By Imre Kertesz. Knopf. 130 pp. $22
THE FINAL SOLUTION
By Michael Chabon. 4th Estate/Harper Collins. 131 pp. $16.95
However meager it may be in comparison to the clamorous acclaim of Hollywood or Fenway Park, literary fame has its effects on the few writers so blessed. And of course different writers use the renown conferred upon them by various glorious prize-giving institutions in different fashions. Some bask, and others challenge themselves. 2002 Nobelist Imre Kertesz's latest novel, Liquidation, is a continuous shriek of pain leavened by metafictional diversion, whereas American Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon gives us The Final Solution, a slight confection that whispers of enormity.
Kertesz's novel begins after the fall of communism with the introduction of Kingbitter, an editor at a failing Hungarian publishing house. He is wrestling with the last manuscript of his friend B., who killed himself 10 years earlier, in 1990. Oddly, B.'s manuscript, a play with the same title as the book in which it appears, recreates the dialogue among his friends that follows his suicide. Immediately a reader is thrown into a vortex where reality and imagination intermingle. The vortex gets denser as Kingbitter searches for a lost novel that he is certain B. must have been working on.
The situation is complicated by the fact that B. was having an affair with Sarah, one of Kingbitter's companions, while Kingbitter himself was having an affair with B.'s wife, Judit. Why don't any of these people make a serious commitment? Because this is Eastern Europe, where divorce is "as nonsensical as staying together." Yet the domestic turmoil of these characters' lives is nothing compared to the historical wreckage that surrounds them. A residue of Soviet oppression hangs in the air, along with a taint that dates back to the Holocaust. B., it turns out, was one of the handful of children born into the dark day of Auschwitz, and his corpse has a tattoo on its thigh because an infant's arm was too small to bear the tattoo.
An infant tattooed in Auschwitz? This sounds preposterous, but such anomalies did occur, and B. himself shrugs, "It happened . . . an exception, an anecdote. A speck of grit gets into the corpse-mincing machine." Lest one perceive this as a single ray of light within the Holocaustal universe, B. never overcomes the circumstances of his birth. He maintains a "fundamental view that Evil was the life principle." Occasionally his statements resemble those of the brilliantly cynical Romanian aphorist E.M. Cioran: "Fortunately, people have lost their flair for greatness and only their flair for murder has persisted." B.'s whole life is a repugnant miracle, a violation of the rule of death. His internal conflict looms so large that the only solution to his dilemma is a final one: "Taking one's own life amounts to outwitting those who stand on guard." Or perhaps the suicide is really a murder that merely took 50 years to consummate, the result of a slow-acting poison that devours the soul from within. Like so many Holocaust writers, including the more placidly mournful Primo Levi, he remains a victim of the camps decades after liberation.
Another victim of the 1940s is Linus Steinman, the 9-year-old boy who sets the plot of Michael Chabon's The Final Solution in motion. A refugee from wartime Europe in rural England, Linus has a face "like a blank back page from the book of human sorrows" and never says a word. His pet parrot, Bruno, however, never stops spouting an apparently endless stream of numbers in German. Due to a glitch in the system analogous to the one that saved B., Linus's father was kept alive as the personal psychiatrist to a high-ranking German officer with access to secret information that Bruno has committed to his avian memory. Whatever the parrot's numbers represent -- a military cipher, the code to a Swiss bank account, perhaps something more ominous -- certain people want them.
Among the possible parrot thieves are the Rev. Mr. K.T. Panicker, "a faithless middle aged minister, drunk and in flight from the ruin of his life," with whom Linus is housed; Reggie, the reverend's ne'er-do-well son; Martin Kalb from the Aid Committee that arranged Linus's housing; Richard Shane, another Panicker lodger who is ostensibly the representative of a dairy equipment firm; and Mr. Black, a London dealer in rare birds. As required by the genre, there's a murder, and it falls to the British constabulary to solve it. Luckily, they are assisted by "the old man," a retired detective who lives in the vicinity. Though never named, the pipe-smoking old man is probably the most famous crime-solver in literary history: Sherlock Holmes.
Chabon writes with plummy luxury, describing a "dust-furred tin of violet pastilles, stamped with the portrait of a British general whose great victory had long since lost any relevance to the present situation of the Empire." Similarly, his characters have almost too much of a way with words. The detective says, "I was far less sunk in decrepitude than the withered carapace you now see." But although the language is often luscious enough to lap up, it leaves a bad taste because Chabon uses a background of genocide for what is essentially a young adult novel or a mystery story. Consider the awful cringe-inducing pun of the title.
In a very different way, Kertesz offers bad taste too -- not a matter of mere propriety but the moral opposite. To him, bland good taste is an offense against a world of "inanity, barbarity, and villainy." Both of these short novels reveal that, 60 years after the Holocaust, the effects linger in the survivors' minds and in writers' imaginations. People still can't tear their eyes away from the most unjust event in human history. As B. puts it, "Auschwitz is irrevocable." *
Melvin Jules Bukiet is the author or editor of nine books, including, most recently, "Nothing Makes You Free" and "A Faker's Dozen." He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.