Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Fictions

Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings, Volume 2, Fictions

by Friedrich Durrenmatt

The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90) was one of the most important literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century. During the years of the cold war, arguably only Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht rivaled him as a presence in European letters. Yet outside Europe, this prolific author is primarily known for only one work, The

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921–90) was one of the most important literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century. During the years of the cold war, arguably only Beckett, Camus, Sartre, and Brecht rivaled him as a presence in European letters. Yet outside Europe, this prolific author is primarily known for only one work, The Visit. With these long-awaited translations of his plays, fictions, and essays, Dürrenmatt becomes available again in all his brilliance to the English-speaking world.

This second volume of Selected Writings reveals a writer who may stand as Kafka’s greatest heir. Dürrenmatt’s novellas and short stories are searing, tragicomic explorations of the ironies of justice and the corruptibility of institutions. Apart from The Pledge, a requiem to the detective story that was made into a film starring Jack Nicholson, none of the works in this volume are available elsewhere in English. Among the most evocative fictions included here are two novellas: The Assignment and Traps. The Assignment tells the story of a woman filmmaker investigating a mysterious murder in an unnamed Arab country and has been hailed by Sven Birkerts as “a parable of hell for an age consumed by images.” Traps, meanwhile, is a chilling comic novella about a traveling salesman who agrees to play the role of the defendant in a mock trial among dinner companions—and then pays the ultimate penalty.

Dürrenmatt has long been considered a great writer—but one unfairly neglected in the modern world of letters. With these elegantly conceived and expertly translated volumes, a new generation of readers will rediscover his greatest works.

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Friedrich Dürrenmatt Selected Writings Volume 2 Fictions
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-17429-7

Chapter One The Sausage

A man killed his wife and turned her into sausages. The deed gave rise to rumors. The man was arrested. One remaining sausage was found. There was great public outrage. The supreme judge of the land took over the case.

The courtroom is bright. Sunlight pours through the windows. The walls are bright mirrors. The people are a seething mass. They fill the courtroom. They sit on the window sills. They hang from the chandeliers. On the right burns the prosecutor's bald head. It is red. The defense attorney is on the left. His glasses are blind discs. The accused sits in the middle between two policemen. His hands are large. His fingers have blue edges. The supreme judge sits enthroned above everyone. His robe is black. His beard is a white flag. His eyes, grave. His forehead, clarity. His eyebrows, wrath. His face, humanity. Before him the sausage. It lies on a plate. Enthroned above the supreme judge sits Justice. Her eyes are bandaged. In her right hand she holds a sword. In her left, scales. She is made of stone. The supreme judge raises a hand. The people fall silent. Their movement freezes. The court room rests. Time lurks. The prosecutor stands up. His stomach is a globe. His lips are a guillotine. His tongue is a falling blade. The words hammer the courtroom. The accused flinches. The judge listens. Between his eyebrows stands a steep furrow. His eyes are like suns. Their rays strike the accused. He sinks into himself. His knees quake. His hands pray. His tongue hangs. His ears protrude. The sausage in front of the supreme judge is red. It is still. It swells. Its ends are round. The string at the tip is yellow. It rests. The supreme judge gazes down at the lowest human being. He is a small man. His skin is like leather. His mouth is a beak. His lips, dried blood. His eyes, pin heads. His forehead, flat. His fingers, thick. The sausage has a pleasant smell. It moves closer. The skin is rough. The sausage is soft. It is hard. The nail leaves a mark in the shape of a half moon. The sausage is warm. Its shape is plump. The prosecutor is silent. The accused raises his head. His gaze is a martyred child. The supreme judge raises a hand. The defense attorney leaps to his feet. His glasses dance. Words leap into the courtroom. The sausage steams. The steam is warm. A little knife snaps open. The sausage squirts. The defense attorney falls silent. The supreme judge sees the accused. He is far below. He is a flea. The supreme judge shakes his head. His gaze is contempt. The supreme judge starts talking. His words are swords of justice. They fall like mountains on top of the accused. His sentences are ropes. They scourge. They choke. They kill. The meat is tender. It is sweet. It melts like butter. The skin is a little tougher. The walls resound. The ceiling clenches its fists. The windows grind. The doors shake in their hinges. The walls stamp their feet. The city grows pale. The forests wilt. The waters evaporate. The earth quakes. The sun dies. The sky collapses. The accused is damned. Death opens his mouth. The little knife lies down on the table. The fingers are sticky. They stroke the black robe. The supreme judge is silent. The courtroom is dead. The air is heavy. The lungs are full of lead. The people are trembling. The accused sticks to his chair. He is condemned. He may make a last request. He cowers. The request creeps from his brain. It is small. It grows. It becomes a giant. It forms into a compact mass. It takes shape. It forces the lips apart. It plunges into the courtroom. It sounds. The pervert wants to eat the remains of his poor wife: the sausage. Revulsion cries out. The supreme judge raises his hand. The people fall silent. The supreme judge is like God. His voice is the last trumpet. He grants the request. The condemned man may eat the sausage. The supreme judge looks at the plate. The sausage is gone. He falls silent. The silence is hollow. The people stare at the supreme judge. The eyes of the condemned man are large. There is a question in them. The question is terrible. It streams into the courtroom. It descends to the floor. Clings to the walls. Squats on the ceiling above. Takes possession of every person. The courtroom widens. The world becomes an enormous question mark.

