Miklós Györffy: An Age of Unborn Children

Imre Kertész: Felszámolás (Liquidation). Magvető, Budapest, 2003, 160 pp.
Endre Kukorelly: TündérVölgy avagy Az emberi szív rejtelmeiről
(Fairy Valley or On the Mysteries of the Human Heart).
Kalligram Könyvkiadó, Pozsony (Bratislava), 2003, 371 pp.

One year after receiving the Nobel Prize, Imre Kertész has published his fourth novel Felszámolás (Liquidation). His first three (Fatelessness, The Failure, and Kaddish for an Unborn Child) are closely interconnected and are often referred to as a trilogy; the new novel is connected to them, and can only be fully understood in the knowledge of those three. The Auschwitz 'story' continues and, as the title implies, comes to an end. The central character, a writer and Auschwitz survivor, liquidates himself and his work after the change of the political system in 1990 - he commits suicide and gets his ex-wife to burn the manuscript of his novel. With the fall of the dictatorship, his life as a survivor loses its meaning. "The excuse for my life has gone, the existential mode of survival has ceased," he writes in his suicide note.

I have to disappear, together with everything I carry within me like the plague. I carry incredibly devastating forces in myself. You could annihilate the entire world with my ressentiment, speaking genteely and not of vomit.

The novel has to go too, for the survival biography of a dead man, a "nothingness" has no meaning to be expressed that would be turned into a product for sale "on the literary rag and bone market". "To experience the shame of life and hold one's peace - that is the greatest achievement.
B.'s shame (the central character and narrator in Kaddish is also designated by this letter) is that he was born in the death camp, born by accident, as some sort of an operational breakdown. He did not die, he was born there. "He felt that he was born illegally," his ex-wife says, "that he survived for no reason, and his life has no justification, unless he can decipher the code called Auschwitz." He became a writer, an intellectual, in a dictatorship which was another prison, a shameful case of the Auschwitz mode of life that had become universal in the 20th century. He lived in Budapest as though he lived in Auschwitz; true, it was "a domesticated Auschwitz, and he undertook it of his own free will. Still you could just as easily die of it as of the real one." Although B. cannot be identified with the author, Imre Kertész shares many a trait with him, if only because of his connection with Kaddish. Looking at it from this aspect, it becomes clearer what Kertész meant when he said, not long ago, that in Fatelessness he wrote about the Kádár regime. But if we look at it from Kertész's ontological perspective, there is no fundamental difference between the shame of Auschwitz and the shame of the Kádár regime.
Naturally, B. is not Imre Kertész, and not only because the writer did not commit suicide. True, in a dramatic piece written much in the manner of Thomas Bernhard, B. wrote: " TO STAY ALIVE is the revolt / The great refusal is to live our life to the end." But B. is also not the central narrator figure in Liquidation which Gyuri Köves is in the earlier books, the Köves or B. of the Kaddish. B. does not even make an appearance in the time plane of the narrative in Liquidation. By then he is dead and survives only in the memories and writings of other figures. The narrative begins in 1990, not long after B. committed suicide, and lasts until 1999, when the events are recalled. On this latter time level, and also in the framing story, another major character makes his appearance. He is just as important in Liquidation as B. is, and is also a reincarnation of Kertész. Keserű is also a narrator-character in the novel, and has a similarly telling name ("Bitter"), as Köves ("Stony") had. "Let our man, the protagonist of this story, be called Keserű," is the opening sentence of the novel. Keserű is a publisher's editor, who was B.'s colleague once and, to some degree, also his friend. After B.' death, he collects his papers and starts an investigation to find where the last manuscript is. He is convinced that B. would not have committed suicide before completing the novel in which he summarises his life as a survivor.
