Saturday, 21 February 2009

A 'kaddish' is a mourning prayer and Imre Kertesz' Kaddish for a Child Not Born (1997) could be interpreted - since it's a dense and difficult novel and thus interpretation is necessary - as a mournful reminiscence by a rather staid and particular writer-cum-literary translator.

We first meet him as he walks in the forest. He is staying at a retreat and he bumps into a fellow resident. Asked whether he had any children, the narrator explodes with a violent negative. The 'no' becomes a leitmotif repeated, later, when he talks about his reaction to his wife's suggestion that they have children.

His wife is a doctor who had felt something intense after having read a book the writer published. She approaches him. They become lovers. They marry and live together. And he tells his wife about his childhood. In doing so, he touches on many elements of the novel we have already come across and one of them is the fate of the Jews.

Both the narrator and his wife (finally ex-wife) are Jewish, and Jewishness is central to the novel's point of most profound importance as a text.

But in describing his lack of faith in the world, in terms of children, the narrator shows himself to be of the same nature as the 'othering' carried out by Christians in the 1930s when the pogroms started. He shuts out the world and thus reiterates his freedom, so that he can remain individual and not get caught up in the travail of earthly existence at its most humiliating and shameful.

This is just a precis. The novel is frighteningly dense and beautiful. It contains references to Nietszche and other philosophers and it is clear that Kertesz is well equipped to confront his themes.

Framing and giving structure to the mass of detail about the fate of Jewishness is the issue of children. But there is another sense of movement apart from this. In the beginning we are presented with a slightly ridiculous figure, a man with not much wordly stamina, a man used to being alone and fighting private battles in his work.

This slightly ridiculous figure transforms itself, later in the book, into a figure of commanding intellect and insight. But at the very end, as he is confronted by the children he never had, the narrator becomes something else again. He becomes some kind of slinking monster that is best ignored.

It is a frightening and dramatic transformation, and demonstrates Kertesz' immense power as a storyteller. Because this is the point he is leading to, all the time. In this sense, the novel can be considered as a fairly strong symbol of affirmation: of life, of reproduction, of love.

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