Kaddish for an Unborn Childby Imre Kertész
The first word in this mesmerizing novel by the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is “No.” It is how the novel’s narrator, a middle-aged Hungarian-Jewish writer, answers an acquaintance who asks him if he has a child. It is the answer he gave his wife (now ex-wife) years earlier when she told him that she wanted one. The loss, longing and regret that haunt the years between those two “no”s give rise to one of the most eloquent meditations ever written on the Holocaust.
As Kertesz’s narrator addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world he ushers readers into the labyrinth of his consciousness, dramatizing the paradoxes attendant on surviving the catastrophe of Auschwitz. Kaddish for the Unborn Child is a work of staggering power, lit by flashes of perverse wit and fueled by the energy of its wholly original voice.
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“In his writing Imre Kertesz explores the possibility of continuing to live and think as an individual in an era in which the subjection of human beings to social forces has become increasingly complete. upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.” The Swedish Academy, awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature 2002
“Disturbing yet lyrical . . . a seamless burst of introspection that is painful in its intensity and despair.” Library Journal (starred review)
“Stunning . . . resembles such other memorably declamatory fictions as Camus’ The Fall and Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.” —Kirkus Reviews
Read an Excerpt
No!" I said instantly and at once, without hesitating and, virtually, instinctively since it has become quite natural by now that our instincts should act contrary to our instincts, that our counterinstincts, so to say, should act instead of, indeed as, our instincts--I'm joking, if this can be regarded as a joking matter; that is, if one can regard the naked, miserable truth as a joking matter, is what I tell the philosopher approaching me, now that both he and I have come to a halt in the beech wood, beech coppice, or whatever they are called, stunted and almost audibly wheezing from disease, perhaps from consumption; I must confess to being a dunce about trees, I can recognize only pine trees instantly, on account of their needles--oh yes, and plane trees as well, because I like them, and even nowadays, even by my counterinstincts, I still recognize what I like intuitively, even if not with that same chest-thumping, gut-wrenching, knee-jerking, galvanizing, inspired, so to say, flash of recognition as when I recognize things I detest. "I don't know why it is that every time everything is different in every respect with me, or perhaps if I do know, it's simpler that I know without knowing it. That would spare me a lot of explanations. But, it would seem, there is no getting around explanations, we are constantly explaining and excusing ourselves; life itself, that inexplicable complex of being and feeling, demands explanations of us, those around us demand explanations, and in the end we ourselves demand explanations of ourselves, until in the end we succeed in annihilating everything around us, ourselves included, or in other words explain ourselves to death," I explain to the philosopher with that compulsion to speak, to me so abhorrent and yet irrepressible, that always grips me when I have nothing to say for myself--and that, I fear, has roots in common with the stiff tips that I hand out in brasseries and taxis, or bribing, etc. official or semiofficial personages, along with my exaggerated politeness, a politeness exaggerated to the point of self-denial, as if I were continually apologizing for my existence, for this existence. For heaven's sake! I had simply set off for a walk in the woods (even if it is only this meager oak wood) in the fresh air (even if the air is somewhat putrid) to blow the cobwebs away (let us put it that way since it sounds good, as long as we don't look too closely at the meanings of words, because if we do look, then the words have no meaning at all, do they? since I don't have any cobwebs that need blowing away, quite the contrary, I am exquisitely sensitive to drafts); I am (was) spending my time here, fleetingly (and I will not digress here on the digressions that this word offers), in the lap of this mediocre mid-Hungarian hill range, in a creative writers' retreat--one might call it a holiday home, though it also does for a workplace (for I am always working, being driven to this not just by the need to make a living, but because if I were not working I would be existing, and if I were existing I don't know what that would drive me to, and it is better not to know, although my bones, my guts have their hunches, to be sure, since the reason I work incessantly is that as long as I keep working, I am, whereas if I didn't work, who knows whether I would be or not; so I take it seriously, and I have to take it seriously because a deadly serious association is sustained between my sustenance and my work, that is perfectly obvious); so anyway, in a house where I had gained the right of admittance into the illustrious society of intellectuals of my ilk, whose paths for that very reason I can in no way avoid crossing, for all my soundless lying low in my room--the secret of my hiding place betrayed at most by the muted tapping of my typewriter--and for all my scurrying about on tiptoe in the corridors, one has to have meals, yet then table companions surround me with their relentless presence, and one has to take strolls, yet, smack in the middle of the woods, who should I find coming the other way, in his very own stocky and incongruous self, in his brown-and-beige-checked cap and his loose-fitting raglan overcoat, with the narrow slits of his whey-colored eyes and his big, soft, kneaded and already risen dough face, but Dr. Obláth, the philosopher. That is his regular civilian occupation, as attested, incidentally, by the relevant entry in his identity card--to wit, that Dr. Obláth is a philosopher just like Immanuel Kant or Baruch Spinoza or Heraclitus of Ephesus, just as I myself am a writer and literary translator, and the only reason I do not paint myself in an even more ridiculous light compared with the giants who can be marshaled behind the banner of my craft, giants who were genuine writers and, in some cases, genuine literary translators, is because I look ridiculous enough as it is having this as my profession and because my activities as a literary translator nevertheless invest my efforts at keeping myself occupied with some semblance of objectivity and, possibly, in some people's eyes--above all, in the eyes of the authorities and, albeit for different reasons, of course, in my own eyes too--of a verifiable profession.
