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Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings, Volume 3, Essays

Friedrich Durrenmatt: Selected Writings, Volume 3, Essays

by Friedrich Durrenmatt, Joel Agee (Translator), Kenneth J. Northcott (Editor), Brian Evenson (Introduction)

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


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. 

Dürrenmatt’s essays, gathered in this third volume of Selected Writings, are among his most impressive achievements. Their range alone is astonishing: he wrote with authority and charm about art, literature, philosophy, politics, and the theater. The selections here include Dürrenmatt’s best-known essays, such as “Theater Problems” and “Monster Essay on Justice and Law,” as well as the notes he took on a 1970 journey in America (in which he finds the United States “increasingly susceptible to every kind of fascism”). This third volume of Selected Writings also includes essays that shade into fiction, such as “The Winter War in Tibet,” a fantasy of a third world war waged in a vast subterranean labyrinth—a Plato’s Cave allegory rewritten for our own troubled times. 

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 3 Essays
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-17432-7

Chapter One The Winter War in Tibet

I am a soldier of fortune and I am proud of it. I fight against the enemy, not just in the name of the Administration, but also as an executive organ-with limited powers, to be sure-of its mission; that is, of that part of its mission that forces it to fight against its enemies, for the Administration is not only there to help the ordinary citizen but also to protect him. I am a combatant in the Winter War in Tibet. Winter War because on the slopes of Chomolungma, of Chooyu, of Makalu and Manasluit is always winter. We fight the enemy at fantastic altitudes, on glaciers and bluffs, on rocky plains, in crevices, beneath overhanging boulders, in a labyrinth of trenches and bunkers, then again in the most glaring, blinding sunlight. And the struggle is all the more difficult as friend and enemy wear the same white uniforms. It is a war of cruel and unpredictable close-range combat. The cold on these eight-thousand-meter-high peaks and cliffs is inhuman, our noses and ears are frostbitten. The Administration's mercenary army is made up of all the races in the world: a huge black Congolese fights next to a Malay, a blond Scandinavian next to an Australian bushman, and not only former soldiers fight here but also members of former underground organizations, terrorists of all ideologies, as well as professional hitmen, mafiosi, and ordinary jailbirds. It is the same with the enemy. When we are not in combat, we crawl off into ice-holes and interconnected tunnels and ducts that have been blasted into the rock, a pattern of branching veins that is so confusing that here, too, members of the two armies occasionally run into each other and cut each other down. There is no safety anywhere. Not even in the brothel beneath the Kanchenjunga, the "five treasuries of the great snow," with prostitutes from every corner of the world. The primitive establishment is frequented by the enemy as well, the whorehouse-officers of both sides have come to terms. I'm not blaming the Administration: sexual intercourse is a necessity that is hard to keep under control. But many of my comrades got knifed while lying on top of a whore-my Commander, for instance, who was already my Commander in the last war, and who already then preferred the rank-and-file brothels to the officers' bordellos. I still remember clearly the way I found him again.

