Last year I was lucky enough to discover the Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt during German Literature Month, reading his two Inspector Barlach novels. It seemed an obvious choice to read more of his work this time around, and I eventually alighted on an even darker and stranger novel, The Assignment, written in 1986 and translated by Joel Agee two years later. If the Barlach novels were Durrenmatt’s unnerving version of the detective genre, then The Assignment owes much to the spy novel, and was, of course, published during the Cold War. Durrenmatt takes the secrecy and complex plotlines of the genre and abstracts them further to create an existentialist tale focused (as its subtitle, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers suggests) on the philosophy of surveillance, “symptomatic of our time, when everyone observed and felt observed by everyone else.”
The story begins when film-maker F is asked by psychiatrist Otto von Lambert to investigate his wife, Tina’s, death after she is found murdered in an unnamed African country. Von Lambert tells her he feels “guilty of his wife’s death because he had always treated the heavily depressed woman as a case instead of a person” – in other words, he observed her. (Tina flees after finding his notes, writing in her journal, “I am being watched”). F feels compelled to accept the assignment and flies out with a film crew to the site of Tina’s death with the assistance of the local police chief, who is ostensibly helpful but ensures that F’s film is replaced and parades before her a series of witnesses who all claim that someone tried to hire them to kill Tina, a procession that ends when one man says he has never seen her and is immediately executed for her murder.
It seems F must leave defeated, but then she spots a red fur coat identical to that worn by Tina in a local market. Buying the coat, she decides “she was not going to leave until she had found out the truth about Tina von Lambert’s death.” Throughout the coat is emblematic of Tina, and F’s assumption of it encourages the reader to believe she will share Tina’s fate (if, indeed, Tina was murdered – nothing in this novel is certain). As she heads back into the desert, it seems her attempts to recreate the circumstances of Tina’s death may force her to repeat them.
The Assignment is told in a very particular way: twenty-four chapters, each one sentence in length, ranging between two and ten pages long. The limit on chapters (limited because inspired by Bach’s The Well Tempered Clavier Book I which uses all 24 major and minor keys) creates the sense of time running out; the breathlessness of each chapter suggests intensity of both thought and experience. Durrenmatt seems very concerned with identity in this novel. In an early chapter, a friend of F’s (known only as D – perhaps suggesting the author) argues there is no self but:
“…only a countless chain of selves emerging from he future, flashing into the present, and sinking back into the past so that what one commonly calls ones’s self was merely a collective term for all the selves gathered up in the past, a great heap of selves perpetually growing under the constant rain of selves drifting down through the present from the future…”
The uncertainty of identity is touched on as soon as F begins following Tina’s trail, encountering:
“…a painting of a woman in a red fur coat, which F at first took for a portrait of Tina von Lambert, but which turned out not to be Tina after all, it could just as well be a portrait of a woman who looked like Tina, and then, with a shock, it seemed to her that this woman standing before her defiantly with wide open eyes was herself…”
Identity is created as we observe and are observed: Tina’s red coat is her insurance that she will be observed, but ironically it also cause confusion over her identity. Again, Durrenmatt takes a staple of the spy genre and treats it on a philosophical level.
The novel is also a political satire, however. After her encounter with the police chief, F is taken aside by the head of the secret service who believes the police chief is plotting a coup. The war in which the country has been engaged in for ten years is the its “principal source of revenue…and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries.” It is on this testing ground, where human observers have now been replaced by satellites, that the novel’s final scenes play out.
The Assignment is another haunting novel from Durrenmatt, dramatizing the anxieties of knowing yourself in a dangerous, unpredictable world where seeing is not enough.