Kaddish For An Unborn Child by Imre Kertész
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Kaddish for an Unborn Child is truly worthy of its esteem, and Imre Kertesz is absolutely worthy of his Nobel Prize. I read the Wilkinson translation, unaware that there was another translation available. Now that I know it has been translated before, I am curious to see for myself how they differ in language, poetics and style.
I found the Wilkinson translation haunting, musical with a unique rhythm to its words. How do you describe something that is so perfectly beautiful? The stream-of-consciousness style of writing is difficult to digest (much like the story that is being told - it is not a glass of milk you swallow down easily; rather, it is more like something you need to crunch your way through), but nonetheless shows off what Kertesz ends up stating on the penultimate page (of my edition at least):
"During these years I became aware of my life, on the one hand as fact, on the other as a cerebral mode of existence, to be more precise, a certain mode of existence that would no longer survive, that did not wish to survive, indeed probably was not even capable of surviving survival, a life which nevertheless has its own demand, namely that it be formed..."
His emphatic "No!" which opens the book leads the reader to believe he is incapable of producing offspring. But as another reviewer noted, he does produce offspring - this book. It is written on paper, it is solid, and it brings to life every fear, every doubt, every thought and experience that leads him to write it in the first place.
The narrator talks about his experience at Auschwitz only briefly, despite many mentions of the concentration camp, through the story of "Teacher," another inmate who retrieved the narrator's rations when he was too ill to get them himself. He says that "Teacher's" act may have shortened "Teacher's" life, his existence, but it was the human thing for him to do - it was natural, it was benevolent, it was in extreme opposition to everything Auschwitz stood for. Auschwitz is a character in the novel, looming over all and seeking to destroy the humanity inside its walls. The survivor of the narrator foils Auschwitz, but his refusal to truly live and bring forth further life is almost an affirmation of it. However, despite his best efforts to justify his decision not to have children, his work becomes his child.
The most intriguing part of the novel is when the narrator finally talks about the relationship with his ex-wife. In this section of the book he really gets down to the dirty business of being a survivor who doesn't actually survive. It seems desolate, hopeless, and maybe that is truly what he has become. In the end I was left with sadness, knowing he never truly survived Auschwitz, but relief that this work sprang from the experience.
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