I was very impressed with Nobel Prizewinner Imre Kertesz’s novel FATELESSNESS. I previously wrote about the book when I had just started reading it, in my blog Descent into Hell.
In this blog I want to comment on comments that the story’s 14 year old hero Georg Koves offers at the end of the war about how he coped with the chaos and horrors he observed. Georg says that the only way to cope with the absolute horrors of the concentration camp was to take one day and one problem and one step at a time. If one tried to deal with all that was happening, one would go insane for neither the heart nor the mind could cope with the totality of the evil being observed. But if one endeavored to make sense of things – small things, the pieces of the puzzle rather than the entire puzzle, to interpret them in some normal way, then even the abnormal could be survived. Time thus became Georg’s moments of sanity – it helped him deal with each thing one step at a time.
After observing the clear role the German soldiers, the prison guards and the prisoners themselves held – all clearly distinguished by the uniforms they wore, Koves observes, “I began to realize that it seemed I ought to revise a notion I had been taught back home to the effect that ‘clothes do not make the man.’”
Everything the Nazis did in the camps was done with neatness and efficiency to give all things a sense of being normal. Georg comments: “…I came to realize: even in Auschwitz, it seems, it is possible to be bored—assuming one is privileged. We hung around and waited in actual fact, if I think about it, for nothing to happen.” Everything came to be seen as customary and the way things are to the young prisoner, but at the end of the war he says this happened because it was the only way to cope with what he was seeing. Georg relates a similar theme from when he was taken to the camp infirmary: “Time also went by in the hospital; if I happened not to be sleeping, then I would always be kept busy by hunger, thirst, the pain around the wound, the odd conversation, or the event of a treatment…” This is the author Kertesz’s writing style – how does one deal with this world when humans intentionally inflict inhuman horrors on others in order to deprive these others of their humanity? None have left the world as it really is.
“If one was diligent at work, for example, then one might avoid a beating – usually, at any rate.” All came to be accepted by Georg as normal for the camp: “…the beatings… I had my fair share of them too, naturally, no more but also no less than normal, the average, the ordinary, like anyone, any one of us – as many as are consistent with purely routine conditions in our camp…”
Georg reports that he got to the point where no amount of effort on the part of the guards could possibly make matters worse, for he got beyond caring and found peace. He came to accept whatever occurred as part of life for that moment, and he gave up trying to make sense of it all.
“I must admit, there are certain things I would never be able to explain, nor precisely, not if I were to consider them from the angle of my own expectations, of rule, or reason – from the angle of life, in sum, the order of things, at least insofar as I am acquainted with it.” … “On the other hand, it was precisely this that troubled and disquieted me, somehow undermining my confidence, because after all, if I took a rational view of things, I could see no reason, I was incapable of finding any known and, to me, rationally acceptable cause for why, of all places, I happened to be here instead of somewhere else.”
After the war, Georg has a chance meeting with a journalist who wants to know about his experience in the concentration camp. Georg constantly intersperses the word ‘naturally’ through his answers. The exasperated reporter rebukes Georg telling him nothing about his experience was natural since the camps themselves were unnatural. George realizes the uninitiated will never understand what he is saying, for though nothing was natural nor humane nor even human in the camps, the only way to survive mentally, spiritually, or humanly, was to accept that what was happening was natural in that moment for it allowed the person to hold onto the hope that the world had not become totally meaningless; one had not descened into some other realm of fantasy, but the laws of nature were in fact still in existence. The human needs some sense that the universe is operating according to some order, and that there is purpose even in injustice. Otherwise, one would lose one’s own humanity and hope, and evil and chaos would win.
For Georg the concentration camp was real, it was this world and not some other. It was not hell for that is other worldly, and he found dealing with reality – one moment at a time — the only way to survive. Those who had not experienced the camps preferred to imagine them as hell because they could not admit that those camps had occurred on this earth brought about by people just like themselves.
Next blog: Freedom as Fatelessness