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The Nobel Prize in Literature 2002
Imre Kertész

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Excerpt from Fatelessness

(Pages 136-137 and 248-250)

The main thing was not to neglect oneself; somehow there would always be a way, for it had never yet happened that there wasn't a way somehow, as Bandi Citrom instilled in me, and he in turn had been instructed in this wisdom by the labor camp. The first and most important thing under all circumstances was to wash oneself (before the parallel rows of troughs with the perforated iron piping, in the open air, on the side of the camp over toward the highway). Equally essential was a frugal apportioning of the rations, whether or not there were any. Whatever rigor this disciplining might cost you, a portion of the bread ration had to be left for the next morning's coffee, some of it indeed - by maintaining an undeflectable guard against the inclination of your every thought, and above all your itching fingers, to stray toward your pocket - for the lunch break: that way, and only that way, could you avoid, for instance, the tormenting thought that you had nothing to eat. That the item in your wardrobe I had hitherto regarded as a handkerchief was a foot cloth; that the only secure place to be at roll call and in a marching column was always the middle of a row; that even when soup was being dished out one would do better to aim, not for the front, but for the back of the queue, where you could predict they would be serving from the bottom of the vat, and therefore from the thicker sediment; that one side of the handle of your spoon could be hammered out into a tool that might also serve as a knife - all these things, and much else besides, all of it knowledge essential to prison life, I was taught by Bandi Citrom, learning by watching and myself striving to emulate.

/---/

He seemed somewhat uncertain at first. The truth was, he remarked, only now were the "horrors really starting to come to light," and he added that "for the time being, the world stands uncomprehending before the question of how, how it could have happened at all." I said nothing, but at this point he turned around to face me fully and suddenly asked, "Would you care to give an account of your experiences, young fellow?" I was somewhat dumbfounded, and replied that there was not a whole lot I could tell him that would be of much interest. He smiled a little and said, "Not me - the whole world." Even more amazed, I asked, "But what about?" "The hell of the camps," he replied, to which I remarked that I had nothing at all to say about that as I was not acquainted with hell and couldn't even imagine what that was like. He assured me, however, that it was just a manner of speaking: "Can we imagine a concentration camp as anything but a hell?" he asked, and I replied, as I scratched a few circles with my heel in the dust under my feet, that everyone could think what they liked about it, but as far as I was concerned I could only imagine a concentration camp, since I was somewhat acquainted with what that was, but not hell. "All the same, say you could?" he pressed, and after a few more circles I replied, "Then I would imagine it as a place where it is impossible to become bored," seeing as how that had been possible in the concentration camp, even in Auschwitz - under certain conditions of course. He fell silent for a while before going on to ask, though rather as if it were now somehow against his better judgment: "And how do you account for that?" After brief reflection, I came up with "Time." "What do you mean, time?" "Time helps." "Helps? … With what?" "Everything," and I tried to explain how different it was, for example, to arrive in a not exactly opulent but still, on the whole, agreeable, neat, and clean station where everything becomes clear only gradually, sequentially over time, step-by-step. By the time one has passed a given step, put it behind one, the next one is already there. By the time one knows everything, one has already understood it all. And while one is coming to understand everything, a person does not remain idle: he is already attending to his new business, living, acting, moving, carrying out each new demand at each new stage. Were it not for that sequencing in time, and were the entire knowledge to crash in upon a person on the spot, at one fell swoop, it might well be that neither one's brain nor one's heart would cope with it, I tried to enlighten him somewhat, upon which, having meanwhile fished a tattered pack from his pocket, he offered me one of his crumpled cigarettes, which I declined, but then, having taken two deep drags, he set both elbows on his knees and leaned his upper body forward, not so much as looking at me, as he said in a somehow lackluster, flat tone, "I see." On the other hand, I continued, the flaw in that, the drawback you might say, is that the time has to be occupied somehow. For instance, I told him, I had seen prisoners who had already been - or to be more accurate were still - in concentration camps for four, six, even twelve years. Now, those people somehow had to fill each one of those four, six, or twelve years, which in the latter case means twelve times three hundred and sixty-five days, which is to say twelve times three hundred and sixty-five times twenty-four hours, and twelve times three hundred and sixty-five times twenty-four times ... and so on back, every second, every minute, every hour, every day of it, in its entirety. From yet another angle, though, I added, this is exactly what can also help them, because if the whole twelve times three hundred and sixty-five times twenty-four times sixty times sixtyfold chunk of time had been dumped around their necks instantaneously, at a stroke, most likely they too would have been unable to stand it, either physically or mentally, in the way they actually did manage to stand it: "That, roughly, is the way you have imagined it." At this, still in the same position as earlier, only now instead of holding the cigarette, which he had meanwhile discarded, with his head between his hands and in an even duller, even more choking voice, he said: "No, it's impossible to imagine it." For my part, I could see that, and I even thought to myself: so, that must be why they prefer to talk about hell instead.




From FATELESSNESS: A NOVEL by Imre Kertész, translated by Tim Wilkinson, translation copyright © 2004 by Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

For on-line information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see the Internet Web Site at http://www.randomhouse.com.

 

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