Half-asleep on a bench in Bryant Park near the Cesar Chavez exit off the 101, pleasantly drugged by the gentle waft of exhaust fumes drifting from the crawling traffic, the sun hot on my face, the pigeons serenely hunting the asphalt beneath me, a few dogs barking, the whap and roll of the skateboards—I think of the skateboarders, their intense, silent concentration, if I could concentrate on a sentence, Jesus, if I could concentrate on anything, the way they do on the curve of a ramp—when a voice, feminine in nature, speaks:
“What book are you reading that makes you fall asleep?”
I squint into the light. In the sun’s glare all I can see are the top of what are apparently bright yellow jeans. Exposed flesh. A belly button. I imagine this voice emanating from said belly button, which when you think about it is kind of like a little mouth. Still, I am always a little put off when people ask me what book I’m reading. I find it the kind of aggressive act whose intent, it seems, is to make me stop reading because something about it is making the questioner uncomfortable. Why does reading freak so many people out? Normally I flash the offender an unfamiliar title emblazoned with, if I’m lucky, an unpronounceable foreign name. That usually scares off more conversation. Even though I have such a book in this instance, there is something about her voice. I say, “A novel by Imre Kertész. And I’m not sleeping, I’m dozing.” I still can’t see her. I’m still lying down and the sun is still blazing white in my eyes.
“Hungarian. Writes about the Holocaust.”
“Oh,” the voice says, and sits down beside my feet on what little room is left on the bench.
“There’s no such thing as recreational reading.”
For a while I don’t say anything, I just keep lying there, squinting, gripping the book to my chest.
She doesn’t say “Oh” as in sounds interesting, maybe I’ll check that out sometime. It’s an open-ended Oh, a keep talking sort of Oh, but only if I want to. Within that Oh, silence is okay by her, too. Holocaust literature as pick-up line. Low-rent Woody Allen. For a while I don’t say anything, I just keep lying there, squinting, gripping the book to my chest.
“It’s about a guy who survives—he’s actually born at Auschwitz. Later in life, his wife leaves him because he refuses to have children. Because how could anybody bring up child in a world like this? You know what I mean? How could anyone blame him? To this guy bringing a child into a world where such nightmares become real amounts to almost a sadistic thing to do. So the only honorable course of action, the only holy decision he can make, is to repudiate his own flesh. Okay, not the happiest of books. And it’s pretty much all one conversation this guys having with himself, one long, demented but at the same time completely rational conversation he’s having with himself, based on a conversation he once had with this other guy, Dr. Oblath, who may, or may not be, real. It’s a mesmerizing book, actually. Utterly and completely—”
“Except you fell asleep.”
“Well, sometimes the sentences go on for days, but it’s brilliant, every sorrowful word is—”
“Also, there’s a lull in the middle.”
“While he lives his life. After Auschwitz.”
“Could happen to anybody. You don’t need to have lived through—”
“Kaddish means a mourner’s prayer. In this case, a Kaddish for a child that was never even conceived. A child who was only an idea, that never breathed a single breath and yet he prays and he prays–”
“I know what Kaddish means,” the voice says.
After a few minutes of silence she squeezes my right foot, not hard, just saying hello and so long in a single gesture. She’s gone. I go back to reading. “No!” something within me bellowed, howled, instantly and at once, and my whimpering abated only gradually, after the passage of long years, into a sort of quiet but obsessive pain until, slowly and malignantly, like an insidious illness, a question assumed ever more definite form within me: Would you be a brown-eyed little girl, with pale specks of your freckles scattered around your tiny nose? Or else a headstrong boy, your eyes bright and hard as greyish-blue pebbles?
Kaddish for a Child Not Born is available in two translations: by Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Evanston: Northwestern, 1977), and by Tim Wilkinson under the title Kaddish for an Unborn Child (New York: Random House, 2004). Northwestern’s translation came out first (before Kertész won the Nobel Prize; hand it to small presses for often spotting great work before the monoliths), but I can’t say I’m partial to it since I have yet to read the new version. I will say, though the book may have once put me to sleep, I will never, ever forget it. Few books I know of capture the contradiction between the wonder of being alive and the misery of being alive with such relentless fever.
Peter Orner is the author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, Esther Stories, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo: A Novel, and Love and Shame and Love. A new book of essays, Am I Alone Here? will be published in November 2016 by Catapult. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Paris Review, Granta, as well as in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He is also the editor of the oral histories Underground America and Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives. Orner has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes. Orner is currently a visiting professor at Northwestern University.