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Excerpt: 'Fiasco'

Fiasco by Imre Kertesz

A strange ecstasy took hold of me; I lived a double life: my present—albeit halfheartedly, reluctantly, and my concentration-camp past—with the acute reality of the present. My readiness to immerse myself in it almost scared me; even now I could not give a reason for the voluptuous feeling which attended it. I don't know if memory itself is attended by that delight, irrespective of its subject, since I would not say that a concentration camp is exactly a bowl of fun; yet the fact is that during this period the slightest impression was enough to hurtle me back into my past. Auschwitz was present here, inside me, sitting in my stomach like an undigested dumpling, its spices belching up at the most unexpected moments. It was sufficient for me to glimpse a desolate locality, a barren industrial area, a sun-baked street, the concrete pilings of a newly started building, to breathe in the raw smell of pitch and timber, for ever-newer details, input, and moods to well up with something like the force of actuality.

For a time, I awoke each morning on the barrack forecourt at Auschwitz. It took a while for me to realize that this perception was evoked by a constant olfactory stimulus. A few days before, I had bought a new leather strap for my wristwatch. At night I put the watch on a low shelf directly by the bedside. Most likely that characteristic smell, reminiscent of chlorine and a distant stench of corpses, had lingered on the strap from the tanning and other processes. Later on I even used the strap as a sort of sal volatile: when my memories flagged, lay low inertly in the crannies of my brain, I used it to entice them from their hiding places—smelling them to pieces, so to speak. I shrank from no means and no effort in waging my battle with time, wresting from it my due right. I crammed myself with my own life. I was rich, weighty, mature, I stood at the threshold of some sort of transformation. I felt like a wild pear tree which wanted to bear apricots.

However, the more vivid my memories, the more abjectly they were caught on paper. While I was remembering, I was unable to write the novel; but as soon as I started to write the novel, I stopped remembering. It's not that my memories suddenly vanished, they simply changed. They transformed into the contents of some kind of lucky-dip tub into which I would reach, at the intervals that I deemed necessary, for a negotiable bank note. I would pick and choose among them: this one I needed, that one, not. By now the facts of my life, the so-called "material of my experiences," only distracted, confined, and hampered me in my work of bringing into life the novel for which that life had originally provided the conditions for life and had nourished from first to last. My work—writing the novel—actually consisted of nothing else than a systematic atrophying of my experiences in the interest of an artificial—or if you prefer, artistic—formula that, on paper, and only on paper, I could judge as an equivalent of my experiences. But in order for me to write I had to look on my novel like every novel in general—as a formation, a work of art composed of abstract symbols. Without my noticing, I had taken a run-up and made a big leap, and with a single bound I had suddenly switched from the personal into the objective and the general, only then to look around me in astonishment. Yet there was no reason to be surprised; as I know now, I had already completed that leap as soon as I made the start on writing my novel. It was no use my trying to plod back to the intention, no use that my original ambition had been directed solely at this one novel and did not so much as squint at anything beyond it, did not extend beyond the pages of this manuscript: by its very nature, a novel is only a novel if it transmits something—and I too wanted to transmit something, otherwise I would not have written a novel. To transmit, in my own way, according to my own lights; to transmit the material that was possible for me, my own material, myself—for, overloaded and weighted down as I was by its burden, I was by now longing like a bloated udder simply for the relief of being milked, being interpreted . . . however, there was one thing that, perhaps naturally enough, I did not think of: we are never capable of interpreting for ourselves. I was taken to Auschwitz not by the train in the novel but by a real one.

Excerpted from Fiasco by Imre Kertesz, with permission from Melville House. All rights reserved.

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Imre Kertesz