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Kaddish for a Child Not Born Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 23 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Kaddish for a Child Not Born.
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Kaddish for a Child Not Born Summary & Study Guide Description

Kaddish for a Child Not Born Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains For Further Reading on Kaddish for a Child Not Born by Imre Kertész.

Kaddish for a Child Not Born opens with an emphatic “No!” The narrator is responding to an as-yet unknown question while on a walk with a philosopher. He thinks about how “life itself demands explanations from us,” and we end up “explaining ourselves to death.” He would rather not talk, but he finds the urge irresistible. The narrator and philosopher are staying at a resort near the Central Mountains in Hungary. The narrator explains, “if I didn't work I would have to exist, and if I existed, I don't know what I would be forced to do then.” But he does not want to socialize with his fellow intellectuals at the resort. His meeting in the woods with Dr. Oblath, a professor of philosophy, is by chance.

In thinking about the question, the narrator claims “with this 'no' I destroyed everything, demolished everything, above all, my ill-fated, short-lived marriage.” Dr. Oblath has asked the narrator if he has a child. Although the answer is a simple “no,” the underlying decision is complex and at the heart of the story to be told. Dr. Oblath expresses that he and his wife do not have a child, and it has only recently occurred to him to regret their lack of offspring. For the rest of their walk the narrator and Dr. Oblath talk about the state of the world and other large topics, to which the narrator privately assigns little value. He finally admits to himself that he stays to walk and talk with Dr. Oblath to avoid his own emptiness.

This emptiness catches up with him at night, when he is alone in his room. There is a thunderstorm and his mind, mirroring the explosive weather, goes back over the question of children: “'Were you to be a dark-eyed girl? With pale spots of scattered freckles around your little nose? Or a stubborn boy? With cheerful, hard eyes like blue-grey pebbles?'” Many years pass before he is able to capture his thoughts about his unborn children and what they mean on paper, “[his] life in the context of the potentiality of [their] existence.”

The narrator thinks of his career as a literary translator and writer, which draws him to thoughts about his ex-wife. She questioned him about his motives: “'if you don't want to be successful, then why do you bother to write at all?'” He acknowledges that his ex-wife is more insightful than he originally acknowledged. Now when they meet each other she seems to feel guilty and nostalgic. He bears her no ill will because all she wants is to live fully, which she could not do while married to him.

The narrator slips back to thinking about his writing, pondering how he used it to engage in a dialogue with God, but now God is dead so the dialogue needs be with other people and with oneself.

He recalls how as a child he was sent one summer to visit relatives in the country. He thinks of these relatives as “real Jews,” those who observe rituals and rites of their religion, Judaism. While there, the narrator opens a bedroom door and sees his aunt as “a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror.” The narrator, as a child, is disgusted and mortified; this image comes to signify real Jewishness for him.

When the war engulfs Hungary, the narrator finds himself, a secular Jew, being grouped with people like his relatives, and he suddenly sees himself as “a bald woman in a red gown in front of a mirror.” The narrator then explains how he has come to terms with his Jewishness. One time while waiting for his future wife at a café he overhears two beautiful young women talk about men. One tells the other that she could not have sex with a Jew, which enrages the narrator.

His future wife then arrives. She has read his work and wants to talk to him about it. He remembers their love when it was young and is pained. He finally settles on wanting to remember because “memory is knowledge.” His thoughts about memory and knowledge trail into ones about the war, the Holocaust, and being a survivor. He makes no fuss over being a survivor, although he finds himself writing compulsively, inexplicably. He makes a living from his writing although he does not feel he has to because he could have chosen some other profession. Ultimately he feels there is a very serious connection between his writing and survival. His writing does not offer solutions, just occupation and possible escape. He considers his writing to be a form of grave digging, a grave begun at the concentration camps: “the pen is my spade.” He sees his fate is not so much about choosing childlessness as about just never having children. Earlier in life, when thinking about his unborn children, the narrator saw his “life in the context of the potentiality of [their] existence.” Now he sees their “nonexistence in the context of the necessary and fundamental liquidation of [his own] existence.”

He remembers again the party at which he met his wife. Someone got the idea to name where they were during the war. When someone says “Auschwitz” (just ahead of the narrator), the host declares that that response is “unbeatable,” as if this were a contest grimly won. The partygoers then begin to discuss a popular book which contained this sentence: “Auschwitz cannot be explained.” The narrator is appalled at how easily the intelligent people at this party accept the value of this sentence. He voices his opinion and at this point his future wife notices him and comes to speak to him afterward.

