Kertész Imre under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Kertész Imre was born in 1929. He was awarded the 2002 Nobel Prize for literature

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© 2004-2013 the complete review

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