Chapter Two The Old Man

The swarms of tanks came rolling across the hills with such might that all resistance became futile. Still the men fought, perhaps believing in a miracle. Split up into separate groups, they dug themselves in. Some surrendered, the majority were killed, and only a few escaped into the woods. Then the fighting stopped as abruptly as storms sometimes cease. Those who were still alive threw their weapons away and ran toward the enemy with their hands raised over their heads. The people were paralyzed by horror. The foreign soldiers spread across the land like locusts. They moved into the old cities. They walked with heavy steps through the streets and drove the people into their houses when evening came. Heavy armored cars rolled through the villages, often right through the huts, which collapsed on top of them, for resistance had not yet died out in the villages. It was a resistance that smoldered secretly, in the corners of the boys' eyes, in the careful movements of the old men, in the strides of the women. It was a resistance that polluted the air, causing the strangers to breathe as one does in countries where a plague has broken out. Men emerged from the woods, some alone, some in groups, and vanished again in the impassable forests where no stranger dared to follow them. As yet there were no collisions with the enemy, but people who had collaborated with him were found dead. Then came the uprising. Using old guns, the youths and aged men threw themselves upon the enemy, who struck back as if released from a nightmare; women were seen fighting with pitchforks and sickles. The struggle lasted a night and a day, then the uprising broke down. The villages were surrounded, the inhabitants driven together and mowed down with machine guns. The burning forests lit up the nights for weeks.

Then it got quiet, the way it gets quiet in the grave when earth covers the coffin. The people walked about as if nothing had happened. They buried their dead. The peasant returned to his plow, the artisan to his workshop. But deep inside them something they had never known before had grown powerful: it was hatred. It took complete possession of them, filled them with burning strength and controlled their life. It was not a wild impatient hate that has to act precipitously in order to stay alive, it was a hate that could wait, for years, that rested calmly within them, not on the surface, but deep down, at one with their being, a hate that, not needing to find a way out, dug into the soul like a sword, not to kill it but to harden it with its fire. But as the light of those stars that move through enormous distances finds its way to us, that hatred found its way to a figure who was completely in the background, somewhere in those realms where no light can penetrate, invisible like many figures of the abyss, about whom they knew nothing definite except that all the horrors of their hell emanated from him, and so utterly was the hatred of the oppressed focused on this figure, whom they called the oldman, that they ceased to care about the foreign soldiers and often even found them ridiculous. With the instinct of hate, they sensed that these men who all looked the same in their uniforms and steel helmets and their short heavy boots did not torment them out of cruelty but because they were completely in the power of the old man. These soldiers acted as instruments without a will of their own, without freedom, without hope, without meaning, and without passion, lost in a foreign land, among people who despised the stranger who had forced his way into their land, much as instruments of torture are despised, or the way the hangman is regarded as a man without honor. An enormous compulsion was placed upon everyone, chaining oppressors and oppressed to each other like galley slaves, and the law that drove them was the power of the old man. The people were at each other's throats, all vestiges of humanity had fallen away among them, and the more the people hated, the crueler the foreign soldiers became. They tortured the women and children in order not to feel the torments they themselves had to endure. Everything was necessary, the way everything is necessary in mathematical books. The enemy army was a monstrous, complicated machine that weighed on the land and crushed it, but somewhere there had to be the brain that steered it for its own purposes, a man of flesh and blood whom you could hate with all your senses, and that was the oldman, of whom they dared to speak only in whispers when they were quite sure of being among themselves. No one had ever seen him, they never heard his voice, they did not even know his name, the cruel measures they were forced to endure bore the signatures of indifferent generals who obeyed the oldman without ever having heard of him, and who perhaps imagined that they were acting at their own discretion.

That they knew of the old man, and that they hated him-this was the secret strength of the oppressed that made them superior to their enemies. The foreign soldiers did not hate the old man, they knew nothing about him, just as machine parts know nothing about the man they are made to serve, nor did they hate the people they were oppressing, but they sensed that these people were becoming more and more powerful in their hatred, which was directed at something the soldiers did not know, but with which they must be mysteriously connected. They saw themselves being treated more and more contemptuously by the people, and they became more and more cruel and helpless. They did not know what they were doing and why they were among these foreigners who hated with such deadly persistence. There was something above them that treated them the way one treats animals trained to perform some action or other. And so they lived from day to day like ghosts who wander about in the long winter nights.