Twenty, thirty years ago-but who still keeps track of time-I presented myself for active service in a small Nepalesetown, identifying myself with a pass from the Administration. I was received and you might say processed by a female Army officer. By the time she unlocked a rusty iron door and slumped down again, I was as weak as a doddering old man. It had all happened in a bare room with a mattress alongside one of the walls. On the floor lay the woman's uniform and what shreds were left of my civilian clothes, the door was wide open, little brats everywhere. Scratched-up as I was and irritated by the mob of jeering children, I climbed over the mighty woman's huge naked body and staggered through the door, without noticing that behind it there was a steep stairway. I flew head over heels down those stairs, landed on a concrete floor and lay there, bleeding, not unconscious, but glad to be lying down. Then I looked around cautiously. I was in a rectangular room. On the wall hung white uniforms, submachine guns, and steel helmets covered with white fabric. Behind a desks at a mercenary of indeterminable age, with a face that could have been modeled in clay, his mouth toothless. He was in a white uniform and was wearing a white helmet like those that were hanging on the wall. On his desk lay a submachine gun, next to it a pile of porn magazines. He was leafing through the magazines. Finally he took notice of me: "So there he is, the new one," he said. "Wiped out, as he should be." He opened a drawer, took out a printed form, closed the drawer, slowly, with fussy deliberation, sharpened a pencil stub effortfully with a penknife, cut himself, cursed, until finally he was able to write, smearing the form with blood in the process. "Getup," he said. I stood up. I was freezing. Only then did I realize again that I was naked. My nose and my hands were scraped, my forehead was bleeding. "Your number is FD256323," he said without asking for my name. "Do you believe in God?" "No," I said. "Do you believe in an immortal soul?" he asked. "No," I said. "It's not mandatory," he said, "it just gets a little awkward when you believe in these things. Do you believe in an enemy?" "Yes," I said. "You see," he said, "that is mandatory. Put on a uniform, take a helmet and a submachine gun. They're loaded." I did as I was told. He put the printed form back into the drawer and shut it with the same fussy deliberation with which he had opened it, and stood up. "Do you know how to use a submachine gun?" he asked. "Stupid question," I replied. "Well," he said, "not everyone's an old trooper like you, twenty-three." "Why twenty-three?" "Because your number ends with twenty-three," he said, took his submachine gun off the table and opened a low, half-crumbled wooden gate. I followed him, limping. We entered a narrow wet tunnel that was dug into the bare rock. It was dimly lit by small, red electric light bulbs whose cords were loosely strung along the walls. Somewhere a waterfall was roaring. Somewhere shots were fired, then a dull detonation. The mercenary stopped. "If someone approaches us, just shoot," he said. "It could be an enemy, and if it isn't, that's all right, too." The tunnel appeared to be descending, but I wasn't sure, since often it rose so steeply that we had to climb, and then again we would lower ourselves with ropes into uncertain depths. At times the underground veins and arteries were timbered and we were conveyed from one tunnel to the next by an intricate system of elevators, then again everything was unspeakably primitive, as if built in some prehistoric age, close to collapse: probably it will never be possible to make a "geographic" representation-not even a roughly approximate map-of the labyrinth we soldiers of fortune live in. My hands were bleeding profusely. Like beasts, we crawled into a cave to sleep for a few hours. The labyrinth seemed to be getting simpler. The tunnel ran straight as an arrow, but it was impossible to tell its direction. Sometimes we walked for miles through ice-cold water that reached up to our knees. On our right and left, other passages branched off from ours. Water was dripping everywhere, but sometimes it was deadly quiet, and all we could hear was our steps. Suddenly the mercenary was advancing more cautiously, holding his submachine gun at the ready, and at the mouth of another tunnel some bullets went whistling past us: I was back in World War Three. Ducking, we ran to a sort of winding staircase made of rotting wood, from where the mercenary senselessly-there was no one to be seen-fired into the tunnel until his submachine gun was empty. After a brief descent we reached as lightly better lit cave into which other winding stairs led, some of them from above, like the one we had come down on, and some from below. From the cave, a wide tunnel led to an elevator door. The mercenary pressed a button. We waited. About a quarter of an hour. "When we step out," the mercenary said, "throw your gun out right away and raise your hands." The door opened, we stepped into the elevator. It was small and narrow, and strangely, its walls were tapes tried with torn sheets of claret-red brocade. I no longer know whether the elevator went up or down. It had two doors. I didn't notice this until about fifteen minutes later, when the door behind my back opened.

