Saturday, January 06, 2007

Kaddish for an Unborn Child

"...more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke
you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds
there one lies unconfined"
-Paul Celan, Death Fugue

Kaddish for an Unborn Child, written by Hungarian nobel laureate Imre Kertesz, starts with these lines from Paul Celan's poem Death Fugue as its epigraph and the image of "grave in the air" gets repeated throughout the book. The novel takes lots of details from Kertesz's real life. The narrator just like Kertesz is a Holocaust survivor and also a writer and literary translator. Kertesz has himself translated many German(ic) writers like Kafka, Wittgenstein and of course Thomas Bernhard of whom one is reminded while reading this novel because it is so similar in style. The whole novel is told in one monologue with long convoluted sentences and endless paragraphs. Same phrases get repeated like a musical motif throughout (one of them is that image from the Celan poem). Every paragraph in the book for example begins with the same word "No."

The style might be familiar to readers of Thomas Bernhard (Kertesz even explicityly references him at one place) but the content of the book is still hard to follow. Basically the monologue is one long justification of narrator's refusal to agree to bring his child into this world. In the process he also agonises over his failed marriage and failed literary career and some really dense philosophical questions about the metaphysical aspects of good and evil. One aspect of his long sentences is how he manages to capture the ambiguity and linguistic scepticism in his prose just by his style. He says one thing and then he qualifies it with so many phrases that the original sentence almost loses its meaning. I think that is the intended effect but that also makes the whole thing extremely difficult to follow. Kertesz's other novel Liquidation has this Beckett quote as the epigraph which explains his philosophy of language and literature very well...

Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
--Samuel Beckett, Molloy

It is painful negation of literature and its claims and it makes reading the book frustrating in a way but also interesting in a way that the reader realizes that Kertesz is not playing any games with him. He is being painfully honest about what he is trying to achieve by writing.

Complete Review has more related links about the book.


Antonia said...

The Kaddish one is indeed a strange book. - but have you finsihed Liquidiation? Have it myself here,but unread. You are right about the sentences, theselong periods, but I really like this, this ciceronean style. It is almost like music, like Bach, a fugue and it always comes back to what he wants to say. Your post made me to want to reread it again, I have it here and looked whether I marked sentences, but I did not. Like you I like the book, because it is not fooling around with the reader's mind, it is so utterly serious about consequnces, what the holocausttrauma had done to people. Maybe it is also this irreconcileability that makes it such a difficult read, that he says no and explains why, but still one is not at ease....

Alok said...

I have liquidation too with me but haven't started it yet. Just read a few pages and saw that quote from Beckett in the beginning of the book.

I also love the long sentences and the repetitive style. I also found it interesting that that after all that he went through he still feels sceptical and ambivalent about his jewish identity.

arevik said...

hi alok, i have been a few times on your site, you write about things i find interesting. your review from this book makes me want to read it, although it sounds like a difficult one. did you read molloy? did you like it?

Alok said...

thanks arevik!

I have tried Beckett Trilogy many times but never managed to get really far. This book is also quite difficult to follow but it is not that long so it is quite readable. Worth giving a try I would say. It is also not as abstract as Beckett, there is a conventional narrative in this book too and parts of it are relatively straightforward.

arevik said...

i was thinking of beckett because i remember finding very difficult to get in, and then, suddenly, i began to find him extremely funny. endurance can pay reward! it seems that kaddish is from that sort of books.

Alok said...

Oh I haven't reached that stage with Beckett where I find him funny, I am still at the initial, struggling stage :)

This book isn't funny. It is actually not really grim either (at least as far as an immediate reaction is concerned) despite its grim subject matter and conclusion.