Meaningless(ness): The Question of Trauma

Gosh. It’s so hard to write about Holocaust literature sometimes. (Says the girl who wrote a 30-page paper on Holocaust literature) It’s just that even though they are all different and they’re all unique, Holocaust memories/stories are generally all the same (like I said before). What I’ve noticed is that (hopefully without this turning into the start of some thesis/analysis of common themes in Holocaust literature) many Holocaust writers deal with the question of trauma: how to deal with its aftermath, how to describe it to outsiders, and what to do with the traumatic experience.

What sets Fatelessness apart, I think, is how Imre Kertész has his narrator deal with trauma. The whole time he is a prisoner, the boy muses on what has put in him the concentration camp and what is happening to him. I think the most powerful part of the book is when he returns home. He begins to encounter people who have only heard of the “horrors” of the concentration camps. They can’t understand him.

A rhetoric-driven reporter wants him to tell all about the “hell” he lived through. Basically, what the boy winds up saying is, “What hell?” Further, the family and friends he returns to also can’t make sense of what has happened to him. They want to know if he is going to move, or how he will start a new life and move on from the Holocaust.

In Which I Go On A Senior Paper-Related Tangent

This seems to be a common thing in the Holocaust books I’ve read. The writers are always struggling with how to tell their stories, to whom to tell their stories, and which stories are best left untold and, eventually, forgotten. Further, there is the trouble that no one can truly know what the Holocaust was like unless they lived through it. No story, narrative, picture, or visit to a concentration camp can give someone who wasn’t there any inkling of what it is like.

Primo Levi wrote that the words we have are not adequate to describe the Holocaust. He argues that if the camps had lasted longer, “a new, harsh language would have been born; and only this language could express what it means to toil the whole day in the wind, with the temperature below freezing, wearing only a shirt, underpants, cloth jacket and trousers, and in one’s body nothing but weakness, hunger and knowledge of the end drawing near” (If This Is A Man). So, really, nothing Kertész’s narrator could have told the reporter would have given the man the glimpse into “hell” that he wanted.

Further, the narrator’s family, who wants to help him move on and find a new life, does not understand that he can’t just leave his experience behind. Just like Levi, Elie Wiesel, and many other Holocaust memoirists, writers, and survivors, Kertész’s boy knows that he will have to live with the concentration camp inside him forever. Like the other writers who talk about this and doubt their ever understanding or making sense of it, Kertész has his narrator reflect on understanding. However, he comes out at an interesting place in which he realizes that he must gradually reflect on what happened to him, but without trying to make sense of it:

“As we pass one step, and as we recognize it as being behind us, the next one already rises up before us. By the time we learn everything, we slowly come to understand it. And while you come to understand everything gradually, you don’t remain idle at any moment. . . you act, you move, you fulfill the new requirements of every step of development. If, on the other hand, there were no schedule, no gradual enlightenment, if all the knowledge descended on you at once right there in one spot, then it’s possible neither your brains nor your heart could bear it.”

With this passage, right at the end of the book, I think Imre Kertész very, very eloquently sums up the aftermath of trauma. Understanding must come gradually. Time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds, I don’t think. But maybe it does help us to understand things a little bit more.

Rating: ****
Up Next: A Tale of Two Cities (which I’ve already finished. Yay being behind on blogging!)

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