Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész (5/5)

The back says: 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

I say: Sometimes I just know from the first sentence of a book that I am going to fall madly in love with it and its author. And that is exactly what happened with Kaddish for an Unborn Child. I hesitated over typing up the first sentence at first (and you’ll notice why below), but decided that I cannot quite explain what magical spell Kertész has put me under.

“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 philosophers 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. – p 1/2

I love that sentence. 

And yes, the entire novel is filled with them; long, repetitive, winding and sometimes almost unintelligible sentences of every significant thing that has happened to the narrator. Despite the fact that I probably should have gotten annoyed of the excessive use of “so to say,” it actually made the narration all the more believable, and I loved being inside of the narrator’s head.

He writes this kaddish for his unborn child in single night, explaining all the reasons why he could never bring himself to father a child into his world. Throughout the novel he comes across as painfully honest, and with that, wearingly melodramatic at times. He has all of these things that need to be said and he hasn’t yet figured out the proper way to say them but refuses to let that stop him.

Like I said, there is a lot of repetition here.

Apart from the fact that I love melancholy stories, there is a lot of philosophical pondering going on. The narrator seems to be caught between an absolute knowledge of who he is, what he thinks and wants, yet I sense this, somehow desperate, desire to reason with his past as an explanation to his present. He has issues with his childhood, his parents, his “Jewishness”, his surviving the Holocaust, amongst others, and he presents them in such a lyrical prose I could stay lost inside his head for days. In fact, I’m already looking forward to reading this again – as well as other works by Kertész.

This is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve ever read.


  1. I hadn't heard of this book before. It seems like I would really, really like the writing!

  2. Yeah I randomly stumbled upon it during the book sales and bought it because of the cover (it's just such a lovely burgundy). He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 (which generally means nothing to me, but since I'm Swedish I pretend I somehow care). There's another translation of this that I'm curious to read (I just love comparing translations), but so far I can only vouch for the one I've read.

    But yeah, do read it if you get the chance. Esp if you love long and intricate sentences. It was rather Proustian at times (if I may be so bold); which is, in my opinion, pretty much as good as it gets.