The mercenary threw out his submachine gun, I did likewise. I stepped out with my hands raised; the mercenary, too, had thrown up his hands. I froze, horrified: sitting before me on a wheelchair was a legless mercenary. He had prostheses instead of arms. The left one was a construction of steel rods that merged into a submachine gun. The right one ended in an artificial hand consisting of pliers, screwdrivers, knives, and a steel stylus. The lower part of the face was also made of steel, with a tube instead of a mouth. The creature rolled away from us, signalling us with his gun to come closer. We lowered our arms. In the middle of the cave, a naked bearded man hung suspended by his hands. A heavy stone was tied to his feet. The man hung motionless; once in a while a rasping gasp passed his lips. In the background, right next to the rocky wall of the cave, on a primitive plank-bed, in the midst of a heap of weapons and caissons, surrounded by cognac bottles, sat a gigantic, aged officer, his hairy white chest shimmering under an open tunic, bathed in sweat. I knew that uniform, I remembered it from the war: the officer was my old Commander. He raised a bottle to his mouth and drank. "Jonathan, roll to the corner," he said, thick-tongued. The creature rolled to the wall of the cave and started scribbling something on the rock. "Jonathan is a thinker," the Commander explained, fixing his gaze on me. Suddenly it dawned on him: "My Hansie," he laughed hoarsely, "don't you recognize me? It's me, your old Commander." He beamed. "I fought my way through to Bregenz. Come here." "Your Excellency," I stammered. I went up to him, he cradled my head against his moist chest. "So you're back," the hoarse voice above me continued, "you're back again, you little bastard." He gripped my hair and shook my head back and forth. "I would have been very surprised if the Administration had managed to tame my Hansie. Once a soldier, always a soldier." And then, letting go of me and raising his right knee at the same time, he dealt me such a blow that I lurched into the hanging man, who groaned loudly and swung back and forth like the tongue of a giant bell. I rose to my feet again. The Commander laughed. "A stogy, you son of a bitch!" he yelled in the direction of the mercenary who had brought me there. "I've already used up my share." The mercenary silently handed him a cigar, pulled out a notebook, and said, as he made his entry: "You already owe me seven, Commander." "Fine, fine," the Commander muttered, lighting his cigar with a golden lighter that strangely contrasted with his disheveled uniform and the barrenness of the cave. I remembered seeing him with this lighter back in the spa hotel in the lower Engadine. This memory filled me with satisfaction: the good old days weren't over yet. "Get out of here," the Commander said to the mercenary, who saluted, turned around, and bent down to pick up his submachine gun. At that moment the Commander riddled him with bullets. Satisfied, the Commander put his submachine gun back on the plank-bed. Jonathan rolled over to the corpse and examined it with his right arm prosthesis. "Doesn't he have any more cigars?" the Commander wanted to know. Jonathan shook his head. "No skin magazines either?" Jonathan shook his head again, attached the body to a hook on his wheelchair, and dragged it away. "Now no one knows how to find me," the Commander said. "Outposts are dangerous. They like to switch sides. That bastard was a deserter too, he used to always bring me skin magazines." Then he stared at the hanging naked man. "Hansie," he said, puffing a cloud of smoke into the air, "Hansie, you seem surprised to see a guy hanging like that here, among us. The army-I hope you haven't forgotten this-the army doesn't care for bullies, and I'm sure you remember that your old Commander is not a bully. I loved my soldiers as if they were my own children, and I love my mercenanies like my own children as well." "Yes, sir, your Excellency," I said. He gave me a nod, stood up, tottered over to the wall of the cave next to Jonathan, who had rolled out again and had resumed his scribbling on the rock. The Commander pissed. "When you see a guy dangling from a rope," he said, still pissing, "that would go against my sentimentality, right, Hansie? You're a decent guy, you know I feel sorry for the son of a bitch. Out of sentimentality. And sentimentality is human. Animals aren't sentimental. Stand at attention when I'm talking to you." I stood at attention: "Yes, sir, your Excellency." The old man turned around, buttoned his pants, and looked at me through narrowed eyes. "Hansie," he asked, "What's up with this swine, what do you think?" I thought about it. "He is a prisoner, your Excellency," I replied, still standing at attention, "an enemy." The Commander stamped on the ground. "He's from my company," he said, "a mercenary. Isn't that what you want to become, Colonel?" He scrutinized me silently, with an intensity that was almost hostile, and I replied, without moving: "That is my firm intention." The Commander nodded. "I can see you're still the same good old reliable scumbag," he said, "up for anything, just like in the spa hotel. Now take a good look, sonny-boy, and watch what I'm doing." Swaying on his feet, he slowly walked to the middle of the cave and extinguished the burning cigar on the hanging man's stomach. "All right, now you're allowed to piss, too," the Commander said. The soldier just groaned. "The poor guy can't piss any more," the Commander said, "it's a crying shame," and he set the mercenary swinging. "Hansie," the Commander asked. "Your Excellency?" "This dog has been dangling for twelve hours," he said, still swinging the hanging man. "And he is a good dog, a good mercenary, a dear little son whom I love." He planted himself in front of me. The aged giant towered over me by a head. "Do you know who ordered this outrage, Hansie?" he asked menacingly. "No, your Excellency," I replied, clicking my heels. For a few moments, the Commander said nothing. Then, sadly, he said: "I did, Hansie. And do you know why? Because my sonny-boy imagined there are no enemies. Take your submachine gun, Hansie. It's the best thing for my sonny-boy." I fired the gun at the hanging man until the magazine was empty. All that was left was a mass of bloody meat dangling from the center of the cave. "Hansie," the Commander said tenderly, "let's go to the elevator. I'm suffocating down here. I have to go back to the front." We used more than one elevator. The first one was magnificent. We sprawled and stretched our limbs on a chaise longue; on the opposite wall, a picture of a naked girl, lying on her stomach on a chaise longue. "I got this Boucher from the Alte Pinakothek," the Commander explained. "All of Munich was one big slag heap. A looter's paradise. But after that, the elevators got more and more shabby-after a while their walls were just papered with pages from porn magazines, with graffiti scribbled all over them-until there were no more elevators." Wearing masks, with the heavy oxygen cylinders on our backs, we climbed up steep tunnels, but the Commander did not get tired, the giant was getting more and more vigorous, and since he knew countless hiding places where cognac was stored, he was getting more lively as well: when the climbing got hard, he would holler and yodel with pleasure. We crawled onward and upward through narrow ducts; then again we were hoisted up in cages, until, just a few meters below Gosainthan, we encamped in the Commander's bunker.


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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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