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Entries in Dürrenmatt (4)


Die Panne

The unacted crimes on our conscience might not be subject to prosecution or trial, but we cannot so quickly dismiss them (and they never quit the territory of our nightmares). At many junctures of our life we will face a moral question that may be interpreted as envy but is better understood as learned ambition. We see what others have – a home, a career, wealth, a spouse, children, fame – and we wish the same for ourselves. The worst among us simultaneously desire their own gain and concomitant loss for the envied, and it should not surprise us that these are the sort of people whose unacted villainy often devolves into the stuff of police blotters and true crime bestsellers. Yet there is a third category of observer, he whose crimes are far more attenuated and remote. He did not pull the trigger as much as find the coin that slipped under the floor mat of a car at a toll that drove to a house where a bullet was found on a carpet next to a body whose fist was still clutching a list of names of people working at the toll. If this sounds a bit like a famous nursery rhyme, we should consider all the unacted deeds that nursery rhymes tend to enumerate. We should also consider this well-known tale.

The hero, so to speak, is a certain Alfredo Traps, a traveling textile salesman and a well-off citizen of notoriously well-off Switzerland, his choice of travel in his landlocked native land being a fancy car, more specifically a red Studebaker. My profound ignorance of cars, Studebakers and all others, prevents me from offering an opinion of any value on the object in question; but Traps will later confirm that its acquisition, a year ago now, fulfilled a long-time dream (Traps is the type of person who does not have cheap long-time dreams, unless you count his floozier extramarital episodes). As sole account manager of the Hephaestus plastic product, he assures us as all well-trained salesmen must that it is the "king of plastics, untearable, transparent ... as good for industrial use as for fashion, for war and for peace." From this diatribe we get the feeling that Traps is not only talking about Hephaestus – but anyway. Traps is somewhere on the way back from his habitual "four-hundred-kilometer" business day when his beloved Studebaker endures a breakdown, our story's ostensible namesake, and the towing authorities inform him that repairs will keep the car garaged overnight. As he contemplates the nearest village, we get a brief but telling glimpse into our traveler:

There was also a little factory nearby and numerous bars and inns which Traps had heard much about, but the rooms were full, a meeting of small livestock breeders having claimed all the beds, and the textile salesman was directed to a villa where people were sometimes put up for the night. Traps hesitated. It was still possible for him to head home by train, but he was tempted by the hope of having a little fun, as there were often girls in these villages as there had been in Großbiestringen recently who appreciated textile salesmen.

There remains little doubt as to the mores of our Traps, whom relativists would immediately exonerate for being a child of Catholic oppressiveness that does not allow for divorce – but relativists can go relativize elsewhere. No, we are dealing with someone of loose virtues who remains on constant vigil for advantage, be that advantage material or maidenly, a trait swiftly detected by the four grizzled widowers at that famous villa.

Villa or not, an evening with four old widowers certainly does not sound like what Traps had in mind. Yet his destiny has already been chosen when the condition of a free room for the night entails keeping four old men company for dinner. Traps being, despite a later claim, unalterably bourgeois as well as someone of "adequate manners," accepts the offer and sits down to a decadent meal the likes of which he has never had. His commensals are: Pilet, the sommelier and manager; his nameless moustached host who occupies, in apparent creeping senility, a footstool; Kummer, a red-faced salami of a man in a rocking chair; and the monocled Zorn, a "long and haggard" fellow with a hooked nose and unmatched socks whose "vest is incorrectly buttoned." German speakers will know that Kummer means "worry" or "concern" and Zorn "wrath," which will make sense given their former professions. And our aged quartet are also all members of the Schlaraffia, an organization I think I will leave to the curious to investigate through the intergalactic weapon known as Google; suffice it to say that "the land of milk and honey" can be translated into German as Schlaraffenland (we add that pilet is French for a pintail, a duck with a knife-like appendage). What were these former professions? The salami was once a defense attorney, the monocled icicle a prosecutor, and the budding dementia case – a very long time ago, it seems – a judge. Pilet was involved in the field of law enforcement, but his exact role is discussed towards the middle of our tale and does not need to be mentioned here. That said, careful artists pay close attention to the exact center of their works (Dürrenmatt is generally a careful artist), and at the center of Die Panne we find the following:

'Bad luck, I'm afraid, Mr. Prosecutor,' yelled Traps boisterously, 'terribly bad luck.  Gygax died of a heart attack, and it wasn't even his first. Years ago he had been victim to one, and was told that he would have to be careful. He tried to keep up the appearance of a healthy man, but every time he got anxious or worked up, one feared a relapse. I know this for a fact.'

