Archive for the ‘Friedrich Durrenmatt’ Category

A Dangerous Game

October 9, 2020

In 1956 Friedrich Durrenmatt was arguably in the middle of his most important decade as a writer. He had begun the 1950s with his two Inspector Barlach mysteries, The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion, and had just written one of his most famous plays, The Visit. Soon he would go on to write The Physicists and the novel he described as a “requiem for the detective novel,” The Pledge. In the meantime he wrote A Dangerous Game (included in Picador’s 1985 The Novels of Friedrich Durrenmatt, though not really long enough even for a novella) which also explores ideas of guilt and justice.

A Dangerous Game begins with a first part which is really a preface from the author, asking the question, “Are there any feasible stories still left for writers to write?” In his answer we begin to understand Durrenmatt’s attraction to the crime genre:

“And in our modern world there are only one or two feasible stories left, in which the fundamental nature of man can still be glimpsed in an ordinary face: in which some trifling misfortune accidentally impinges on the universal: and in which righteousness, justice, and perhaps even grace, are still made manifest, caught for a fleeting instant in the monocle of a drunken old man.”

The story proper begins when a travelling salesman, Alfredo Traps (it has also been translated as The Trap) finds himself stuck for the night after his Studebaker breaks down. The inn is full but he is directed towards a private house where a retired judge invites him to stay, asking only that he join him, and his friends, for dinner. This was not what Traps had planned (he is, we know by now, an inveterate womaniser) but he feels he cannot refuse. Predicting a dull evening, he is intrigued to be asked to take part in their game – one of trying either famous figures from history or, if they are lucky, “it was most fun when they were able to play with living material.”

“His host pointed out that they already had the judge, the prosecutor and the counsel for the defence – posts which in any case required knowledge of the subject and the rules of the game. Only the post of defendant was unoccupied.”

Traps is enthusiastic about taking the role. His defending counsel immediately recommends that Traps confess his crime but, of course, Traps points out that he is innocent:

“Mark my words, young friend… innocence doesn’t matter one way or the other. Tactics are what count.”

For Traps, the game is merely a lark. He happily tells the others about his life despite repeated warnings from his defending counsel to “Watch your step” and be “Careful.” His innocence is shown when, after telling them about his success in achieving his current position, he comments, “Wait until the interrogation begins,” only to realise from the reaction of the others that it began they moment he started talking. In particular, they have focused on his claim that, in order to gain promotion, his superior had to be “got rid of” – a statement compromised further by the fact that the man is dead, albeit of a heart attack.

Throughout the rest of the dinner the prosecutor attempts to lure Traps into admitting some form of guilt. Traps’ enthusiastic naivety and misplaced arrogance gives the reader little faith that he will be able to outwit the older men. Much like a Roald Dahl story, we are torn between the rational expectation that the game is simply a geriatric entertainment, and acknowledging the underlying sense of dread. Where Durrenmatt departs from Dahl is that his intentions are philosophical. Clearly A Dangerous Game is a minor work but one which further reveals the author’s preoccupation with justice and guilt. As a short story it more than delivers: excruciatingly tense and with an ending which satisfies the reader by bridging between the naturalistic and the macabre.

The Pledge

May 11, 2017

I first read Friedrich Durrenmatt for German Literature Month in 2014 when I discovered his two Inspector Barlach novels, turning again to his work the next year with the much stranger The Assignment. On at least one of those occasions, it was suggested how wonderful it would be if his novels were brought back into print in the UK, and that Pushkin Press’ Vertigo imprint would be a perfect match. Happily, this was one of those rare occasions where wishful chatter proved prophetic and Pushkin have recently reprinted both Barlach novels (The Judge and his Hangman and Suspicion) and his later detective novel, The Pledge, last seen in a film tie-in edition with Jack Nicholson on the cover.

The Pledge is subtitled a ‘Requiem for the Detective Novel’, and Durrenmatt sets out his case in a framing sequence in which a detective tells a crime novelist:

“…to be honest, I’ve never thought highly of detective novels and I rather regret that you, too, write them. It’s a waste of time.”

His complaint is not that the criminal is always brought to justice – a “fairy tale” he accepts as “morally necessary” while adding “for business reasons if nothing else” but the fact that:

“You set up your stories logically, like a chess game… all the detective needs to know is the rules, he replays the rules of the game and, checkmate, the criminal is caught and justice has triumphed.”

His dispute is not simply with the genre but might be described as realism versus plot, or even life versus art. The framing device also creates two competing narrative voices – the writer, who narrates form the beginning, and the detective, in whose words the crime story is related, though presumably via the writer, who he tells at the end, “you can do what you want with this story,” raising the question of what he has done.

