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German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

November 11, 2018 24 comments

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. (2012) French title: Le tabac Tresniek. Translated from the German (Austria) by Elisabeth Landes.

The Tobacconist is my first read for German Lit Month organized by Caroline and Lizzy. I’m not sure I need to introduce this novel as it has been reviewed numerous times.

The young Franz Huchel is sent from his village on the Attersee in Upper Austria to work as an apprentice at a tobacconist in Vienna. The owner, Otto Tresniek is an old friend of Franz’s mother and has accepted to take him under his wing.

Franz arrives in Vienna at the end of the summer 1937, a few months before the Anschluss. He stays with Otto Tresniek and is introduced to the tobacconist-newsdealer trade. He learns about the different kind of cigarettes and cigars and slowly gets used to reading all the newspapers everyday as a proper newsdealer should, in Otto Tresniek’s mind.

Up to that stage of the book, I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the Salzkammergut region were nice, it looked like a good coming-of-age novel in troubled times. We’re in page 43 in my French edition when Sigmund Freud enters the story and everything went downhill from there.

I disliked that Robert Seethaler felt he needed the crutch of a larger-than-life character like Freud to give substance to his story. He had a good start, why were anonymous Vienna inhabitants not enough to hold the story?

Then Franz spends a Sunday at the Prater amusement park, gets acquainted with a mysterious girl who disappears on him. This part was nice and should have ended there, as a lesson learned for young Franz. But he becomes obsessed with this girl, talks about love with Freud and decides to look for her. He finds her, her name is Aneszka and she comes from Bohemia. That thread peters out oddly and suddenly we leave his angst and Aneszka behind without really understanding why.

In the background, the Nazis take power in Austria, in the country but in the minds too. The tobacconist is attacked, the Nazi dictatorship settles in the country and the first visible deaths arrive. But to me, that part wasn’t convincing either. There is no real exploration either of what happens to the country on a political level or on what it does on people’s everyday lives. There are hints but not built well enough to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

The Tobacconist felt like a series of missed opportunities. To picture Vienna in 1937. To dissect how the Nazi took power in Austria. To show how a young country boy adapted to the big city and to the political context. To recreate the life of ordinary people in the Vienna of that time.

There are good ideas in this book but for me, they didn’t click together and made a convincing puzzle. And, as you can see, I have no quote to share because I didn’t highlight anything in the book. If you’ve read The Tobacconist, I hope you’ll share your opinion about it in the comments, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

For more enthusiastic reviews, see Lisa’s here and Susanna’s here.

The Kites (Les cerfs-volants) by Romain Gary

April 29, 2018 19 comments

The Kites by Romain Gary (1980) Original French title: Les cerfs-volants.

The Kites is a novel by Romain Gary translated by Miranda Richmond-Mouillot. Although it was published in French in 1980, its English version was only released end of 2017. I am crazy enough about this writer to have ordered the English translation of a book I’m perfectly able to read in the original. I wanted to see how the translation was, how the translator managed to give back Gary’s peculiar style. All the English translations in this billet are by Ms Richmond-Mouillot.

Lisa from ANZ LitLovers and I decided to read The Kites along. With time difference between Australia and France, her review is already available and as I write these lines, I haven’t read it.

The Kites starts in 1930 and ends just after WWII. Ludovic Fleury lives in Cléry, a small village in Normandy. He’s an orphan who lives with his uncle Ambrose. Ambrose is a bachelor, a postman with a passion for kites. He makes wonderful kites that sing the beauty of life and feature the great names of French history, be it literary or political. He’s famous for them and he became quite an attraction in the neighborhood. Ambrose’s friend Marcellin Duprat runs a gourmet restaurant, Le Clos Joli. Tourists go to Cléry to have a wonderful meal at the Clos Joli and see Ambrose’s artistic kites.

Ambrose is a full-on Republican, someone who values the heroes of the French Republic. He celebrates them through his kites and he passes this vision on to Ludo. The young boy is the product of the Third Republic, educated in the public school-system. From a very young age, Ludo is attached to historical figures and suffers from too much memory. He remembers too much and he’s able to do complex calculation in his head or to remember lists of numbers, something that will prove helpful for clandestine activities.