He says that now he rarely voices his opinions, although they have not changed. He does not go to the resort to exchange opinions with intellectuals. When he is not at the resort, he is in his apartment in Józsefváros, a district near the heart of Budapest. It is the same place where he lived as a child. He thinks unhappily upon his childhood.

The narrator then returns to the statement: “Auschwitz cannot be explained.” He accuses the book's author of telling people to be silent about Auschwitz, act as if it never existed. The narrator states that rather “what could not be explained is that no Auschwitz ever existed.” He then philosophizes that Auschwitz has been waiting to happen for a long time, that the explanation of Auschwitz can be found only in individual lives—and that people are ruled by common criminals. Alluding to Adolf Hitler, he states that even when “demonic,” a great man is still a great man and such a man was needed for “our disgusting affairs.” The narrator then declares that rulers do not interest him, but saints do because they are irrational.

He tells a story about an emaciated man called the Professor who was with him on a carriage transport for sick prisoners. The narrator was ill, and there was very little food. The Professor got the narrator's portion and then they were separated. The narrator knew that while he would likely die without that food, the Professor's chances of survival would have been greatly increased with the extra food. But the Professor found the sick boy and gave him his food. When he sees the surprise on the narrator's face, he replies with “recognizable disgust on his moribund face: 'Well, what did you expect ... ?'”

The narrator then writes about failure, concluding that “failure alone remains as the one single accomplishable experience.” Life and writing both are strife; writing is about life and doomed to failure as soon as the writing begins. The narrator wonders why he works—except that he must. He recalls a conversation with his ex-wife about the Professor. He tells her what the Professor did is about freedom, rather than survival (which is what would be natural). She disagrees, saying that what the Professor did is natural.

The narrator thinks about women and relationships. He would like to believe that his personal freedom is required to keep himself enthusiastic about his work but actually it is the struggle for that freedom. Both freedom and happiness seem to stunt his work. Thinking upon unhappiness, he realizes his situation: he requires a continuous source of pain to maintain his ability to work. Having realized it, he is able to dismiss it as having any power over himself. Following this analysis, in his next relationship with a woman the narrator avows that they can remain together only so long as love is not a part of their union. But then he meets his future wife. He is living in a rented room while his friends have bought houses at the price of their mental and physical health; however, he willingly chooses his more transient lifestyle.

The narrator remembers how, when his camp was liberated, he came upon a German soldier cleaning a bathroom sink and smiling at him. The experience was disorienting, this reversal of their situations. After liberation, the narrator continued to live at the camp for some time, and he feels that he is continuing that experience by being a renter. But this so-called freedom is complicated by the sense that “the Germans may return at any time.” Therefore he is not living, only surviving.

He clings fiercely to his few possessions, but otherwise he keeps himself free of being controlled by possessions. He rents and is not concerned with maintaining the property. He rents furnished apartments and never thinks to rearrange or replace the furniture. Once in a while he buys a book; otherwise, he despises clutter.

He has long suffered from a sense of alienation. The narrator feels that if he could only understand all of himself—his physical bodily functions as well as his mind and soul—all in one tremendous moment, then he would not feel alienated. He is searching for salvation beyond any religion or creed. The narrator lives the life of a renter so that he can be “ripe for change.” When he was younger, he decided that his life was not an arbitrary set of occurrences. All of his experiences are tools of recognition. He and his ex-wife were fated to meet and marry; his failed marriage showed him his path of self-destruction.

When he first met his ex-wife, she asked him if he still suffered for his Jewishness. The narrator does not answer her immediately, but he knows his Jewish identity to be a sin he carries with him, although it is not a sin he committed. She wants to talk about the story of his she read: a Christian man learns he qualifies as a Jew by law and is carted off to the ghetto, the cattle train, and beyond. He finds salvation and freedom from his bigotry regarding the Jews in his new identity: “by being excluded from one community one does not automatically become a member of another.” His future ex-wife is fascinated with the idea that “one can make a decision concerning one's Jewishness.” She experiences the same liberated feeling and credits the narrator's writing with teaching her how to live.

He learns then that she was born after Auschwitz but feels that she has always lived with the stigma of being Jewish. Her parents were both at Auschwitz and there her mother contracted an unidentified illness. She died at a relatively young age. Her mother's illness and death drove his ex-wife to become a doctor. After her mother's death, her aunt came to live with her and her father. His future ex-wife avoided all talk about Jewish matters, throwing herself into her school work. On the one occasion that she did voice an opinion, she was shamed into silence by her aunt.