"No!" something had bellowed and howled inside me, instantly and at once, when my wife (though as it happens long since not my wife) first made mention of it--of you--and my whimpering abated only gradually, yes, actually only after the passage of many long years, into a gloomy weltschmerz, like Wotan's raging fury during the renowned farewell scene, until a question assumed ever more definite form within me, emerging as it were from the mist-shrouded figurations of stifled string voices, slowly and malignantly, like an insidious illness, and you are that question; or to be more precise, I am, but an I rendered questionable by you; or to be even more precise (and Dr. Obláth, too, broadly agrees with this): my existence viewed as the potentiality of your being, or in other words, me as a murderer, if one wishes to take precision to the extreme, to the point of absurdity, and albeit at the cost of a certain amount of self-torment, since, thank God, it's too late now, now it'll always be too late; that is permissible too, you are not, whereas I can be assured of being in complete safety, having ruined everything, smashed everything to bits, with that "no," above all my ill-starred, short-lived marriage, I tell (told) Dr. Obláth, doctor of philosophy, with a dispassion that life may never have been able to inculcate in me but which I have nevertheless by now become quite practiced at practicing should it be absolutely necessary. And it was necessary on this occasion because the philosopher was approaching me in contemplative mood, as I immediately discerned from the slight sideways tilt of his head, on which was flatly perched his rakish peaked-cap, as if he were an oncoming comic highwayman who had already knocked back a few glasses and was now deliberating whether to rap me on the head or make do with some ransom money. But of course (and I was about to say: sadly) Obláth was not deliberating that at all; philosophers do not commonly deliberate about highwaymanship, or if they do happen to, then it manifests itself to them in the form of a weighty philosophical question, and they leave the dirty work to the professionals, for, after all, one has seen that sort of thing before, though it was sheer whimsy and all but an aspersion for me to allow such an association with Dr. Obláth, of all people, to cross my mind, for I know nothing about his past, nor will he recount it, it is to be hoped. No, but he did surprise me with a no less indiscreet question, rather as if a highwayman were to inquire how much money I have in my pocket, for he began to pry into my family circumstances, though, to be fair, only after having first led up to that by informing me about his own, as a down payment, so to say, on the premise, so to say, that if I were allowed to find out everything about him, despite my being not in the slightest bit interested, he would thereby earn the right to my . . . but I shall break off this exegesis as I sense that the letters and words are carrying me away, and carrying me away in the wrong direction at that, in the direction of a moralizing paranoia, a state in which, sadly, I catch myself all too often these days and the reasons for which are all too obvious to me (loneliness, isolation, voluntary exile), not that those reasons worry me since they are of my own making, after all--so to say, the first few scoops of the spade towards the much, much deeper trench that I still have to dig out, clod by clod, from one end to the other, for there to be something to swallow me up (though maybe I am not digging in the ground but rather in the air because there one is unconfined)--since all Dr. Obláth did was ask an innocent question as to whether I had a child; though certainly, with a philosopher's rude candor, which is to say tactlessly and in any case at the worst possible moment, but then, how was he to have known that his question would, undeniably, somewhat upset me. Or that I would then reply to the question with an overwhelming compulsion to speak that sprang from my exaggerated sense of politeness, a politeness exaggerated to the point of self-denial, repellent to me from first to last even as I was speaking, despite which I nevertheless recounted that:
"No!" I had said instantly and at once, without hesitation and, so to say, instinctively since it has become quite natural by now that our instincts act contrary to our instincts, that our counterinstincts, so to say, act instead of, indeed as, our instincts; yes, I was seeking to get back at Dr. Obláth--Dr. Obláth, doctor of philosophy, that is to say for all that idiotic blather, for my own voluntary and in no way justifiable (though I had plenty of justifications for it, a few of which I have already spelled out above, to the best of my recall) degradation in portraying him there, slap-bang in the middle of the emaciated beech wood (or linden grove, for all it matters), the way that I portrayed him, though the peaked-cap, the loose-fitting raglan overcoat, as well as the whey-colored eyes and the big, soft