'Ah, and from whom, then, do you know it?'

'From his wife, Mr. Prosecutor.'

'From his wife?'

'Be careful, for Heaven's sake,' whispered the defense attorney.

Who is Gygax? Traps's former boss. When did Gygax die? Oh, about a year ago. And why is Gygax's sad lot a subject of discussion? Because Gygax's timely decease allowed Traps to take his job, which he celebrated with the purchase of a certain red Studebaker, a car he needed since his last car suffered a breakdown also about a year ago, and we have said more than enough. 

Die Panne has been hailed as one of the finest German-language prose works of the twentieth century, and its accolades are not unmerited. Had it been originally composed for the screen, we could imagine another fate for Mr. Traps (oddly, the book, play, and film all feature somewhat different dénouements), one that bespoke his remorse in all its devastating hues. But Traps has been living in that oblivion unique to the bourgeois everyday: a land of milk and honey and Studebakers. The other oddity about the book must be its introduction, a regrettably topical rant about how almost every tale has already been told (providing the novella's subtitle, "A still-possible story"), considering that a mock trial is one of fiction's oldest conceits and the backhanded modesty of exhausted storytelling even older. Still, we read on with more than amusement and enthusiasm: we actually begin to wonder about Traps, about what he may or may not have done, about why he is so willing to go along with such geriatric nostalgia and throw himself headlong into the theatrical aspect of this extraordinary 'dinner theater.' One also gets the distinct impression that a little slap-and-tickle with the local barmaid would never have been as fulfilling.         


Der Verdacht

Novels are cumbersome beasts, for one very good reason: they are expected to coalesce into a solid shape. Modern novels have recognized this awkwardness and decided, rather stupidly, to eschew the tightness of structure altogether in favor of a hippie motto such as "life is a mess, so why shouldn't art be as well?" Surely, there are certain patterns in life, both salubrious and detrimental, and people can be wholly aware of the damage they are inflicting upon themselves and still persist in their bad habits (dating the wrong type of partners; smoking; picking arguments and criticizing others instead of ameliorating their own conditions; lamenting their lazy bourgeois fate). Yet few are those who assume the Archimedean point and absorb the wavelengths of their existence in their totality. When we reach the twilight of our days we may reflect on what has and has not passed, the opportunities forsaken or abused, the lives we touched and those we could not reach, but it takes a certain attitude to weave these threads into a tapestry. Much easier to leave it all in an untangled knot – and here I'm afraid I must dissent. I may walk the beach of my past, step gently into the spindrift, and recollect all at once every other moment in which I inhaled the sea air, but leaving the shreds of life in a corner unattended is beyond my capacity. Closure is not as important as knowing what lies at the heart of our machinations, a basic but paramount premise and one that fuels this fine novel.

Little can be expected of a dying protagonist, which might work to his advantage. We are therefore necessarily underwhelmed by the appearance of Bern police commissioner Hans Bärlach, a crusty, deathly ill old snoop whose faith in his own abilities wends its way through treacherous paths. For a large portion of the novel, Bärlach is bedridden and visited by a motley crew of colleagues: Hungertobel, his physician and friend, Gulliver, a ragamuffin behemoth and alcoholic, and Fortschig, a penniless, slightly mad writer of a feuilleton called the Apfelschuss (in the tradition of this Swiss hero). And it is precisely leafing through a magazine during bedrest that our Commissioner finds a picture of a certain Doctor Nehle who worked for some unwholesome forces at their worse outposts in the recently concluded Second World War. What is interesting about this Nehle, otherwise a common barbarian made famous by his cruelty, is his resemblance to a Doctor Emmenberger, who happens to run one of the choicest private clinics Switzerland has to offer. Sick and somewhat delirious, Bärlach pursues the likeness to the point of suggesting that this haphazard photo is anything but the residue of design and that Emmenberger and Nehle have much more in common.