In 1930, Ludovic is 10 when he meets Lila Bronicka for the first time. She’s the daughter of a Polish aristocrat who owns an estate near Cléry. Ludovic is bewitched by Lila.  Victim of his infallible memory, he will wait for her return during four years. He’s totally and irrevocably in love with her.

Lila returns to Cléry with her family, her German cousin Hans von Schwede and their protégé Bruno. Ludo befriends Lila and her brother Tad. Things are more complicated with Hans and Bruno who are also in love with her. Ludo is invited to their estate and gets to know her and her family. In the 1930s, Lila spends all her summers in Cléry and their love relationship grows. Meanwhile, Ludo works as Count Bronicki’s secretary. In 1939, Ludo goes to Poland to spend the summer at Lila’s and he’s still there when WWII starts.

How will Ludo and Lila survive this war? You’ll have to read the book to discover it.

The Kites is a typical love story by Romain Gary. Absolute. Irrevocable. Made of mutual imagination and unbreakable bonds. As Lila explains to Ludo:

Je comprends qu’on meure d’amour, parce que parfois, c’est tellement fort, que la vie n’arrive pas à tenir le coup, elle craque. Tu verras, je te donnerai des livres où ça arrive. I understand dying of love, because sometimes it’s so strong that life can’t withstand it, it snaps. You’ll see, I’ll give you books where that happens. (chapter 6 p37/38)

When Lila and Ludo are adolescent, they try to imagine their future. And Lila’s words reflect Gary’s vision of youth.

Je peux encore tout rater, disait Lila, je suis assez jeune pour ça. Quand on vieillit, on a de moins en moins de chances de tout rater parce qu’on n’a plus le temps, et on peut vivre tranquillement avec ce qu’on a raté déjà. C’est ce qu’on entend par « paix de l’esprit ». Mais quand on n’a que seize an et qu’on peut encore tout tenter et ne rien réussir, c’est ce qu’on appelle en général « avoir de l’avenir »… “I can still fail at everything,” Lila was saying. “I’m young enough. When you get old you have less and less opportunity to mess everything up because you run out of time, so you can live an untroubled life and be happy with what you’ve already made a mess of. That’s what they mean by ‘peace of mind’. But when you’re only sixteen you can still try everything and fail at it all, that’s what they usually call ‘having your future ahead of you.’” (chapter 8 – p55/56)

Youth is when everything’s still possible and risky. In his eyes, old age is not a time to take advantage of your past experiences but more a time to mourn the loss of possibilities. Time is running out and nothing daring can come out of it.

The Kites is more than Ludo and Lila’s challenging relationship. It’s an homage to the Resistance. Romain Gary joined the Resistance early in 1940 and his novel is an opportunity to mention names and places, a way to give them immortality through literature. As Lisa pointed out, historical details don’t fit. It doesn’t matter because it is not a historical novel. It’s a way to mention heroes from the time and especially the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon where the pastor André Trocmé and other villagers helped to save Jewish children.

The war time in The Kites is also a time to ask ourselves “What is it to be human?” After the horrors of WWII, how do we reconcile the concept of human with all this inhumanity? Inhumanity was so widespread that it must mean that it’s hidden away in each of us. How do we know if we’ll be able to chain this wild beast if dire times happened? Inhumanity is part of humanity and this war made us learn this lesson.

I cannot write about Gary without mentioning his witty style. It brings a lightness to the story, a little spring in his sentences. Despite its serious themes, it’s told with a unique sense of humor and a lot of cultural and popular references. He uses the French language in his own way, mixing expressions, thinking out of the box, putting codes upside down.

