Friday, November 16, 2007

Imre Kertesz: Liquidation

Liquidation is just over a hundred pages long but is quite densely packed with ideas. The (occasional) narrator of the novel Kingbitter, who works as an editor in a publishing house, is wrestling with a manuscript of a play titled Liquidation by his writer friend "B." who was born in Auschwitz and who committed suicide a few years ago. Oddly enough the play seems to presage the events following B.'s death, specially about how his close friends struggle to come to terms with his literary legacy. Moreover Kingbitter is also convinced and is obsessed by what he thinks an unfinished novel that B. must have left in care with his estranged wife Judith. This quest brings Kingbitter closer to Judith. In the later section of the novel Judith recounts how her relationship with B. fell apart. This section will be familiar to those who have read Kaddish for an Unborn Child. In fact Kertesz repeats a lot of things from the earlier book here too.

The book as I said is quite densely packed with ideas, most of them about the philosophical interpretation of life post-Holocaust - act of living as a pusillanimous capitulation and suicide as a heroic rebellion ("Taking one's own life amounts to outwitting those who stand on guard"). As this press release about the nobel prize says:

In thinking like this, the author concurs with a philosophical tradition in which life and human spirit are enemies. ... He completes his implacable existential analysis by depicting love as the highest stage of conformism, total capitulation to the desire to exist at any cost. For Kert├ęsz the spiritual dimension of man lies in his inability to adapt to life. Individual experience seems useless as soon as it is considered in the light of the needs and interests of the human collective.

B.'s bleak pronouncements are not always without humour however. In one of the passages he rages against the artists and painters which reminds one of Reger in Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters. ("If people had understood the greatness of those works, they would have destroyed them long ago.[...] Fortunately, people have lost their flair for greatness and only their flair for murder has persisted.") Kertesz has translated Thomas Bernhard among many other Germanic writers into Hungarian and this passage in particular seemed like an obvious homage.

In the book Kertesz also gets into the nature of literary and intellectual life in communist Hungary with state subsidization of literature in return of which the state demands complete submission to its dictates concerning artistic matters. State subsidization of literature is state liquidation of literature, B. says at one place. Of course post-communist Hungary is not any better either with all the non-profitable publishing houses being closed down, including the one where Kingbitter works. Reading about the many writers living under the communist Eastern Europe makes one really sad and melancholic, specially in the way all their hopes for a new life and a new world, and healing the scars of the destruction and inhumanity of the world war were so quickly dashed by the authoritarian and mendacious tyrannies that followed soon after. Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz tells some of these stories in his The Captive Mind. Kertesz himself has lived in Berlin for a long period and worked as a literary journalist and translator there. It is there too that he has a bigger literary following than even his own country.

In the end the book is a little "unsatisfying" leaving you with a sense of incompleteness as if you have read only some disjointed jottings and fragments. Of course it is intentionally so. Writing a conventional, "satisfying" will actually be contrary and will defeath what is actually the central point of the book. I didn't find any good review on the net. Here is one with links to many other reviews.


Chaolita said...

well hello... I'm a german student and I very like your blog.
I'm writing a work on Extinction at the moment and share your Thomas Bernhard-love!
please go on:)

Alok said...

Hi, Glad that you found it of interest. I don't know German but I love German language literature very much, specially Thomas Bernhard. Thanks again for visiting...