Facts are then gathered: Emmenberger went off during the war to Chile, where he continued publishing esoteric articles and developing his fantastic career; Nehle, on the other hand, opted to serve the devil and would die by his own hand in a Hamburg hotel. His specialization were procedures without anesthesia, whose survival was rewarded with freedom – but he made sure that no one survived. No one, that is, except the giant Gulliver, a learned man of tremendous spirituality who one night tells Bärlach of his horrifying experiences in a torture camp:

This figure with countless victims on his conscience became something legendary, an outlaw, as if even the Nazis had been ashamed of their own. And yet Nehle lived on and no one doubted that he existed, not even the most diehard of atheists, because one most readily believes in a God who concocts devilish torments.

Putatively, Gulliver is talking about Nehle; but Emmenberger keeps surfacing as someone who could have attempted to force Nehle, a less cultured man with no classical education and an overly Berliner flavor to his German, to do his bidding. It just so happens that Hungertobel and Emmenberger were at medical school together, which leads Hungertobel to narrate a climbing accident from those years involving both doctors and three other young colleagues:

We knew full well that there was an emergency operation that could help, but no one dared think about it. Only Emmenberger understood and did not hesitate to act. He immediately examined the man from Lucerne, disinfected his knife in boiling water on the stove range and then performed an incision called a cricothyrotomy that occasionally has to be used in emergency situations in which the larynx is pierced between the Adam's apple and the cricoid to open up an air passage. This procedure was not the horrible part .... it was what was reflected in both their faces. The victim was almost numb owing to a lack of oxygen but his eyes were still open, wide open, and so he must have seen everything that happened, even if it all appeared to be a dream. And as Emmenberger made his incision, my God, Hans, his eyes also opened wide and his face became distorted; it was as if suddenly something devilish gleamed in his eyes, a kind of excessive pleasure in inflicting torture, or whatever you want to call it, a gleam so great that fear seized my every joint, if only for a second.

This description may be labeled a "filthy wealth of coincidence," and we can hope it is only that, even in the mid-twentieth century where such butchers were suddenly abundant. On the basis of the data from his two friends, Bärlach attempts to infiltrate Emmenberger's clinic as a terminally ill patient in need of special attention. Yet the attention he ultimately receives goes above and beyond any oath, Hippocratic or otherwise.

Some of us may think of Switzerland as a fecund and neutral land with persons of all ages and languages cycling around town on their red-and-white pillions (a quaint and lovely picture, and not wholly untrue). Dürrenmatt wisely refrains from destroying our paradise with hard-boiled noir based on cynicism, selfishness and skulduggery. What he presents, albeit shortly after a war in which his compatriots did not participate, is a soft haven, a reef amidst the endless storms of man's ambitions, a pocket of nature still susceptible to plots and craven silence. It is perhaps most telling that the novel does not harbor any pretense of ambiguity as to the guilty parties, nor really how matters will be settled. Suspense is replaced by the slow stream of the commissioner's suspicion, hence the title, and the elaborate details that compose its development. On several occasions the very sick Bärlach's doubts are gently dismissed as the whims of someone well on his way to his final destination, but the text's narrator never allows us for a minute to share in that doubt. One hundred twenty pages on a criminal about whose guilt we haven't the slightest reservation? Perhaps that's why the only person in the novel who claims the devil doesn't exist can neither speak nor hear.


Der Hund (part 2)

The conclusion to a story ("The dog") by this Swiss man of letters.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

How could I ever forget our love?  The windows loomed somewhere in the room as a horizon of slender right angles above our nakedness.  We lay there body against body, sinking further and further into one another, embracing with rising desire, and the noises from the street combined with the forlorn screams of our lust.  Sometimes it was the shuffling stumble of the intoxicated; at other times, the traipsing of the neighborhood harlots; at still other times, the long monotonous stomp of a passing army cohort which resolved itself into the crispness of horses' hoofs and the rolling of wheels.  We lay together below the earth's surface, swathed in its warm darkness, no longer afraid; and from the corner where the man was sleeping on his mattress soundlessly as if he were dead, we saw the yellow eyes of the dog staring at us, round slices of two sulphuric moons spying on our love.

An incandescent autumn came, yellow and red, followed late in the year by winter – mild, without the venturesome cold of previous years.  Nevertheless I never managed to lure the girl out of the basement to introduce her to my friends, to go to the theater (where radical things were taking place), or even to stroll together at daybreak through the woods that expanded over the hills and surrounded the town in waves.  She would only sit there at the fir wood table until her father came home with the big dog, and until she pulled me into her bed by the windows' yellow light.  As spring approached, however, and the town still lay in snow – dirty and wet and a meter high in the shade – the girl came to my rooms. 