face like lumps of kneaded and risen dough, I still maintain, do indeed, accord fully with reality. It is just that it could all have been described otherwise, in a more balanced fashion, more considerately, perhaps even--and this is saying something--with affection; but, I fear, the only way I can describe anything now is with a pen dipped in sarcasm, derisively, perhaps even a touch humorously (it's not my place to judge that), yet also in certain respects lamely, as if someone were constantly jerking back my pen when it is poised to set down certain words, so that in the end my hand writes other words in their stead, words that will simply never round out into an affectionate portrait, perhaps simply because, I fear, there is no affection in me, but then--for heaven's sake!--for whom might I feel affection; and why? Yet Dr. Obláth spoke endearingly enough, at least enough for me to record in final (I almost said fatal) form several of his more piquant observations, since they aroused my attention. The fact that he was childless, he said, that he had no one apart from an aging wife who was struggling with the problems of aging, if I understood him right, since the philosopher formulated it more opaquely or, one could also say, more discreetly than that, trusting me to understand what I wish to understand, and even though I did not have wish to, I did of course understand all the same. That this matter of his childlessness, Dr. Obláth continued, had actually struck him only recently, but then very often, indeed this was precisely what he had been pondering just now on the woodland path and, lo and behold, he could not forbear to speak about it, presumably because he too was aging and, as a result, certain possibilities--for instance, the possibility of still having a child--were slowly no longer possible for him, indeed were impossible, and that in fact he had only begun to think much about this quite recently, and more specifically, he said, thinking of it "as a missed opportunity." At this point Dr. Obláth halted on the path, for in the meantime we had set off again, two social beings, two men conversing on the forest litter, two sad blots on a landscape painter's canvas, two blots which in their essences shattered a natural harmony that has probably never existed, only I don't remember whether it was I who joined step with Obláth to accompany him or he who joined step with me, but then one is not going to make this a matter of prestige: yes, naturally it was I who joined step with Obláth, most probably in order to shake him off because that way I would be able to turn back at a later point of my own choosing; so anyway, at this point Dr. Obláth came to a halt on the pathway and with a single melancholy gesture stiffened his doughy or even, here and there, puffily exuberant countenance, for he threw back his head, together with its impertinent, rakish cap, to fix his gaze on a tree branch opposite as if on a pitiful, ragged yet, even in its cast-offness, still serviceable item of clothing. And while we stood there in this way, mutely, I in Obláth's and Obláth in the tree's axis of attraction, I was assailed by the feeling that I was about to become party to a presumably confidential utterance by the philosopher; and that is indeed what happened when Dr. Obláth finally spoke, and he said that in saying that he felt what had happened--or rather what had not happened--was a missed opportunity he was not thinking of continuity, that somewhat abstract and yet, let's be honest, basically satisfying solace of knowing he had fulfilled--or rather, and that was precisely the point, not fulfilled--his personal and suprapersonal business on this earth, that is, the business, over and above sustaining his existence, of the prolonged and propagated perpetuation and survival of that existence, and thereby of himself, in descendants, which (beyond sustaining one's existence) is, one might say, man's transcendental albeit highly practical duty in life, so as not to feel incomplete, superfluous and, ultimately, impotent; nor was he even thinking of the impending prospect of an old age without support, no, but in truth he feared something else: "emotional sclerosis," as he put it, those were his exact words, meanwhile setting off again along the path, ostensibly heading towards our base, the holiday home, but in reality, as I now knew, towards emotional sclerosis.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Imre Kertész, who was born in 1929 and imprisoned in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a youth, worked as a journalist and playwright before publishing Fatelessness, his first novel, in 1975. He is the author of Looking for a Clue, Detective Story, The Failure, The Union Jack, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and A Galley-Slave’s Journal. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. He lives in Budapest and Berlin.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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