Il ne s’agissait pas de ce que j’allais faire de ma vie mais de ce qu’une femme allait faire de la mienne. It was not a question of what I would do with in life, but what a woman was going to do with mine. (chapter 17, p102)

Miranda Richmond-Mouillot did an excellent translation of Gary’s voice. Here’s the perfect example of her excellent interpretation of Gary’s mind:

En réalité, avec le genre d’esprit que tu as, mon cher frère, tu devrais être garçon de bains : tu aimes tellement donner des douches froides ! Really, dear brother, with a sense of humor like, you should take up meteorology – you just love to rain on people’s parades! (chapter 8, p52)

She managed to translate the French play-on-words with an equally good pun in English. In American, I should say. We had a little exchange about that with Lisa who was complaining that the version published in Australia was not with Australian spelling. I objected that the translation was American, with American spelling and keeping ‘mustache’ instead of ‘moustache’ kept a certain consistency in the text. Gary’s French is full of colloquialisms with some swear words. I’m not an English-speaking native but from where I stand, the differences between English and American are a lot more visible in colloquial language. And I’m not sure that an English translator would have translated putain de merde by goddammit. What do English speaking readers think about this?

Another thing about the translation. It’s not the first time that I noticed it but a level of informal language seems to be missing in English compared to French. There’s no English equivalent for words like ‘bouquin’ (book), ‘godasses’ (shoes) or ‘bagnole’ (car). It’s not vulgar, it’s warmly informal. These words convey affection of the things they refer to. It’s too bad because it brings warmth to someone’s tone. Miranda Richmond-Mouillot can’t do anything about this and her translation of Gary is still remarkable compared to the original.

The Kites has another dimension, a more personal one for Gary. I think that Ludo’s love for Lila is a representation for Gary’s love for France, his adoptive country, that Lila is a personification of France and that The Kites, Gary’s last book mirrors Education européenne, Gary’s first book. This is a trail I can’t explore without spoilers. I will write about it in another billet, you’ll be free to read it or not. I know that at least Lisa will read it.

A last word about the book covers I included in my billet. I think the American one is the best. It’s an excellent representation of the book with the kites, the French flag, the Lorraine cross representing the Resistance and Lila’s face on a kite. It’s perfect. The French one with the postman is my old edition and it represents uncle Ambrose and his kites. It gives a good idea of the humorous thread of the book and of its “Douanier-Rousseau” vibe but leaves out Ludo and Lila, the main protagonists. The other French one is terrible: it’s only Lila as a femme fatale and The Kites is a tale, told by a story-teller and the naïve tone of the narration is totally missing, just as the kites and their symbolic value is left behind.

I hope this billet will prompt you to read The Kites, a lovely book by my favorite writer.

Fête du livre de Bron – Bron Book Fair : A certain M. Désérable

March 11, 2018 23 comments

The 31th Fête du Livre de Bron was from March 7th to March 11th. It’s dedicated to contemporary literature and this year I was interested in hearing François-Henri Désérable talk about his book A Certain M. Piekielny. (See my billet about it here)

His book – I don’t know if I can call it a novel or if it the term autofiction fits, I’m never good with literary boxes—relates his investigation about M. Piekielny, a character mentioned by Romain Gary in the 7th chapter of his fictionalized autobiographical novel Promise at Dawn. At the time he was a little boy still named Roman Kacew.

It was a very interesting interview, F-H Désérable is an entertaining guest, always quoting one author or the other and gracing us with a scintillating conversation with Christine Ferniot, the journalist in charge of this interview.

The discussion turned around fiction and reality, how literature could give life and immortality to people. He said he can only write books based upon real events, real characters. According to him, the frontier between fiction and reality is porous. Some characters from novels sound truer than life, it is said that on his death bed, Balzac called the doctor he had created in his books. Writers can embark us on a journey they never made themselves and it still feels real. Real persons can cross the line and wander on the side of fiction.

As I mentioned in my billet, while researching M. Piekielny, F-H Désérable brings back the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno in the 1920s, when Gary lived there. This world has disappeared and as he puts it, the Nazis destroyed the people, the Soviets destroyed their architectural heritage. Nothing visible remains of them in Vilnius.