The sun was shining crookedly through the window.  It was late in the afternoon and I had laid some firewood in the furnace.  And then she appeared, wan and trembling, and most likely freezing as well since she came coatless and, as always, in her dark blue dress.  It was only her shoes, red and lined with fur, which I had never seen before. 

"You have to kill the dog," said the girl, out of breath and still on the threshold of my door.

Her eyes were wide open and she had the distinct appearance of a ghost.  For that reason I dared not touch her and, instead, I went over to the closet and produced a revolver.

"I knew that you would eventually ask me to do this," I said, "so I bought a gun.  When should I do it?"

"Right now," replied the girl softly.  "Father is also scared of the animal – and now I know that he's always been scared of it."

I inspected the gun and put on my coat. 

"They're in the basement," said the girl as she lowered her gaze.  "Father's been lying on the mattress the whole day, so terrified that he cannot move much less pray, and the dog has stationed himself in front of the door."

We went down along the river and then over the stone bridges.  The sky was deep and threateningly red like a gigantic blaze, and the sun had just set.  The town was livelier than normal, full of people and cars moving beneath what resembled a sea of blood since in their windows and walls the houses reflected the evening light.  We walked through the crowds.  We hurried through ever-narrowing traffic, lines of stopped cars and careening buses that seemed like monsters with dull and evil eyes, and policemen in grey helmets motioning excitedly.  I pushed my way through with such determination that I left the girl behind.  Finally I ran down the street, panting and with my coat wide open as an increasingly violet and increasingly powerful twilight took hold – yet I came too late.  When I had kicked down the door and burst into the basement, gun in hand, I saw the enormous shadow of the horrible beast escaping through the window, its panes shattered.  And on the floor, a white mass in a black pool, the man lay there, having been torn to pieces by the dog to such a degree that he was unrecognizable.       

As I leaned trembling against the wall and sinking into the books, I heard the car sirens outside.  A stretcher was brought in.  In the shadows I saw a doctor by the deceased and heavily armed policemen with pale faces.  People were standing all around.  I called out to the girl.  Then I raced into town over the bridges and back to my rooms, but I didn't find her.  Desperately I searched without rest or sustenance.  Because everyone was afraid of the giant animal, the police was mobilized, as were the soldiers from the barracks who walked through the woods in long chains stretched over a distance.  Boats were dropped into the dirty yellow river and searches were conducted with long poles.  Then when spring came, bringing with it warm rain showers that led to an inordinate amount of flooding, the quarries and their hollows were searched with raised voices and torches.  The sewers were entered and the cathedral's screed was scrutinized.  But the girl could not be found and the dog never appeared again.

Three days later I came back late one night to my rooms, exhausted and without hope.  I threw myself on the bed fully dressed and then I heard steps on the street below.  I ran to the window, opened it and leaned out into the night.  The street lay before me like a black strip still wet from the rain which had fallen until midnight.  The street lamps were reflected on the street as coadunate golden specks; and outside along the trees, the girl was walking in her dark dress and red shoes, her hair flowing in long strands and shimmering blue in the lights of that late hour.  And beside her walked a dark shadow, gentle and silent like a lamb, the dog with its round, sparkling yellow eyes.


Der Hund (part 1)

The first part of a story ("The dog") by this Swiss man of letters.  You can read the original as part of this collection.

My first few days in town, on the small square in front of town hall, I found a few people gathered around a disheveled man who was reading aloud from the Bible.  Only later did I notice the dog lying at his feet; and only later did I wonder how such a huge and repulsive animal, a beast of deepest black and smooth, sweat-covered fur, had not gained my immediate attention.  Its eyes were the yellow of sulphur; when it opened its mouth, with horror I noticed teeth of the selfsame hue; and its shape was unlike any other being I had ever seen.  Once the sight of the enormous animal became unbearable I cast my eyes towards the preacher.  He was a stocky fellow and his clothes hung in rags upon his person; yet his skin shimmering through the patches and holes and even the tattered clothes themselves were all extremely clean.  His Bible looked expensive, with diamonds and gold twinkling about the binding.  The man's voice was steady and calm.  His words were distinguished by an extraordinary clarity so that his speech appeared simple and sure, and here I also noticed that he never used parables.  What came forth was a calm and unfanatical exposition of the Bible.  And if his words were not convincing, this was only because of the dog as he lay at the man's feet and watched the crowd with yellow eyes. 

