Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer

Financial doldrums, menacing environmental conditions, imbroglios over healthcare: sound familiar? The jittery concerns of Ernst Weiss’s Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer seem as molded to our present moment as interest-based advertising. Yet this masterpiece of Austrian literature was first published under the cloud of another global crisis, in 1931. And, notwithstanding its existential trimmings and nods to psychoanalysis, Weiss’s book is as much, if not more, a novel of the body as it is one of ideas.

“How could I, Georg Letham, a physician, a man of scientific training, of certain philosophical aspirations, let myself be so far carried away as to commit an offense of the gravest sort, the murder of my wife?” asks the narrator. The crime doesn’t lack for a motive—heck, a junior criminal prosecutor could be entrusted with demonstrating that the defendant, an experimental bacteriologist, bumped off his rich, older spouse to free himself from rising debts (incurred, in part, from gambling and extra marital affairs). The answer to Letham’s question, however, does not have much to do with the specific conditions that facilitated his crime, however blaringly they’re trumpeted. It hinges, rather, on  the upbringing Letham suffered under the tutelage of his father—an exemplar of the domineering patriarchal figure.

Letham Sr., another man of science, groomed his son from a young age not to be skittish about vivisection. Try as he might, he did not extinguish his son’s misgivings:

I always felt compassion in the wrong places, all the more when I resisted it. In my youth my father had wanted to tear this evil (and it is never anything but an evil) out by the roots. But who can get hold of the roots of a personal trait? I knew what I was doing when I put an animal, a living creature that feels pain and has a certain degree of consciousness, on the torture wrack. Other people did not know. Other people did not require intoxication, mental anesthesia, forcible calming after their horrific bloody experiments…

But despite this emphasis on the father’s dark tutelage, Weiss is not really pursuing a Freudian portrait in character. After his sentencing, the narrator awakens to a society that sanctions the most callous treatment of individuals. Here, for example, the narrator describes the lot of his fellow convicts who have spent a day languishing outside in sweltering conditions awaiting transport to a tropical, penal colony:

There are many dialects…  So many voices on the sweet evening air… if I could understand them all, I’d be able to write a detailed natural history of the sickly human heart. All these hearts speak the same language, they all sound the same. The palatals and nasals, the trills and sibilants, the vowels and consonants are beginning to run together: they are no longer the articulate expression of human yearning, human suffering, human pain, regret and outrage, despair and resignation. The sound made by this mass of men is the inarticulate, instinctual, screeching and howling of penned-in terrified animals.

Their destination, which is referred to in the novel as “C.,” is in the grip of a yellow fever pandemic. By virtue of unrequested behind-the-scenes maneuvering on the part of his well-connected father, Letham is permitted to work at the hospital that treats the vulnerable prison population. At his new post, he and his colleagues toil to map the stages of the disease. To test their hypothesis that mosquitoes are the agents of infection, they begin experimenting upon themselves with captured insects.

The moral and ethical dilemmas posed by reducing living beings to the status of objects are of dialectical concern to this complex medical thriller. Weiss (1882-1940), who was himself a doctor, knowingly leads the reader on a path from disgust to an ironic admiration for his scientist-narrator. What initially looks like a study in the soul of a killer ends with a surprising focus on a doctor who willingly places his own body at hazard, wagering his own health for the sake of his fellow creatures.