Pathos of Auschwitz emanates through 'Liquidation'

Books

October 31, 2004|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Liquidation by Imre Kertesz. Knopf. 130 pages. $22.

Imre Kertesz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002 for "writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history."

A Hungarian Jew, Kertesz was 14 when he was sent to Auschwitz and is thus no stranger to barbaric arbitrariness. Nor are his characters, often survivors of the concentration camp whose name is emblematic of man's inhumanity to man.

As in his earlier works, Fateless and Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Liquidation situates Auschwitz throughout the novel as a motif and explosively, at its finale. Liquidation is told predominantly through the vantage point of Kingbitter, an editor in a state-run publishing house in Eastern Bloc Europe in 1990. With Communism crumbling, resistance will soon be redundant; freedom seems tantalizingly close.

Kingbitter is both literary executor of and best friend to B, to whom Kingbitter is devoted almost to the point of pathology. A writer of incomparable depth and a virtual seer in Kingbitter's perception, B has another unique trait: he was born in Auschwitz, his name taken from the letter tattooed on his infant thigh after his birth in the camp.

Kingbitter, suicidal and with his life in tatters from a brief foray in prison after defying authorities over a manuscript, turns to B for both explication and validation of his prison experience. In one of this always-startling novel's most stunning scenes, Kingbitter relates how he felt when he feared he would be tortured after he refused to become an informer for the state. He admits that had he been tortured, he would likely have agreed to inform. That knowledge haunts him.

B tells him, "You shouldn't allow yourself to get in situations like that. You shouldn't allow yourself to know who you are."

Kingbitter reflects that he will never forget the conversation, nor the feelings of intense moral and physical vulnerability that led to the exchange. B reveals to Kingbitter his theory that Evil is the overarching life principle in which Good can only triumph through death.

It's heady stuff, philosophically and morally, made more so by the fact that Kertesz begins his novel with B's suicide. B, the survivor, led a far darker life than Kingbitter apprehended. His suicide (the reasons and means revealed in stunning twists over the course of the novel) shatters the lives of all who were close to him: Kingbitter, B's lover, B's former wife and her new husband, B's friends. Kingbitter, seeking a coda to B's life, becomes obsessed with finding the novel that he believes B wrote before his death.

Through an intricate and complex narrative that includes a multiplicity of narrative shifts as well as styles (B's play Liquidation is woven into the text; so is B's original poem version of it as are other works by B), Kertesz layers Liquidation with polemic and pathos: There is real tragedy here. Alienation and anomie plague B and, by extension, Kingbitter. B's ex-wife, Judit, the daughter of concentration camp survivors, desperately wants a child, but B (like the characters in Fateless and Kaddish) cannot in good conscience allow a child of his to be born into a world "full of murderers," a world that could divine Auschwitz.

The camp is the shadow that falls over every aspect of their lives.

Liquidation (the almost palpably clever title refers to aspects of the characters' lives, as well as to the Nazis' Final Solution) illumines why Kertesz won the Nobel. In this brilliant, difficult and intensely moving novel, Kertesz declares Evil pervasive, joy almost unbearable in a world riven by Auschwitz. The Nobel Academy noted, "For Kertesz, Auschwitz is not an exceptional occurrence. It is the ultimate truth about human degradation in modern experience."

In Liquidation, his most exquisite rendering yet of the consequences of the Holocaust, Kertesz explores what it is to embrace love in the face of horror, to access joy amid suffering and annihilation.

Provocative and chilling, Liquidation is every bit the novel for our dark and terroristic times.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books and writes for many national publications. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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