This odd connection between preacher and animal was what captivated me at present and made me seek out the man again and again.  Every day he would preach on the town squares and in the streets, yet he was not easy to find.  Even though he would practice his craft well into the night, it was the town that confused me despite its clear and simple layout.  Many times it was evident that he left his home at varied hours and never had a set plan for his activity nor any rules for his performances.  Sometimes he would hold forth all day on the same square; sometimes he would change location every fifteen minutes.  But his dog, black and dauntingly large, accompanied him wherever he went, walked beside him as he paced the streets, then lay down with a thud when the man began to preach. 

He never enjoyed a large audience.  Mostly he would stand alone, although I was able to observe him in such a way as not to fluster him, and instead of leaving the square, he would simply keep talking.  I often saw him praying aloud in the middle of a small street as people inattentively walked by.  Since I was never able to develop a surer method of locating the preacher and always relied on chance, I decided to look for where he lived – but no one wished to give me the slightest bit of information.  To that end, I followed him one time the whole day long.  It turned out that I had to repeat my actions for many days since every evening he would vanish owing to my efforts to keep my face hidden and unknown.  At length, one night I was astounded to see him entering a house in a street that domiciled only the town's richest citizens.  Henceforth my behavior towards him changed: I forsook my clandestineness to place myself in closest proximity so that he would be obliged to take notice, an act that, as it were, disturbed him not in the least.  Only the dog growled every time I came up to him.

And in this way many weeks passed.  It was then in waning summer when he, upon completing his exposition of the Gospel of St. John, accosted me and asked whether I would walk him home.  He said nothing more as we walked through the streets; and as we entered his house it was already so dark that he turned on the lamp in the large room into which he had led me.  The room was more deeply situated than the street so that from the door we had to walk a few steps down and I could not see the walls as they were covered from floor to ceiling in books.  Under the lamp was a large, plain table made of fir wood at which a girl was standing and reading.  She was wearing a dark blue dress and did not turn around when we came in.  Beneath the two cellar windows imposed upon the room lay a mattress and, against the opposite wall, a bed; at the table stood two chairs.  By the door was a furnace.  Yet as we approached the girl turned around and I was able to see her face.  She held out her hand and indicated a chair, at which point I noticed that the man was already lying on the mattress and the dog, as always, laid itself down at his feet.

"That's my father sleeping," said the girl, "and he can't hear us talk.  The large black dog has no name.  He just came to our house one evening as my father began preaching.  We hadn't locked the door so he was able to push the handle down with his paws and make his way in." 

I stood numb before the girl and then asked in a soft voice about her father and his past. 

"My father was a rich man, the owner of many factories," said the girl and lowered her eyes.  "He left my mother and my brothers to spread the truth to humanity." 

"Do you think that what your father spreads is indeed the truth?"  I asked.

"It is," she said, "it is the truth.  I always knew that it was the truth.  That's why I moved into this cellar and continue to live with him.  But what I didn't know was that once he spread the truth, the dog would come."  

The girl fell silent and looked as if she were about to ask me for something that she dared not say aloud.

"Then send him away.  The dog, I mean," I replied.  But the girl shook her head.

"He has no name, and so he won't go," she said gently.  She perceived my indecision and sat down on one of the chairs at the table.  I sat down as well.

"Are you afraid of this animal?"  I asked.

"I have always been afraid of him," she said.  "When my mother came with her attorney about a year ago to take me and my father back, my brothers were also very afraid of our nameless dog.  The dog of course just plopped himself down next to my father and growled.  Even when I lie in bed I am afraid of him – and then especially so – but now everything has changed.  Now you have come and now I can laugh at the beast.  I always knew that you would come.  Naturally, I didn't know what you looked like; but I knew that sooner or later you would come home with my father one evening when the lamp was already on and the streets were quiet to celebrate our wedding night in this half-underground room, here in my bed near all these books.  And here we would lie next to one another, a man and a woman, and over there father would be on his mattress in the dark like a child, and the large black dog would keep a vigil over our love."