***Spoilers follow, but no more than you would get from the cover of the book.
I haven't given a lot of 5 star ratings, but this one definitely earned all 5. It started with the pitch-perfect narrative voice of Gyorgy, a Hungarian Jewish teen, as he faced the deportation of his father to a labor camp during WWII. I have an 18-year-old step-son, and it was easy to place the words of Kertesz's protagonist directly into my step-son's head. Given where this book was clearly headed from chapter 1, it became incredibly poignant right away for me. As events unfold, our protagonist remains an essentially naive, unworldly, teenage boy. He is embarrassed by the emotions that events he can't fully understand are evoking in his elders. When all the Jewish teen workers at the oil plant are taken off their bus during the commute to work one morning and held pending further instructions, he is happy to play games with his fellow workers. While he is unaware of where events are leading, and lives very much in the moment, the reader is painfully aware of what the boxcars and the word Auschwitz on the gate of a camp to which he is transported portend. My uncle was among the American troops who liberated one of the death camps. As a child, I heard my father tell of the bar of soap-shaped clay he brought home to tell the tale of the ways people were seduced into death chambers. Hearing that story was my first experience of horror, and waves of that same horror washed over me as I continued to read this tale. The contrast between the protagonist's innocence and that horror are part of the power Kertesz, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, wields as he weaves this tale. Fortunately, the tale soon moves to Buchenwald and then to a more rural labor camp, but not before Gyorgy comes to understand what the horrible smell coming from the chimneys of a number of buildings in the distance signify. Despite what he slowly learns about his situation, Gyorgy continues to find ways to make the experience manageable physically and emotionally. His is a powerful lesson in mindfulness, resilience, and the ultimate complexity of human experience. When he eventually returns to Hungary and is told to put the whole experience of the horrors of his last year behind him, he tries to explain that he doesn't want to, can't forget the things he has experienced. In the end, he is unwilling to dismiss them, not out of a desire for revenge, or to preserve a record of atrocity, but because he is unwilling to relinquish the memories of the moments of happiness he was able to distill as he worked to create meaning in his ordeal.