But above everyone, above the foreign soldiers, the peasants, and the inhabitants of the old cities, there circled by day and by night huge silver birds which-the people were certain of this-were under the old man's direct control. The birds circled very high, so that one could only rarely hear the roar of their motors. Once in a while they would plunge down like vultures to drop their deadly loads on the villages, which would flare up in a red blaze below them, or on their own units when they had not carried out their orders swiftly enough.

But then the hatred of the oppressed rose to those high degrees where even weak people become capable of supreme achievements, and thus a young woman was destined to find the person she hated more than anything in the world. We do not know how she managed to reach him. We can only surmise that extreme hatred lends human beings the power of clairvoyance and makes them unassailable. She came to him without anyone's trying to stop her. She found him alone in a small antique room, its walls lined with books and the busts of thinkers, sunlight and birdsong streaming in through its wide-open windows. There was nothing unusual, nothing to indicate that he must be in this room, and yet she recognized him. He was sitting bent over a large map, huge and motionless. He looked at her calmly as she approached, one hand resting on a large dog that was sitting at his feet. His eyes held no threat, but neither did they ask where she came from. She stopped and realized that her game was up. Nevertheless she took the revolver from the folds of her garment and pointed it at the old man. He didn't even smile. He looked at the woman with indifference, and finally, when he understood, he stretched out his hand a little, the sort of gesture we make to a child when it wants to give us a present. She approached him and put the gun in his open hand, which enclosed it quietly and slowly laid it on the table. All these movements had something soundless about them, and there was a childlike quality about the entire transaction, but at the same time it was all terrifyingly meaningless and irrelevant. Then he lowered his eyes and looked at the map as though he had forgotten the whole event. She wanted to escape, but then the old man began to talk.

"You came to kill me," he said. "It's completely useless, what you wanted to do. There is nothing more insignificant than death." He spoke slowly and his voice was melodious, but he did not seem to attach any importance to his words. "Where are you from?" he asked then, without raising his eyes from the map, and when she named the city, he remarked after a long pause, during which he eagerly searched the map, that this city must have been destroyed, because it was marked with a red cross. Then he fell silent and began to draw large, crisscrossing lines on the map. They were heavy, fantastical lines he drew, strangely symmetrical curves of the kind that force the eye to follow them in pursuit of a meaning that is invariably thrown into confusion. She stood just a few feet away from him, looking at him as he stood bent over the map like a huge dark mass. She stood there in the evening sun, which was casting soft gold on the old man. He paid no attention to the sun or to the woman who wanted to kill him and had failed. He was in the void, in that place where there are no more relationships and no responsibility toward others. He did not hate people, he did not despise them, he did not notice them, and the woman sensed that this was the secret source of his power. So she stood before him like one who has been judged, incapable of hating him, and waited for the death that would be her lot at his hands. But then the woman realized that he had forgotten her and her deed and that she could go where she wanted, but also that this was his vengeance, an annihilation more terrible than death. She slowly went to the door.

At that moment the black dog at his feet let out a sharp bark. She turned back to the old man, and he looked up. His hand took the revolver with which she had wanted to kill him. Then she saw the weapon lying in his open palm, which he was holding out to her. Thus, with an inhuman gesture that was infinitelyhumiliating,hebridgedtheabyssthatseparatedthemandrevealed the inmost nature of his power, which would have to destroy itself in the end, like all things whose nature resides in the absurd. She looked into his eyes, which regarded her without derision and without hatred, but also without kindness, and which did not so much as surmise that he had given her back everything he had taken from her, her hatred and the strength to kill him. Calmly she took the weapon from his hand, and when she shot, she felt the hatred human beings sometimes feel toward God. He proceeded carefully to put on the table the pencil with which he had streaked the map, but then he slowly keeled over, felled like an ancient sacred oak, and the dog calmly licked the dead man's face and hands without paying the slightest attention to the woman.


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Meet the Author

Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in 1921 in the village of Konolfingen, near Berne, Switzerland, and was the son of a Protestant minister. During World War II he studied philosophy and literature at the Universities of Berne and Zurich. He wrote prolifically and traveled widely in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, taking particular interest in human rights and the preservation of Israel. Joel Agee has translated numerous German authors into English, including Heinrich von Kleist, Rainer Maria Rilke and Elias Canetti. He is also the author of two memoirs: Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and In the House of My Fear. In 2005 he received the Modern Language Association’s Lois Roth Award for his translation of Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943. Kenneth J. Northcott is professor emeritus of German at the University of Chicago. He has translated a number of books for the University of Chicago Press. Theodore Ziolkowski is the Class of 1900 Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of many books, including The Mirror of Justice: Literary Reflections of Legal Crises. Brian Evenson is the author of numerous works of fiction, including Altmann’s Tongue, Dark Property, Father of Lies, and The Wavering Knife. He is also director of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University.

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