But literature has this power. It only needs a pen and a sheet of paper, as far as Gary was concerned and a computer, as far as Désérable is concerned to give birth or leave a testimony of a whole world. Both writers saved from oblivion the Piekielnies of Wilno. Fleeting memories become solid when written down and printed. They are there, they stay with us, they won’t let us forget them. As F-H Désérable pointed out, it is only thanks to literature that we were all in this room, talking about people who died during WWII and thus acknowledging their existence and their horrible untimely death. I think that’s why dictators are often afraid of books.

The journalist asked how he worked on his style, how he liberated himself from Gary’s presence to find his own voice. He explained that it was a difficult book to write, at the beginning. He wanted to digress. He thought about Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano, a writer he admires a lot. For our great pleasure, he stopped the self-censorship and gave himself permission to digress. He also felt that his natural tone was too casual, too flippant for such a grave topic as the destruction of Wilno’s Jewish ghetto. He’s right to say that this tone was possible because it’s something Gary mastered at. Humor was an armor and a weapon to overcome the atrocities of life and to prove that humanity was above them because even in terrible circumstances, it kept its sense of humor.

Gary committed suicide in 1980. F-H Désérable thinks that he did it because he had lost faith in the power of literature and that since life and literature were so entwined in his life, one couldn’t go one without faith in the other. That’s a way to see it.

Un certain M. Piekielny was also a personal journey for its author. It was an opportunity for him to wonder why he was so drawn to Promise at Dawn when he was seventeen. His conclusion is that his mother is kacewian, that she belongs to the same category of mothers as Mina Kacew, Gary’s mother. I guess mine could fit in this category as well.

It was a fascinating hour with a very young writer (He was born in 1987) who said he became a writer to have a professional justification to all the time he spends reading. His broad culture is humbling, I wonder how he managed to know all this when he’s so young.

There was a signing after the conference and I was determined to talk to him, to tell him how much I loved his book. I raced down to the alcove where he was settling and was happy to be the one and only there when I arrived. I started gushing about his book and dared to tell him that if he wanted to read what I thought about it, he could read it on my blog. I slipped him my Book Around the Corner card and he glanced at it and exclaimed: “It’s you!” I was stunned to discover that he had read my billet and had transferred it to the person in charge of negotiating the rights for the English translation of his novel. His publisher, the prestigious Gallimard, has sold the rights for a translation in ten languages and they can’t find a publisher willing to translate it into English. *Sigh* You Anglophone people should really work on spreading the love of literature in translation.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to chat a little bit with him and I was happy to discover someone very approachable and friendly. I really, really hope that they find an English translator for his book.

Of course, there’s no book fest without adding to the TBR. I wandered in the festival library and benefited from a friend’s knowledge of Arabic literature to get new books and I got two Australian books as well.

If you’ve read any of these books, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and a link to your review.

A Certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable

February 4, 2018 11 comments

Un certain M. Piekielny by François-Henri Désérable. (2017) Not available in English.

Romain Gary is my favorite writer and this is no breaking news for regular readers of this blog. I won’t write about his biography and literary career as I would repeat myself. For newcomers, there’s my Reading Romain Gary page and Wikipedia and there’s this extraordinary article from The New Yorker.

In France, Romain Gary is a beloved writer. One we sometimes study in class. One whose books are made into plays or into graphic novels or into special illustrated editions. One whose books make full display tables in bookshops.

François-Henri Désérable is a young writer born in 1987, seven years after Gary’s death. He used to play professional hockey, which makes him stand out here in France. The hockey league is not as prestigious as the NHL. Here, hockey is an unusual sport for children to play. I’m not even sure you can watch games on TV when it’s not the Olympic games time.

So François-Henri Désérable loves hockey and unsurprisingly, one of his friends wanted to have his stag party in Minsk, Belorussia during a hockey tournament. Four of them were going but there were only three plane tickets left for a direct flight to Minsk. Désérable decided to take a flight to Vilnius, Lithuania and to catch a train to Minsk from there. The Gary fan is already swooning: what? A trip to Vilnius, formerly called Wilno, where Gary spent his childhood? Lucky him.