The story itself opens with Durrenmatt trotting out numerous tropes of the genre: the body of a young girl discovered in the woods; a maverick detective, Matthai, on his last case, a prime suspect who only he thinks is innocent. Even the promise he makes to the victim’s parents, the pledge of the title, is one we have seen many times before, thought here it is made only so he can escape from an encounter which makes him feel “feeble, helpless”:

“’It’s a promise, Frau Moser,’ the inspector said, impelled solely by the desire to leave this place.”

Matthai is leaving for a lucrative position in Jordan; a peddler arrested at the scene confesses – but he remains unconvinced the case is solved and his desire to uncover the truth becomes an obsession, even after he leave the police force. That he doesn’t understand his own obsession can be seen from the reason he gives for continuing:

“Assuming I’m right, assuming the murderer of Gritli Moser is still alive and free, wouldn’t other children be in danger?… If the possibility of such a danger exists… it’s the duty of the police to protect the children and prevent another crime.”

Later, however, he will use a child as bait in an attempt to catch the killer with little thought for the child’s safety.

As with the Inspector Barlach novels, Durrenmatt demonstrates his mastery of the detective genre on the surface while at the same time probing deeper, philosophical questions beneath. Here, Matthai’s arrogant assumption that he can interpret reality to a set of rules – the strength which has placed him “at the pinnacle of his career” (and is shown when he challenges a mob to take their suspect and hang him if they are certain he is guilty) – becomes the weakness which leaves him the broken man we meet at the beginning. By the time the crime is solved (and it is, of course, solved) he no longer cares.

The Assignment

November 9, 2015


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.

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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.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries

November 14, 2014

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt is perhaps best known as a playwright, but among his other writing is a number of detective novels, including the two collected here by the University of Chicago Press, The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951), both translated by Joel Agee. You will frequently see them described as ‘philosophical’ detective fiction, as Durrenmatt uses the form to explore issues of morality, but if you also take this to mean that they are in any way lacking as examples of the genre you would be mistaken. The Judge and his Hangman is a carefully constructed puzzle in which layer upon layer of mystery is unravelled until only in the final pages do we understand the truth. Suspicion is a bleaker, more direct novel, where tension rather than mystery is Durrenmatt’s main weapon as he places his protagonist in more jeopardy than in perhaps any other crime novel I have read.

Inspector Barlach is a detective in the Maigret tradition: unsympathetic, largely closed to the reader, pursuing his investigation without either consulting or confiding in others. He is approaching both retirement and death. “The old inspector,” his boss, Lutz, says of him at one point, “…is, admittedly, somewhat rusty.” His imminent mortality is a less likely trait, with most writers keen to invest in a long-running series rather than a couple of short novels. It is revealed in the novel’s central scene when Barlach confronts the man implicated in his current case, the murder of a police officer:

“You’ll have to hurry up Barlach…You don’t have much time. The doctors give you another year if you let them operate on you now.”

It is in this conversation with Gastman that we discover their relationship dates back forty years when, as a result of Barlach’s proposition that to commit a crime “is an act of stupidity,” Gastman vowed to do so in his presence without Barlach being able to prove that he did it.

“Three days later… we were crossing the the Mahmoud Bridge with a German merchant and you pushed him into the water in front of my eyes.”

Barlach has been hunting him ever since, giving the novel a Sherlock / Moriarty feel, with Barlach’s solution revealing the moral ambiguity at the heart of crime and punishment, the novel’s title noticeably referring only to judgement and retribution rather than truth and justice.

The second novel, Suspicion, begins just after Barlach’s operation as he recovers in hospital. As he glances through old copies of Life magazine, his doctor, Hungertobel, turns pale; when Barlach presses him, he admits that he thought he recognised a picture of notorious concentration camp doctor, Nehle. However, he quickly dismisses his suspicions as ridiculous: the man he thought it was, Emmenberger, was in Chile at the time, and Nehle is known to have committed suicide after the war. Barlach defends his suspicions:

“Even if it’s a crime to think what we’re thinking, let’s not be afraid of our thoughts. How can we overcome them – presuming they’re wrong – unless we examine them, and how can we do that unless we admit them to our conscience?”

While the novel begins in traditional detective mode, with Barlach uncovering a number of clues that Emmenberger might be Nehle, it changes tone when he decides to have himself admitted to Emmenberger’s clinic, an undercover operation that is in fact a confrontation between good and evil. Anyone who has experienced the powerlessness of being a hospital patient, even under 21st century conditions, will quickly identify with the danger Barlach has placed himself in by challenging Emenberger (including paying a journalist to publish a story alluding to the connection). The atmosphere of the scenes which take place in clinic have more in common with the horror genre than the detective with their use of the grotesque and ‘trust no-one’ trope.

I would highly recommend these novels (especially in this handy one volume format) to anyone who enjoys detective fiction, but I don’t feel a love of the genre is a prerequisite: these are the kind of detective novels which demonstrate the way the form can be used to examine morally complex issues while remaining a page-turning read.