After they are married, they overhear an anti-Semitic sentiment being sung by drunks in the street. The narrator disregards it but his wife is brought to tears, afraid that there will never be an end to the curse of their Jewishness. She wonders what it is that makes her Jewish since she is not religious and knows nothing of the culture. The narrator tells her “the one singular fact that made her a Jew was this and nothing else: that she had not been to Auschwitz.” Their marriage is already deteriorating at this time. The narrator and his wife talk of a novel he will write about the struggle for happiness. His wife is excited about it, seeing this work as a testament to their marriage. The narrator belatedly understands that it is a mistake to let her get so close to his writing. At the same time, he enjoys her attention. But he has “always had a secret life and that has always been the real one.”

One night his wife asks him to father her child. He answers, “No.” What if the child did not want to be a Jew? The narrator is content to live out the life he has been dealt but cannot bear the thought that his child would not be content with the same life. He recalls seeing a family board a streetcar in which he was riding, a mother, father, and three girls. The sulky middle child was jealous of the attention her weeping younger sister got from their mother; the eldest tried to comfort her sister but was shaken off; and the father finally quiets the youngest child. The narrator is horrified by their miserable, exhausted faces.

He then clearly states that he will not have a child because he “could never be another person's father, fate, god ... It should never happen to another child, what happened to me: my childhood.” Thus he begins to explain his childhood to his wife. He recalls an old, repeating dream of visiting his grandparents. In the dream, they are weak. He brings them a ham but it is not very big and they are hungry. Death is near for them. The dream dissipates but the narrator has other memories of his grandparents, all of them dark with age, antique.

Then the narrator remembers the boarding school he attended from age five to ten. His father would take him to school every Monday morning. One rainy Monday morning as an adult, he revisited that building and the memories there: the building is derelict, converted to tenements. A plaque has been installed to commemorate his old director, the Diri. At the boarding school the students were all assigned an individual number. The narrator's was 1 because he was the youngest student. He remembers the dining hall meals fondly; he remembers always being hungry. The prayer before meal was carefully scripted to be appropriate for both Jews and Christians. He attended the boarding school following his parents' divorce. The reason they gave him for their divorce was that they “didn't understand each other,” which was very confusing to a five-year-old boy: “It was like a death sentence, I had to accept it.”

As an adult he recognizes his boarding school as an echo of other institutions. The authority of his director was the result of organized fear and not any kind of earned respect. Even the teachers feared him. The narrator recalls a scandal that occurred one year when a senior student and a new kitchen girl locked themselves in a closet overnight. A teacher known as “Pudge” discovered the student missing and made a very public scene of trying to get him and the girl out of the closet. The senior was expelled which the narrator thinks of as a public castration that all of the other students cooperated with by way of their silent acceptance.

He also remembers the “Saturday rapports.” The students lined up in front of the faculty, including the Diri, and heard the weekly verdict of their behavior and scholarship. He likens it to divine judgment. Just a few years later, the Diri was sent to the crematorium—which end, he believes, is “the fruit of the successful education I received at his hands, of the culture in which he believed and for which he prepared us pedagogically.”

His father took over his education at the age of ten. The narrator has long tried in vain to understand his father and their relationship. His father lectured him repeatedly; the narrator knew what he was going to say. He pitied his father, and perhaps loved him, though he does not believe his love was sufficient. His pity led to loneliness because it undermined his father's authority. “Auschwitz ... struck me later as simply an elaboration of those virtues in which I have been indoctrinated since childhood.” He concludes that it all began with his childhood: the breaking of his spirit and his own impulse toward survival. He tells his wife: “Auschwitz ... appears to me in the image of a father” and “if the observation is that God is an exalted father, then God, too, is revealed to me in the image of Auschwitz.”

One night the narrator's wife comes home and tells him that she wants to live and cannot save him from himself or his past and so they must separate. She has found another man, a Gentile. After his marriage and indeed throughout his life, the narrator knows that “my work saved me, albeit it saved me for the sake of destruction.”

At the end of the novel, the narrator remembers how, during the years when he visited the resort, he agreed to meet his ex-wife as usual at a café. She arrives with two children, a girl and a boy—her children from her second marriage. The narrator is swept with emotion and offers this conclusion to his book-length mourner's kaddish:

with the baggage of this life in my raised hands I may go and in the dark stream of the fast-flowing black warmth / I may drown / Lord God / let me drown / forever, / Amen.

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