Great Book: Fateless by Imre Kertesz

It didn't occur to me until I finished this book and read the author bio (Nobel laureate 2002) that this work about the Holocaust might be on the Great Books List. And it is, because all the works of all the Nobel Laureates are included. That makes this the first Great Book I have read by mistake.

Fateless was this month's selection of the Jewish Book Group I've joined. It's the story of a 15 year old Hungarian Jew who is sent to Buchenwald.

It's a frightening story not because of the horrors he witnesses but because it's so believable. I connected with it more than any other holocaust novel I've read. I recognized many of my own least favorite personality traits in Gyorg, the protagonist, who clings to his rationizations as long as possible.

At the outset of the book he is still ensconced in his regular life in Budapest. His father is about to go to a concentration camp, but Gyorg reacts with the lack of feeling common to the teeange self-centered mindset - in fact, the first half of the book reminded me strongly of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon, which features a compassionless autistic teenage protagonist.

Gyorg's father leaves. His life goes on. Until the bus he takes to work is stopped one morning and all the Jews are told to get off.

As the German machine grinds slowly onward, gathering Gyorg's friends and various other innocents in its maw, he clings to his sense of denial as long as possible. There's never a moment where he despairs or rages or fears for his life. Instead he expects his German captors to be reasonable and makes every allowance, mentally, for them. His arc from aspiring model prisoner to desperate near-animal is a short one, hinging on food; starvation and injury turn off that over-active brain before he can plumb any emotional depths.

Gyorg is lucky. He is assigned to a medical division (in a way I don't really understand) and survives the camps. He returns home at the end of the war an empty shell. The only thing he is sure of is that there is no logic or ulterior meaning to the world; there is no fate; it's just putting one foot in front of the other until you die.

A bleak book. Too believable for comfort.

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