He wanders back over his childhood — a broken family, years in a boarding school — and his time in Auschwitz and the way that has marked him, both personally and in the perception of others. He agonises over what being Jewish means for a man without faith, over his failure as a writer — he has become a literary translator instead — and over why he won't have children. And he repeatedly returns to his first meeting with his ex-wife, with whom he is clearly still obsessed, and to the failure of his marriage. The mood is dark: Kaddish For a Child Not Born is a questioning of existence, a purposeful "digging of a grave in the air", a "No!" hurled at the world.
It's easy to see why Kertesz is never going to be a best-selling author, Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Kaddish For a Child Not Born offers a dense, complex stream of consciousness, with ideas spread out in almost holographic fashion. It also has long sentences and hardly any paragraph breaks, and makes frequent use of italics for emphasis.
"No" - something screamed and howled within me, it is impossible that this, this childhood, should happen to the child - to you - and to me. Yes, and that was the time when I started to tell my wife about my childhood, or, perhaps, it was myself, I don't really know, but I was telling her with all the generosity of my logorrhea, with all its compulsiveness, I was telling it uninhibited, for days and for weeks I continued telling it, actually even now, even though I'm no longer telling it to my wife.But Kertesz also follows the natural progressions of thought; his writing is intense rather than obscure or difficult.
Though fewer than one hundred pages long, Kaddish For a Child Not Born feels much more substantial. It is a powerful work that will bear rereading: largely autobiographical, it is an honest self-examination without any attempt at concealment or evasion.
Note: the newer translation by Tim Wilkinson with the title Kaddish for an Unborn Child is apparently superior to this one.