Désérable got robbed in Vilnius and didn’t have any money or proper identity papers to continue his travels. He stayed in Vilnius, explored Gary’s old neighborhood and thought about a passage in Promise at Dawn. Gary mentions that his mother kept telling their neighbors that he’d be famous one day. None took her seriously but M. Piekielny. Gary explains in his autobiographical-fictional novel that this man once took him apart and asked him to tell these great people he would meet that at number 16 of Grande-Pohulanka, in Wilno used to live M. Piekielny. Gary reports that he kept his promise. Désérable decides to investigate this M. Piekielny and takes us with him as he tries to find out if that man really existed and what happened to him.

This simple idea turned into a triple trip.

It became a historical research because Gary was Jewish and used to live in the Jewish neighborhood of Wilno. And the ghetto was destroyed by the Nazis during the Summer 1941. Désérable compares Wilno’s Jewish neighborhood to Pompeii.

Je commençais à comprendre qu’il n’y avait pas seulement le temps, mais aussi l’espace qui jouait contre moi. La Jérusalem de Lituanie avait été à sa façon ensevelie sous les cendres, mais elle avait eu la guerre pour Vésuve, et comme nuée ardente l’Allemagne nazie puis l’Union soviétique. Et si l’on voulait connaitre son apparence – ou tout du moins s’en faire une idée – avant l’éruption de l’été 1941, on était réduit à la reconstituer mentalement, comme ces temples romains dans Pompéi dont on ne peut qu’imaginer la splendeur, recomposant en esprit architraves, frises et corniches à partir des vestiges de quelques colonnes amputées des deux tiers. I was starting to understand that not only time was against me but so was space. The Jerusalem of Lithuania had been buried in ashes in its own way. Its Vesuvius had been the war and its glowing clouds had been Nazi Germany followed by the Soviet Union. If one wanted to know its appearance before the eruption of the Summer 1941 – or more exactly to make up a picture of it– one was doomed to piece it together in his head, like these temples in Pompeii whose splendor can only be imagined by reconstructing in your mind all their architraves, friezes and moldings from the vestiges of a few columns amputated by two thirds.  

The inhabitants were killed and their lives, their neighborhood disappeared. Wilno was erased and the contemporary Vilnius has only a few traces of its once vivid Jewish heritage. This part of the book is poignant as Désérable digs into archives and reminds us how the entire part of a country’s culture was annihilated.

from Wikipedia

The historical journey is coupled with a literary one. It turns out that Vilnius has a statue of Gary as a child in the street he used to live in. They even have a Romain Gary club who helped Désérable in his quest. His investigation leads him into digging into Gary’s biography. Promise at Dawn is not entirely reliable, so nothing says that the information about M. Piekielny is true. Did he really exist? Gary was a great inventor, an illusionist. Everything has the appearance of the truth, but he twisted it way he saw it fit. Désérable knows it but decides to play around it. Looking for M. Piekielny is an opportunity to immerse himself in Gary’s life, to reread his books and bios about him.

And all along, it’s also a personal journey for Désérable as a writer and as a man. He loves Romain Gary. He admires his writing, but he also feels a personal connection to him. Like Gary, François-Henri Désérable doesn’t have the background of the average Frenchman of his age. He spent a year playing hockey in Minnesota as a teenager before coming back to finish his high school years in Amiens. Spending a year in the USA and playing such an exotic sport make him already stand out.

He also mentions some parallels about their mothers. Like Mina, Gary’s mother, Désérable’s mother also had great things in mind for her son. He had to study law and contrary to his father, she was not so fond of the hockey career. She says that he has a name that sounds like a writer’s name, even to my ears. It’s elegant, the François-Henri sounding old erudite France, like the François-René in Chateaubriand’s name. Désérable is a vowel from désirable. Like Mina, his mother expects him to be successful to live vicariously through him and feel successful in raising him.

That’s what he says. But who knows if this autobiographical part of the novel is totally true. He may be playing with details like his mentor.

