Caught up in a mix of languages and nationalities, rejected as a Jew by Jews and as a Hungarian by Hungarians, György abandons his name and adapts to the strange life of the camp. He is helped by a friend and then by a Prominent prisoner who gives him a place in the SS hospital, which enables him to survive till the camp's liberation.
All of this is seen through the eyes of a naive and sometimes gauche teenager. The narrative is straightforward and understated, with a focus on the immediate and physical, especially the bodily experience of hunger, maltreatment and sickness.
Though not directly autobiographical, Fatelessness is based on Kertesz's own experiences and is less "literary" than his later works. It is a novel rather than a memoir, however, and there are episodes that seem to reflect later concerns. Early on György's first kiss is with a girl who proceeds to discuss the nature of Jewishness and the effects of having to wear a yellow star. And, returning to Budapest at the end of the novel, he encounters a denier — "did you see the gas chambers yourself?" — and an overenthusiastic journalist who has decided on his story already and only hears what can be fitted into that.
Published thirty years after the war instead of three, it is hardly surprising that Fatelessness is more distanced than Primo Levi's If This Be a Man. It stands in the same league, however, and is one of the outstanding novels of the Holocaust.
Note: Fatelessness was originally published in 1975 as Sorstalanság. Confusingly, another English translation exists with the title Fateless.