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Kaddish for a Child Not Born
by Imre Kertész; translated by Christopher C. and Katharina M. Wilson
Evanston, Illinois: HydraBooks/Northwestern University Press, 2002
(95 pages; $14.95, paperback)
reviewed by Graeme Hunter
The narrator of this slim, powerful novella, identified only as B, is a writer born into a Jewish family in Budapest and snatched from thence into Auschwitz. There the terrible ovens transform the meaning of his life (and every life) into smoke. Without ever departing from the first person, B nevertheless calls forth a polyphony of other voices in this piecemeal retrospective of a life constructed around a negation of life.
Imre Kertész1, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature, begins Kaddish with an assertive “NO,” followed by an explanation of what the narrator is trying to negate. The NOs recur at regular emphatic intervals in a story that resembles (at least in form) the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning and T. S. Eliot, disclosing the inner thoughts of its narrator, often more than he realizes.
In theme and style Kaddish was inspired by one of the most famous and disturbing poems of postwar Germany, Paul Celan’s Fugue of Death. In the book, as in the poem, themes and voices weave together in counterpoint and come apart again to bring home the narrator’s vision of the Holocaust’s hideous tale. There are no breaks in the telling. It must be read at a single sitting. The closest thing to subdivisions are the occasions on which the tired narrator rouses himself to utter yet another NO.
We slowly discover the reason for this strident negativity. B is addressing someone who, though non-existent, nevertheless has a certain claim upon him. The denials are shouted at a child—his own child—who, by the narrator’s choice, will never be born. “Like a malignant sickness a question began to take distinct shape within me: ‘Were you to be a dark-eyed little girl? With pale spots of scattered freckles around your little nose? Or a stubborn boy? With cheerful, hard eyes like blue-gray pebbles?’” These are the possible children that B refuses—B and his ex-wife, who became his ex-wife for desiring to bring these children into being.
The refusal of life, especially new life, encloses B within the meaningless world of his work. He deals in words that never issue in meaning. He describes his writing task, therefore, in a phrase from Celan’s Fugue of Death, as “digging my grave in the air,” evoking those lives that drifted away like smoke from the death-camp chimneys.
There are two reasons why the narrator can never allow such a tragedy as the birth of his child. First, because “one can never recover from Auschwitz, no one can ever recover from the Auschwitz malady.” And this B affirms despite some redemptive factors he has to acknowledge. He admits having seen real goodness at Auschwitz and even having experienced it himself. He recalls how, when he was sick, one of the still ambulatory skeletons in the camp got the chance to get double food rations by stealing B’s. Extra rations often meant the difference between survival and death. Yet instead of taking B’s rations, the other prisoner risked his life to bring them to where B lay. And then there was the indescribable joy of liberation, “the flavour of an unforgettably sweet and cautious experience of a life regained.”
But neither epiphany of goodness could restore what the ovens had consumed. Nothing could return to B the ability to be a Jew. That is his second reason for refusing life to his child. B had not wanted to be a Jew. Indeed, he had barely known he was one until they informed him by taking him for extermination. He comes to associate being Jewish with an event from his childhood, when he had crept undetected into the room of one of his aunts and seen her in a red dressing gown staring into a mirror. He saw with loathing that she was bald. This sight and the feeling of disgust it evokes later comes to define for him his Jewishness: “I was: a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror.”
This tale is so frankly autobiographical that there is no danger in stepping out of it for a moment and into the life of the author. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Kertész made it plain that he sees in Auschwitz not just the end of Judaism as an authentic religious existence but also the end of the Christian civilization of the West. He said: “I discovered in the Holocaust the human condition, the last stage of a great adventure at which Europeans have arrived after two thousand years of culture and morality.”
And so there can be no children.
Because I couldn’t give you anything: no explanation, no faith, no ammunition, for my Jewishness means nothing to me or, more precisely, it means nothing as Jewishness, abstractly speaking; as experience it means everything, as Jewishness it means: a bald woman in a red robe in front of the mirror; as experience it means my life or rather my survival, a spiritual form of existence which I live and which I maintain and which suffices for me; I am perfectly content with this much; the question is, though, whether or not he/she/you would be content with it.
A kaddish is a Jewish ritual prayer. This one by Kertész is frightening, disjoined from the God to whom prayer must be rendered, and it is offered instead as an incantation to make a possible child into an impossibility. The novella also articulates the wordless kaddish of a generation alienated from Judaism, from Christianity, and from life itself by the death camps. This generation must be heard respectfully. From a literary point of view, there is no more respectful hearing than that symbolized by the awarding of the Nobel Prize.
It is true that Auschwitz sets before us this day (and every day) life and death. But with the passing of Kertész’s generation the voice bidding us to choose life may once again become more audible. We may hear, for example, the voice of the Catholic theologian of the last century, Henri de Lubac, who saw in Auschwitz the culmination not of Christian history but of atheistic modernity.
Although Kaddish is as far as can be from sentimentality, it ends on this note that shakes our emotions:
Once, when I was waiting for my former wife in the usual coffeehouse, she came in leading two children by the hand. A dark-eyed girl with pale dots of scattered freckles around her little nose and a stubborn boy with hard eyes like grayish blue pebbles. “Say hello to the gentleman,” she told them.
Perhaps the post-Auschwitz generation will be able to hear more in this passage than is audible to B.
1. Imre Kertész was born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1929 and describes himself as a non-believing Jew. Unbelief did not save him from being swept into Auschwitz at the age of 15, and from there to Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in 1945.
Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.