“Abominable. Execrable. I could throw up.”
Thus begins Liquidation—not the novel by Imre Kertész, but the play by the same name that appears now and again within it, ostensibly authored by the Hungarian Nobel laureate’s sometime shadow, the recurring character known only as B., or to intimates as Bee. B., who has killed himself before both play and novel begin, puts the line in the mouth of a relatively minor member of the cast, a cuckolded and embittered intellectual named Kürti, who, like most of Kertész’s characters, has been thoroughly masticated and spat out by history’s tidal cruelties.
Kürti’s disgust is in this case inspired by the dingy Budapest offices of the state-financed publishing house—once a palace—that he is about to learn is on the verge of being liquidated as an unprofitable remnant of the Communist era. Construed narrowly, Kertész’s title refers to that liquidation, to a liquidation of an earlier sort (“Giving state support to literature is the state’s sneaky way for the state liquidation of literature,” Kürti scoffs), and of course, to B.’s suicide. More broadly, Kertész has his eyes on the 20th century’s varied efforts toward the liquidation of anything recognizable as human personality. “We are living in an age of disaster; each of us is a carrier of the disease,” B. decrees in one of many flashbacks. “Disaster man has no fate, no qualities, no character.”
This is an old theme for Kertész, appearing even in the title of his first book, 1975’s Fatelessness, a fictionalized account of his own experiences at Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Zeitz. Fatelessness is an eerie and painful novel, shocking not for its by-now familiar subject matter, but for the tone of earnest goodwill with which the young narrator attempts to understand his situation. (In one passage he discovers fleas feasting on his open wounds and, despite his horror, considers the insects’ hunger and concludes that, “taking everything into account, I could see it their way.”) In 1990’s excellent Kaddish for an Unborn Child—which, sadly, completes the slim triad of Kertész’s works available in English—he explains (via B.) that “one’s religious duty, totally independent of the crippling religions of crippling churches, is . . . understanding the world.”
And with brutal intellectual rigor, Kertész does his best, refusing to let the Holocaust be sacralized as some mythical exception that stands outside of history, or as an untouchable sinkhole of meaning. The Nazi genocide is not an inexplicable catastrophe for Kertész, it’s a given, the channel through which the world must be understood. “Auschwitz has been hanging around in the world since long ago,” B. discourses in a party scene in Kaddish, “perhaps for centuries, like dark fruit ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable disgraces, waiting for the moment when it may at last drop on mankind’s head.” The problem, as he poses it, is not explaining evil, but accounting for the existence of good.
That scene—in which B. meets the woman who will eventually become his ex-wife—recurs in Liquidation. But though B., who in this volume we learn was actually born at Auschwitz, casts a long shadow over Liquidation, he is not the novel’s hero. That honor goes to the aptly named Kingbitter, B.’s former editor and sort-of friend, who is obsessed by his search for the missing manuscript of B.’s perhaps hypothetical novel. After B.’s death, Kingbitter was only able to rifle his apartment long enough to find a play and assorted jottings before he had to belatedly inform the police of his friend’s suicide. That play features Kingbitter in its cast, as well as Kürti and the assorted other B.-enthralled and B.-damaged characters of the novel. It begins shortly after B.’s death and, oddly enough, predicts with near perfect accuracy various scenes in Kingbitter and Co .’s post-B. existence.
Though Kingbitter’s search for the vanished manuscript provides the ostensible motor behind the much fragmented plot, his real purpose is to grapple with the fate of the fateless, to tell both the “untellable” story of B. and “the way we, persons who with B.’s disappearance had all at once been left without stories, attempted to interpret that story.” None of those stories is happy (save one, perhaps), and Liquidation is a profoundly melancholy book, wrestling not just with the legacy of the Holocaust, but with the decades of authoritarianism and disappointment that followed.
It is not, in the end, a successful book. Kertész quickly drops his prescient play-within-a-novel and only picks it up again as an occasional afterthought. He twists off too many narrative and meta-narrative strands, then seems to forget which ones he’s holding and how they intertwine. It’s a novel in tatters, which is of course part of the point: “The world is composed of disintegrating fragments, an incoherent dark chaos, sustained by writing alone.” That last clause is key. Liquidation is at its core a book about writing, about trying to tell stories that resist being told. “Man may live like a worm,” Kingbitter insists, “but he writes like a god,” which, sometimes at least, in flashes, is enough.