Friday, 22 November 2013

Book Review: Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész my literary tour of Europe I visit Hungary today and it almost goes without saying that I continue with a book connected to war and death. Hungary entered World War II in 1941 siding with Nazi Germany, but only in March 1944 German troops occupied the country and began with the deportation of the Jewish population to concentration camps. In February 1945 Red Army forces liberated Hungary as can be read in Sándor Márai’s masterly novel Szabadulás (meaning “liberation”) set during the siege of Budapest which lamentably doesn’t seem to have been translated into English. The country remained under Soviet supremacy (and control) until 1989. All those hardships naturally influenced the further lives of people, among them the Nobel Prize laureate in literature 2002 Imre Kertész who made his balance in Kaddish for an Unborn Child.

Imre Kertész was born in Budapest, Hungary, in November 1929. For being of Jewish descent he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz at the age of fourteen and later moved on to Buchenwald. After his liberation from the concentration camp in 1945 he returned to Hungary, finished school and then worked for a newspaper, as an industrial worker and a ministerial officer until his obligatory two-year military service. From 1953 on Imre Kertész earned his living as an independent writer and translator of German-language authors and philosophers. The author’s first and probably most famous novel published in 1975 is Fatelessness (Sorstalanság; also translated as Fateless) which together with Fiasco (A kudarc: 1988), Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem született gyermekért: 1990; also translated as Kaddish for a Child Not Born), and Liquidation (Felszámolás: 2003) forms kind of a tetralogy with strong autobiographical echoes like all his fiction and essays. In 2002 Imre Kertész was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since 2001 the author lives mainly in Berlin, Germany.

The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead. The narrating protagonist writes his Kaddish for an Unborn Child or to be precise for a son or daughter who could have been, but never even was conceived because he always refused to bring children into a world in which the holocaust had been possible. At the beginning stands the innocent question of a philosopher making conversation during a walk through the park of a rest-home in the Hungarian highlands. He wants to know whether the ageing narrator has children. His answer is an as immediate and vehement “No!” as when his then wife, now (remarried) ex-wife, told him that she wanted a child. What follows is a bitter look back at his failed marriage, at his career as a writer compelled to do translations for a living, at his ordeal in the concentration camps, at his relations with the autocratic father and his time in a boarding school, thus at his entire existence. He also meditates on what relevance his Jewish heritage has in all this, especially for him who has no faith. He knows that in reality he has died long ago together with millions of others. Like many holocaust survivors he feels that he has no right to exist and that his purpose is to complete the task which the Nazi bloodhounds began in the concentration camps. So he is constantly “digging his grave in the air”. As a natural consequence he is unable to commit to anyone or anything with his entire self, be it his wife, his career, his dwelling – or a child.

Kaddish for an Unborn Child is a thin book offering dense content with many philosophical insights. It’s a first-person narrative addressed to the child whom the narrator never fathered and in a way it reminded me of a long letter. In fact, a thoughtful monologue interrupted only by some remembered dialogues fills the pages from beginning to end. In addition Imre Kertész didn’t structure his novel in any usual way. There are no chapters and only few paragraphs. Sentences are long and meandering. Form and style are entirely subordinated to the natural flow of the stream of consciousness which also forces a line break whenever the narrator hurls another firm “No!” at his wife and at the world. Also the inner order of the story isn’t chronological, but it works like our mind picking up ideas and thoughts on the spur of the moment. So in a certain way it’s a difficult read requiring sometimes to leaf back and to re-read passages to understand properly.

If you’re looking for a cheerful and entertaining read Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertész definitely is the wrong choice. If you enjoy intelligent as well as intense writings and don’t mind a dark mood, it’s the perfect read. Highly recommended to everyone who wishes to understand the minds of holocaust survivors and their children.


  1. This book has been on my wishlist for quite a while. I read Fateless a couple of years ago and thought it was one of the best books I read on this subject. True, not cheerful at all but I don't think one should expect that on a book about this kind of subject.

    Thanks as always for an excellent review.

    Marianne from Let's Read

    1. Mariane, thank you for your comment... and the praise! I always do my best to write worthwhile reviews about worthwhile books. ;-)

      My experience with the books of Imre Kertész is the same as yours. Several years ago I read his novel Fateless and like you I found that it was one of the best books of all time about experiences in the concentrations camps - along with Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning which is of course autobiographical. You'll see that Kaddish for an Unborn Child is quite different and not limited to the concentration camps since it also touches on the living conditions in a Communist regime.

      Meanwhile I also read Imre Kertész's "autobiography" titled Dossier K. and it was very interesting to see the differences between his true story and his novels.


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