By 1999, reality for Keserű becomes a state burdened with too many problems; in fact, it ceases to exist. He spends his days gaping at a reality that had gone. He either watches the homeless slowly going about their business on the square outside his window, or reads a play that B. had left after him. Meanwhile he muses on a more splendid past. The comedy entitled Liquidation begins. The opening scene portrays Keserű and his fellow editors as they received the news that their publishing house is to be wound up. This also means that there is no chance for B.'s postumus works to be published. At the turn of the century, literature is liquidated. B. predicted it when he was still alive, he knew precisely what was to happen to his writings and friends after he was gone. This is a strange motif in the novel, one that can be interpreted both ironically and seriously. What is at stake, eerily and ominously, when B. commits suicide, becomes clear when he foresees the future in an almost supernatural way.
This section is followed by a long confession by Keserű, told and written in the time dimension of the framing story, but it concerns the past. In it, Keserű tells readers about B., and though apologetically, for it is not what he really wants to speak about, he also recounts the story of his own life, that of a passionate man of letters who at one time, fed up, in a reader's report for a publisher, said what he really thought of a party-line writer. Subsequently he was locked up for ten days; his career was ruined, his marriage broke up, and he was even signed up as an informer. On the periphery of literary life, he got involved in B.'s life and love affairs, and when B. commited suicide, he gains an insight into B.'s secrets and his papers with the help of B.'s last mistress. It was only the manuscript of B.'s last novel, the existence of which he presumed, "using an astronomical method", that he could not find. Suspicion on the part of the investigative editor eventually falls on Judit, B.'s ex-wife, who at one time had been his own mistress too. Judit had since broken with B. and her own previous life, and was respectably married to a well-to-do architect. Keserű draws her back into her previous life, and learns from her that as a doctor she supplied B. with morphine, and then, as the apotheosis of their marriage, she burnt the manuscript.
We learn all this in the course of an unexpected new personal narrative, when Judit tells her own version to her architect husband. She came to realise she could not begin her life anew and be happy after all she had gone through with B. At his side, she experienced his Jewishness, Auschwitz, and learnt that she could not have a child by him. Later she tried to get rid of the trauma, and when she met her second husband she broke with B. and learnt how to forget. However, the bitter and merciless investigation Keserű conducts awakens the past in her and though she loves her half-Jewish children and their father, she almost turns her back on them. What eventually happens to Judit and her family, and to Keserű, who had completed the investigation, yet lost reality, is kept in suspense in Kertész's novel. The editor, sitting as he does in front of his computer, has to decide on whether making "the next move" or "perhaps not, after all".

