In book reviews one is often tempted to pass judgment on authors, handing out scores as if they were Olympic gymnasts and criticizing bits of their “act”. Did they stick the landing? Did they move too fast? Did they do two and a half tumbles or only two and a quarter? But this is not an objective matter and it is hard to know how to take another person’s response to a book, especially without even knowing that person and their background and what they themselves brought to the reading of that particular book at that particular time in their life. Most of the reviews I have seen of Fatelessness tell me more about the reviewers than about the book.
Here we have a narration told from the perspective of a youth – a Hungarian lad of fourteen – who is unexpectedly and ignorantly dragged off to the Nazi concentration camps at the height of World War Two. The story proceeds systematically, somewhat like a journal, transcribing the salient features of this series of events as they present themselves in the memory of the later, older self who wrote it down.
What strikes this youth most forcefully are the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter, toilets, showers, queues, waiting, sleep, comfort, boredom and time. Clearly this is how it would be. There are no heroics here, no grand pronouncements, none of the trappings of so-called art (suspense, climax, release), only the bare bones of existence, which, by the end, are all this boy is left with. He compares the different concentration camps on these bases, by the thickness of the soup, by the hardness and portions of the bread. There is time and plenty of it, but only a few moments here and there which make all the difference: to lie about his age at a critical juncture, to lay still in bed rather than speak up at a certain time. These moments are the difference between continuing to exist, and not.
The most chilling scenes, to me, are when he describes the people at Auschwitz, herded into lines, facing the instant and irrevocable judgment of some arbitrary Nazi, and they behave exactly like anybody waiting in any line anywhere, getting themselves ready, even looking forward to their moment in the spotlight, having no idea of what may lay beyond it. We are all of us the people in that line.
When the camps are liberated, this poor, wounded, stripped down soul is left to drift and wonder when the soup will finally arrive.