is a Nobel Prize-winning autobiographical Holocaust novel by the Hungarian author Imre Kertész. First published in 1975, the book recounts the various atrocities witnessed and experienced by Kertész who is here represented by the somewhat fictionalized character Gyorgy “Gyuri” Koves.
As a young Jewish man of 14 years old (“or thereabouts”), Gyuri lives a modest life with his father in Budapest, Hungary until it is announced that his father is going to be sent to a labor camp. Gyuri’s schoolteacher excuses him from class to spend one last day with his father at his shop. The day’s tedium is interrupted when he sees his father give control of the shop to his assistant, Mr. Suto, and the gravity of what’s happening begins to hit Gyuri.
Two months after his father is sent away, Gyuri and his family receive word that, compared to many of his Jewish countrymen, Gyuri’s father has landed in a relatively privileged place working at the Shell Gas Petroleum Refinery. Meanwhile, Mr. Suto brings food and rations to Gyuri’s father as promised. As conditions worsen for Jews in Budapest, Gyuri’s family hopes the Allied Forces will liberate them from the Nazis before things get much worse.
One day on the bus to work, the police stop the vehicle and ask everyone onboard for their papers. Though Gyuri is Jewish, he is confident that he is a legal resident who will not be detained. But after he and others are removed from the bus and it drives away, he sees a group of other Jewish children he recognizes from school. They had been instructed by the officers to hide while the police examined everyone’s papers so it would not alert the Jewish bus-riders that they will be detained.
The officer says he is awaiting further orders and eventually the group is on the move to a hot, crowded, and stifling “Customs House.” By the afternoon, the youths are told they must present their papers to a “higher authority” and are marched through the streets, guarded in part by a soldier in an exceedingly slim uniform holding a riding crop. Gyuri overhears the soldier say that the boys should stay in the stables where they belong. It is only when Gyuri realizes he won’t be home for dinner that he begins to understand the magnitude of what’s happening.
When the next chapter begins, Gyuri is on a crowded train suffering from an unimaginably intense thirst. The boys discuss how long one can last without water and begin to discuss tips for surviving dehydration, like trying not to sweat and not eating meat. At this point, the action flashes back to show how Gyuri and the others got on the train. Back in the previous area, where the man with the riding crop scowled at and threatened the boys, Gyuri and the rest are asked if they want to work. After some debate, Gyuri decides that agreeing to work is the best course of action, as hard work is apparently prided in German culture.
The narrative flashes back ahead to the train where it has arrived at its destination. As Gyuri departs, he notes the sign outside the camp he is herded into that reads “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” The boys are being separated into two groups: the fit and unfit. Gyuri seems to instinctively realize that his very survival depends on being sorted into the “fit” group and so he puffs out his chest during inspection and lies about his age after another prisoner suggested he present himself as no younger than sixteen years old. Fortunately, the plan works, and Gyuri is selected as “fit.”
Day by day, Gyuri adapts to life in Auschwitz as best he can, learning little tricks that he hopes will keep him alive longer. For example, he always makes sure to get in the back when lining up for “soup” because the meager, barely-sustaining broth is slightly thicker at the bottom of the vats. He also saves the little bread they receive at night for the morning so he can have more strength to lug concrete all day long. All the while, the smell of the crematorium, where the Nazis burn those who they’ve murdered or who have died of disease, exhaustion, or starvation, is present, reminding Gyuri of what will happen to him if he gives up on surviving.
Later on, Gyuri is relocated to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and then to a camp in Zeitz. But Soon, Gyuri comes to see that no matter what he does to try to survive, his body is giving up on him. A bag of concrete that once took little effort to move now presents him with intense agony with every step. Before long, his fellow prisoners have to lift him up off the wet ground every morning in line for roll call. After a red, pus-soaked welt forms on his knee and he refuses to see the doctor, Gyuri is transported by his fellow prisoners to the hospital area.
There, Gyuri witnesses an even higher level of human suffering than what had been on display previously. His fellow patients writhe in pain due to all manner of ailments. Particularly memorable to Gyuri are all the patients who have lost toes due to the increasingly cold weather. The entire unit is infested with fleas and lice, which have begun to swarm around and inside Gyuri’s festering wounds.
Once it is clear to the doctors and guards that Gyuri is too sick to work, he is transported on a train back to Buchenwald where he is sure he is going to be killed. The suffering has reached a point for Gyuri where he has become completely disassociated from his body, perhaps in a physiological coping mechanism for dealing with the pain. He wishes only that his death will not be too painful. But when he finally arrives at Buchenwald, he feels a tiny glimmer of hope, deciding that he’d like to live in this “beautiful concentration camp” a little longer.
The new hospital is not nearly as hellish as the last, and Gyuri feels he is treated with something almost like kindness by the SS officers. It seems, however, that they may merely be grooming the boy for some sort of unimaginable torture experiments. Fortunately, after Gyuri has healed to an extent, the camp is liberated by Allied Forces and Gyuri is free.
Back in Hungary, Gyuri is treated not as a hero nor even a survivor, but simply as a curiosity. Journalists and others ask him for his impressions about the camp, but his attempts to explain the unexplainable terror and suffering leave them unimpressed. Gyuri tries and fails to find one of his best friends from the camp, Bandi Citrom, but has no idea whether he’s alive or dead. After a year in concentration camps, Gyuri cannot even share in the moral indignation of his ordeal because, to him, it was just a new reality that he had to accept in order to survive, to be a “good prisoner,” as Kertesz writes.
And this is where Fatelessness
derives both its title and its greatest significance. What makes Gyuri truly “fateless” is that until he had to start wearing yellow stars, he barely identified with Judaism. When his uncle discusses “the shared Jewish fate” Gyuri is now a part of, that doesn’t resonate with him. And once he’s in the concentration camps, all of his attempts at survival eventually fail. Ultimately, he survives not because he wills it but because of random timing, his fate completely out of his hands. It’s a striking and unforgettable theme of a striking and unforgettable book.