Randy’s Reviews: Gratitude, by Joseph Kertes (Randyjw; July 14, 2018)
GRATITUDE. Joseph Kertes. Copyright 2008 by Joseph Kertes. First published in Canada by the Penguin Group. First U.S. Edition: October 2009. Printed in the USA. Thomas Dunne Books; an imprint of St. Martin’s Press; 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
I have always loved to read. But, I am the type of person who likes to buck a trend, simply for the fact that things can become boringly staid when “everyone else” is following the latest fad. What this information implies for this book review, and toward books in general, is that the craft of the trade, the functionality of its literary terminology and the process of the book trade itself, have all conspired to impart a procedurally-stultifying expectation of a letter-perfect manual as to how the job should be done, how a books’ characters should behave, how its ending should be contrived (neither too simplistic, nor too absurd), and how reasonably soon an author will fall into the trap of compliance to the formulaic equation of the genre he/she is attempting to portray.
What if a book were to ditch a reader’s expectations and, instead, wrote in a unique voice that didn’t conform to supposed norms for plot, character development, length, succinctly drawn protagonists/antagonists, minor players, etc.? Well, that would be a breath of fresh air, wouldn’t it? The end result wouldn’t deprive exclusive scholars from privileged membership to the written-word appreciation club, and yet entry would expand to the artistically-visual, the dexterously-nimble, the misfittedly simple and others who can appreciate a voice for the emotions it imparts, the mind-imagery it evokes, the information it reveals, and other unique facets it details.
Since I’m still having difficulty synthesizing the essence of my experience with Gratitude, I feel it falls into a hard-to-peg amalgam of the various writerly techniques masterfully used to explore different and difficult subjects, and which comes off amazingly well for the harshness of the subject matter with which it must deal.
Since a publishing house never wishes to promote cause for libel or slander, and to incur damaging lawsuits as a result, the first notification to this extent that you can see is explicitly written straight after the inside titling pages of the book, indicating that the work is completely fictionalized as a product of the author’s imagination. This disclaimer, as a disclosure, is disconcerting, in that the classification of fiction-writing, as a whole, is one of its own problems, and one of its specific gifts, since one can never know for certain the exact percentage which poetic license plays in the accounting of a historical event, or events, inclusive of its non-fictional characters.
In the matter of subjects pertaining to Judaism or Jewish history, or that of any other people or event, it can become problematic to blend mythological products of a writer’s imagination with the real-life horrors of a crime as large as genocide: the wiping out of an entire ethnic race or people, such as the Jews, in an aspect as so horrific as the Holocaust.
I had read a book many, many years ago about Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat around whose name brings controversy for unstated reasons with regard to the Jews during the time of the Holocaust. In popular lore, Raoul Wallenberg is attributed with saving many Jews during the Nazi German purge to make Europe a predominantly “Aryan” master race, which Adolf Hitler was carrying out through elimination of those people he classified as subhuman, such as homosexual people, Gypsy Roma, the handicapped, and the Jew. I don’t recall what the controversy about Wallenberg actually entailed, or whether I knew what it was to begin with. I believe it may have been something along the lines, as it may have also been the same in the case with Oskar Schindler, perhaps, that of the Jews who eventually survived the Holocaust and their questioning descendants might analyze in hindsight in another frame of mind — a singular aspect comes to mind, and it is this: Not all of the Jews could be saved; so by what method were they chosen? How could someone else actually do the choosing, by themselves making their own “selections”?
It would be a question which would haunt us Jews throughout the seven previous decades since the Holocaust occurred. And we still never have any good answers. We look at it from all moral angles, and ask: how can a Kapo, a leader chosen by the Germans from amongst the Jewish population to report as a representative liaison between the parties and to middle-manage the Nazi decisions as to who, which Jews, would be chosen for extermination in the next “selection,” actually carry out his decision?
How did Swedish diplomats Raoul Wallenberg, Per Anger, and others, including one of the people in author Kertes’ novel, decide who could be saved and who couldn’t? Such random, or preferential decisions could never be easy ones, and there would always be recriminating fingers pointing, regardless of who was saved. Such consequences for these decisions were also cast at the Jewish organizations who were also trying to help ferret out Jewish people to safety from a certain death; yet they were also spoken about, after-the-fact, with reproachful, hushed undertones of horror and manipulation, nepotism and cronyism. The subject matter of death and genocide almost demands that it be so.
In any case, Joseph Kertes’ book is written with a combination of factual detail reminiscent of actual events, and the prose of stream-of-consciousness writing that he utilizes as a family member in his own narrative to these characters in real-life actuality. I think this comes across very well throughout the book, and gives it an emotionality which would be all too lacking, otherwise. Other reviewers miss the mark with this aspect of his work; I think it makes the work what it is. It is emotional. At the end, you are left saying, Well… what does it all come down to? There are some instances where there are certain references which seem more of today’s times than to have ever occurred in conversation during those days; this happened about four times, and I found it annoying. But, overall, I think it is worth reading Gratitude.