In my last post I talked about how Chris and I did a lot of book shopping while we were in London. One book I picked up was Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. This is my first foray into Nobel Prize-winning literature. I have to explain, my reasons have to be set out so you understand exactly what drew me to this book, surrounded by other, much larger and more epic books on the table at the front of the shop. No one else was touching it, or even noticing it.
First, I saw the book on the table and noticed its small size. It’s a thin book, only 120 pages, and not quite a trade-size paperback. Books like this attract me because I know that it takes some seriously powerful writing to get a book this size published.
Second, I picked it up and read the back cover to see what exactly this was about.
The first word of this haunting novel is ‘no’. It is how the narrator, a middle-aged Hungarian Jewish writer, answers an acquaintance who asks if he has a child and it is how he answered his, now ex-, wife when she told him she wanted a baby.
The loss, longing, and regret that haunt the years between those two ‘no’s give rise to one of the most eloquent meditations ever written on the Holocaust. As Kertész’s narrator addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, he takes readers on a mesmerizing, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.
What jumped out at me here? It was the “no” that opens the book. It was the mention of the Holocaust. It was that this is the first book I’ve ever seen where a Holocaust survivor meditates on not being able to bring children into this world. What could have possibly been going on in his mind? I needed to know how he came to that decision, and how it affected those around him.
Third, I opened the cover and read the very first word. That “No!” was, indeed, very powerful. It was shouted at the reader, with a giant “N” in the style of most chapter beginnings, and a small “o” following but no less loudly. The “!”, the third character of this tiny novel, left a lingering cry in my mind. I could see the word coming out of someone’s mouth, I could see the desperation and anger and refusal spilling out of the mouth and onto the page. It was literally the one word I needed to read in order to know I wanted to read this book. I read a few more words, I tried to finish the sentence. It was so long. The first entire sentence of the book lasts the entire first page and ends two lines onto the second. Who on earth writes like this? Salman Rushdie. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s stream-of-consciousness. It’s something I studied but could never do myself. This was the work of a master.
Can I tell you? Can I really say how much I love this book and confess how few pages I’ve read? I’m on page 12. I’m writing prematurely primarily to prepare myself for the rest of the book. I have no idea where this will all lead and it’s so exciting.
I can see why he won the Nobel Prize.