"Fiasco" by Imre Kertesz [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next three weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, translated by Tim Wilkinson
Publisher: Melville House
Why This Book Should Win: Because I introduced Tim Wilkinson to Dennis and Valerie of Melville House outside of the London Review of Books bookstores years ago, and as a result, they published a number of his Kertesz translations. It would be sort of perfect if Wilkinson then won this award . . .
Today’s post is by Christopher Willard, who is the author of Sundre and Garbage Head. He lives in Calgary and teaches at the Alberta College of Art + Design.
A man who Kertesz calls the “old boy” muses on the writing and subsequent publisher’s rejection of his early novel as he tries to locate a subject for his next novel. Kertész is most likely recalling an attempt to publish his first novel Fatelessness, based upon his deportation to Auschwitz when he was fourteen years old. In allowing fiction to revive facts, Kertész sets up a dense and masterful analogy: a book detailing one’s experiences may arbitrarily be rejected as lifeless and a person may be rendered lifeless by the whims of a totalitarian authority. This raises the thematic questions Kertész’s old boy struggles with, if one cannot control one’s fate or death, if ultimately death is situated closer to absurdity than rationale, what justifies living, what justifies writing about living? The attempt to answer the questions satisfactorily meets with utter failure. This is the fiasco. Kertész writes, “There was one thing that, perhaps I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves.”
The first third of the book is written in sort of call and response structure reminiscent of Beckett as evidenced in Krapp’s Last Tape. Kertész reflects (and reflects upon) the present and past through series of parenthetical statements. This makes for enjoyably dense reading but one imagines the enormity of the translator’s task in capturing both the accuracy and flow of such writing. For example regarding the old boy’s age, Kertész writes:
In all probability it would be simplest just to say how old he was (if we were not averse to such exceedingly dubious specifics, changing as they do from year to year, day to day, even minute to minute) (and who knows how many years, days and minutes our story will arch) (or what twists and turns that span may span) (as a result of which we might suddenly find ourselves in a situation where we may no longer be able to vouch for our rash assertions).
This ageless old boy exists, and not particularly by his own choosing. His burden seems to be the entire package: life, living, history, remembering, writing, the old novel, the next novel, the novel that makes up the remaining two-thirds of the book. The old boy began writing not to be a writer but to understand an unalterable past, and consequentially he involuntarily became a writer who now feels obliged to continue writing even though the he is aware that the writing makes living no easier, the living makes writing no easier, and the past book makes the future book no easier. Kertész seems to suggest the old boy suffers a Sisyphean punishment imposed by arbitrary alignment of coincidences and the conscious decision to continue; we suspect that man is Kertész.