Un certain M. Piekielny is an amazing novel right in the continuity of Gary’s work. It’s witty, well-written and it has the flavor of Promise at Dawn. It brings back Gary’s past to life and the horror of the extermination of Jews, not through the horrors of the camps but through the horrors of making a whole civilization and way-of-life disappear. It shows WWII in another angle, something Gary did in his work. How does Humanity survive to such a level of hatred and self-destruction? What did it mean at human level, to be part of that time?

It’s also a wonderful trip through Gary’s multiple lives and literary career. And last but not least, it was a sort of coming-of-age novel for Désérable himself. It’s written in a tone that Gary would have approved of but the substance is a lot like Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan.

Un certain M. Piekielny was nominated for the Prix Goncourt in 2017. I wish it had won, for François-Henri Désérable himself and his knack at writing a funny, multi-layered book but also for Romain Gary who would have vicariously won a third Goncourt. I imagine him grinning mischievously from beyond the grave, happy to get even with the literary intelligentsia.

Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clézio

December 16, 2015 14 comments

Wandering Star by J.M.G Le Clézio (1992) Original French title: Etoile errante.

LeClézio_Etoile_erranteWandering Star is part of my #TBR20 project because it had been sitting on the shelf for a while and because I always need a little kick to start books about war and their consequences.

Wandering Star starts in 1943. Esther is 13. She’s Jewish and living as a refugee in a little village in the mountains near Nice, France. The Italians have the power on this territory and a whole Jewish community is settled in this village. Esther is in hiding and calls herself Hélène. Her father is with the Resistance and men pass through their house. The Germans arrive and the Jews flee to Italy through the mountains. Esther’s father disappears. After the war, Esther and her mother take the boat to settle in a newly founded country, Israel.

During her first months in Israel in 1948, Esther briefly sees Nejma, a Palestinian on her way to the Nur Shams refugee camp. Then, Le Clézio switches of point of view and Nejma tells us her story.

Wandering Star is the story of two young women, one uprooted by the Holocaust and the other by the foundation of the state of Israel.

The first part is rather bucolic –a little too much for my taste. Despite the war lurking above Esther’s life, she’s still a teenager, running around with other adolescents, experiencing her first attraction to boys. Being in this village is the first time she is uprooted. They used to live in Nice, by the sea and now they’re in the mountains. Esther will never stop being uprooted as her life takes her from France to Italy, to France and Israel. Her whole life will be influenced by war, in Europe first and in Israel later.

Esther’s journey to Israel and her first months there are full of dangers and uncertainty. Nejma’s circumstances are not better as Le Clézio depicts her life in Nur Shams. Life is dreadful there. People starve, die from various diseases in total indifference. I didn’t know this camp still existed. It was created in the 1930s by the British as a detention camp. According to Wikipedia, in 2007, 6479 people lived in Nur Sham. That’s the size of a small town. Some people have probably spent their whole life in what should be a transitory place. How do you grow up, live your life, feel grounded when you live in a place designed as a place of transit?

The reader switches from Esther to Nejma, follows their destiny. Le Clézio isn’t judging anything or anyone. This is not a political novel in the strict sense. He’s not picking a side, just showing the results of political choices and ideologies on the life of common people. There’s no gradation in misery; he’s not trying to say that Esther’s misfortunes are sadder or worse than Nejma’s or the other way round. He remains factual but not clinical. His writing has a lyrical side that emphasizes the horror of the situations he describes. It’s like a beautiful soundtrack on war images. It’s at odds with the hardship he’s showing us with his pen.

As in LullabyLe Clézio has a real sense of place and describes marvelously the nature of the Mediterranean region. The sun, the light, the sea, the wind. The characters make one with nature, they are influenced by the elements. The sun is either a caress or a burn. The wind whips them or tempers the heat of the sun. Nature has a permanence which is in contradiction with the uprooted lives of his characters.

I finished Wandering Star with a knot in my stomach because it puts the life and the feelings of refugees at human size. And when this come down from the generalities shown on TV to a more personal encounter, be it with a fictional character, it’s always a punch in the face. Granted, this is not fun to read but it’s Worth it. For the Nejmas who still suffer in Nur Shams, for the memory of the Jews who lost their country and their families in the Holocaust and for Le Clézio’s luminous prose.