The main theme is perhaps the father, and the son's unfinished relationship with him, who had meanwhile reached middle-age. The father comes from a land-owning family from the Hungarian Uplands (now Slovakia). Since the family property was lost because of the Trianon peace treaty, he studied at the military academy, the Ludovika, and became a 'Horthyist' army officer. No worse status could be had under Communism, and for a long time even his son had to suffer its consequences. In the son's memories, the father remains an army officer to the end of his life, which he, the son, thinks of as some sort of mystical 'poise'. His father accepted his fate, he did not revolt against it. He lived his restricted, demoted life in apparent satisfaction. He did his job as a clerk, he read, devoted himself to 'family bliss', tended the garden and played cards with friends. Occasionally he had an affair. He was a good-looking man, who had his conquests. He did not leave the country after 1956, though he had relatives in Germany. His relationship with his son was good, though they never talked about things that mattered. The reminiscing son wants to understand his father and his secrets, but eventually he admits that it is a secret that one cannot fathom. The father died relatively young, and the son had to return from the Soviet Union to attend the funeral. We never learn if he had actually done so or not. Nor do we know what he was doing there or whether he stayed there just once or several times.
Many things which ought to be talked of in a genuine family novel or a Bildungsroman remain unsaid. One is the narrator's studies; all we learn is, perfunctorily, that he had to try several times before he was eventually accepted by a university. Also, only a slight mention is made of his initial experiments in writing, though his status as a writer and his memoirs receive emphasis. The historical and political background against which he lives his private life is also treated sparsely and indirectly. They could have left in '56, but finally they stay in Hungary. Later, only the father and the son are issued passports, but mother and daughter have to stay behind as 'hostages'. Once, after his demobilisation, the son is summoned to the military command and is questioned about why they did not leave.
The personal sphere of the novel is nevertheless deeply embedded in the petty, restricted medium of the age. The Fairy Valley is, alongside all the personal aspirations, a novel about the Kádár regime and "existing socialism". This aspect of the novel seems to have gone unnoticed so far. Many small details, observations, impressions and scenes evoke the 1960s and 70s in an authentic way. As the son again and again sets himself to remember, in order to understand his father and his one-time own self, so his memory scrutinises the world of objects around him. More important than that, the lack of the story and meaning, the banality and random quality of the events, the monotonous, uninteresting private life are the Kádár regime itself. Every line in the Fairy Valley exudes the authentic atmosphere of the everydays of the age.
And of course, there are women in the memoir fragments. This was possibly the other main theme - the unfinished quality of his relationship to women. The narrator calls his mistresses and occasional partners C. All are designated by the letter. This is initially disturbing, because one may think they are all the same person. Later one realises that they are different women. Obviously their number is finite, and some mentions refer to the same person. Those who read interviews with Kukorelly, learn from them that the women in the novel number nine altogether. This is not, however, clear from the story without a thorough-going analysis of the text, and even that can only be performed with difficulty. The C's therefore fade into one another, they have no separate characters, and this is a serious shortcoming. The writer's intention here may have been to depict the women from the perspective of the fundamental problems of the narrator. This should be more or less understood. As in his childhood, the parental home and its 'family bliss' were his only refuge, so later he became incapable of creating this happiness for himself - and for his unborn children. He always sought for a totality in women which is unattainable, for if a secret is something that cannot be fathomed, totality is something that cannot be achiev-ed. Achieving it might mean a giving up of everything that is lacking in the totality achieved. Marriage should mean giving up other women, giving up everything incompatible with marriage, relinquishing the notion that anything could have priority over family happiness. And although for the narrator, especially in the barrenness of the Kádár regime and under the burden of being déclassé, family peace created by the parents through moral and emotional compromises offered relative security and happiness, he himself longs to achieve more and something different. This unattainable and more is called C - after Cordelia in Kierkegaard's Diary of a Seducer. Alongside Tolstoy's short story, Kierkegaard's work is the other text on which Kukorelly's novel is, as it were a palimpsest. The two quoted works enter into a dialogue in Kukorelly's story. We may interpret them to say that Kierkegaard's illusion of transcendental totality is an answer to the failure of family happiness, and, the other way round, 'family happiness' begins where the failure of the hopeless search for the transcendental is conceded.
This is a writer's programme meant only for the initiated in the Fairy Valley, in which, regretably, the memories attached to women are obscure and coalesce. We understand why Kukorelly could not and did not want to marry. He was in part attracted and in part repulsed by his parents' marriage. However, we never learn what sort of women he was attracted to, and what he lost through them.
The Fairy Valley is, as a whole, an important undertaking, which for me is made enjoyable especially by the sophisticated and ironic modulations of the narrative tone. Right to the end Kukorelly's narrator is walking a tightrope between a child's angle and the remembering adult's position and commentary in a way that cannot be separated in a sentence or a passage; you do not know what belongs to the one and what to the other perspective. He had the time and the opportunity to learn this double-talk; he grew up on it. "He now realised he speaks in two ways accidentally, even when he says the same, and although he is not warned, he no longer makes mistakes. Contingent is not the right word here, it is imprecise, yet it passes, so let it remain. Contingent, unconditional, instinctive. He notices it from what he said to others, he learns from that what to say and that he has already said it. Such things occupy the words, this is the order, this is what is intended, and they need just about all of it." The writer recaptures the occupied, ruined and false words, and creates from them a poetic prose, as he created it from the fragments of his life.

Miklós Györffy
reviews new fiction for this journal.