Fatelessness or Fateless by Imre Kertész

September 30, 2015 33 comments

Fateless or Fatelessness by Imre Kertész (1975) French title: Etre sans destin. (Translated from the Hungarian by Natalia Zaremba-Huszai and Charles Zaremba.)

Il y a dans notre personnalité un domaine, qui, comme je l’ai appris est notre propriété perpétuelle et inaliénable. As I discovered later, there is a place in our personality that forever and inalienably belongs to us.

Fateless or Fatelessness is a novel based upon Imre Kertész’s experience at Buchenwald. I’m not keen on reading books about concentration camps, as I find them hard to bear. Then Caroline picked it up for Literature and War Readalong and I decided it was time to give myself a kick and read it. (Her review is here)

KerteszIt starts like this… I didn’t go to school today. Or rather, I did go but only to ask my class teacher’s permission to take the day off. …and it propelled me to another novel that starts with Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I can’t be sure. (The Stranger by Albert Camus) A few short sentences that let you know the narrator’s world is about to change forever but that also set the tone of the narration. It’s not going to be warm; this person is aloof, hard to reach and blunt.

Köves György, the narrator of Fateless is a Jew from Budapest. He’s 15 when the bus he takes to go to work is hijacked and the passengers are sent to Auschwitz. He relates his journey from Budapest to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald until he comes back to Budapest after the liberation of the camps.

I’ve read two other books by survivors of concentration camps, If This Is a Man by Primo Levi (Auschwitz) and Literature or Life by Jorge Semprún. (Buchenwald). Fateless is an autobiographical novel and the other two are non-fiction. If we set aside the fiction / non-fiction part, the main difference with Fateless is that Levi and Semprún were grown men when they were deported and they were Resistants. They knew they were taking risks, they knew about camps and they knew why the Nazis would go after them.

Here, we have a coming-of-age novel about an adolescent who became a man too fast and in terrible circumstances. The book begins with the deportation of the narrator’s father to labor camp. The narrator is a bit annoyed to be retrieved from school to help with the preparation of his father’s departure. He’s a “normal” adolescent: selfish, interested in girls, unwilling to spend time with his family and not really interested in the news. He’s 15 and everybody wonders who they are at this age but for him, the angst takes another dimension. He’s is an assimilated Jew, doesn’t go to the synagogue, doesn’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew and he doesn’t understand why he’s different from other Hungarian citizens. The Nazis’ intrinsic hatred for Jews puzzles him. He looks at himself and wonders “why?”, “What substance am I made of to be ostracized that way?”

Later, he feels a sense of security when he’s given papers to go out of town and work in a factory. Legit papers seemed a good protection. But the whole bus full of Jews is taken by the Hungarian authorities in the summer 1944 and he’s shipped to Auschwitz. He relates the time spent in Budapest, waiting for their destination, the trip on the train without water, the arrival in Auschwitz, all the procedures he went through. Then he’s sent to Zeitz and eventually to Buchenwald.

The most unsettling thing about the novel is the narrator’s ignorance. He’s just a Jewish boy who doesn’t know much about Jewish religion, about the world. He definitely doesn’t know anything about concentration camps. At first, he’s even a bit excited about his adventure, until he gets to Auschwitz and he is enlightened by other prisoners about the workings of the camp and the gas chambers.

He relates the process to sort out the prisoners, the meticulous, well-oiled process. He goes through the motions and tells candidly what he sees, what he does, how his body is rapidly disintegrating under the harshness of the living conditions. His naiveté is baffling for the reader who knows better and reads between the lines. It emphasizes the horror of the camp. György’s descriptions show how the camps were so perfectly ruled, like efficient death factories. Sometimes he gives a full description of the bucolic countryside around the camps and the reader’s feeling of horror moves up another notch. The rampant question is always the same: How? How could this happen at this scale with this thorough and cold blooded savagery?

His tone is detached, focused on material things (food, clothes, showers, sleep). He’s reverted to basic needs. His detachment and his focusing on surviving take all his strength and willpower. He goes by, one day after the other, one step after the other.

C’est seulement à Zeitz que j’ai compris que la captivité a aussi ses jours ordinaires, et même que la véritable captivité se compose en fait exclusivement de grisaille quotidienne. It is only in Zeitz that I understood that captivity also has its ordinary days, and even that real captivity is exclusively made of the greyness of the quotidian.

Everything seems absurd and he goes with the flow. He’s not very likeable because his dehumanization seeps through his narration. The whole novel bathes in absurdity. I’ve read it’s a bit like The Castle by Kafka. It certainly is for the sheer absurdity of bureaucracy, for the blind and incomprehensible hatred for Jews. The narrator tries to understand what’s happening around him but he doesn’t get it. The absurdity is so total that the most surreal things seem natural. The more the book progresses, the more he punctuates his sentences with naturally. As if the most horrific things were natural in camps, and if course, they were as they had become the new normality. The difference of understanding between the boy and the reader enforces this impression of absurdity. And absurdity brings me back to Camus.

A word about the title. In English, it’s been translated as Fateless or Fatelessness. In French, it is Etre sans destin, which means To be fateless and A being without a fate. And György is both. His fate is ripped away from him.

J’essayais de regarder vers l’avant, mais l’horizon se limitait au lendemain, et le lendemain était le même jour, c’est-à-dire encore un jour parfaitement identique, dans le meilleur des cas, bien sûr. I tried to look forward but the horizon was limited to tomorrow and tomorrow was the same day, that is to say another perfectly identical day, in the best case scenario, of course.

While in Buchenwald, he can’t imagine his future, he doesn’t have one anymore. And when he comes home, the future he had no longer exists. This former fate has been taken from him. He can’t erase what happened to him, it shaped him into someone else, he can’t resume his former life and he doesn’t know what his new fate is. He’s fateless, left to face his fatelessness.

But for me, this fatelessness also refers to something else.

Wikipedia mentions that “Between 15 May and 9 July [1944], Hungarian authorities deported 437,402 Jews. All but 15,000 of these Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90% of those were immediately killed. One in three of all Jews killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian citizens.” György’s (and Kertész’s) survival is a miracle. His fate is sealed by chance. (Same thing for Levi and Semprún). When he arrives in Auschwitz, another prisoner makes him understand he needs to lie about his age and say he’s 16. He doesn’t know why but instinctively follows the advice. It saves his life. In Buchenwald, he ends up in the hospital and it saves his life too. At the beginning, one of the characters caught on the bus on the way to the factory keeps saying that he was going to see his mother, that he almost missed the bus, that he wouldn’t have been there if he had missed that bus and decided to go home instead of giving it a chance and try to catch it. Back to Camus again. Life is unpredictable. The events flow randomly and fate is against us. He ended up in Buchenwald but he could have escaped it or ended up in the Danube like other Jews from Budapest.

S’il y a un destin, la liberté n’est pas possible ; si, au contraire, ai-je poursuivi de plus en plus surpris et me piquant au jeu, si la liberté existe, alors il n’y a pas de destin, c’est-à-dire—je me suis interrompu, mais juste le temps de reprendre mon souffle—c’est-à-dire qu’alors nous sommes nous-mêmes le destin : c’est ce qu’à cet instant-là j’ai compris plus clairement que jamais. If there is a fate, then liberty isn’t possible. If, on the contrary, I said, more and more surprised and getting into it, if liberty exists, then there is no fate. That is to say—I stopped, just long enough to catch my breath—that is to say we are fate ourselves. That’s what I understood at that moment, with the greatest clarity.

Yes fate doesn’t exist or more exactly what we think as fate is a succession of tiny decisions, barely conscious sometimes, that change our route, our life. Even in this barbaric, dictatorial steamroller that what the organization of the Holocaust, the narrator did make decisions that changed his life, like lying about his age. As all of us, the narrator is fateless, his future is not determined by any superior being.

Here’s another review by Lisa.

DSC_1170Memorial of the Jews who were killed and thrown into the Danube during WWII in Budapest.

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