Saturday, 2 January 2010

Book of the Month: Auto da Fe (Elias Canetti)

Peter Kien is a world-famous sinologist. In the world of philologists, he is an authority on anything and everything concerning China. He also knows a lot about India, and can quote the Buddhist dicta and shlokas from the Vedas at will. The unsocial Kien has devoted his life to Oriental studies. He lives in a spacious four-bedroom apartment on Ehrlich Strasse, Vienna. Each of the four rooms is crammed from floor to ceiling with books, the only passion the austere and exacting Kien has permitted himself. He is the owner of the biggest and most important private library in Vienna.

Professor Kien—he is not a real professor, and has never worked in an academic department; it is a title given to him by the caretaker of the building in which his apartment is situated— is also a very strange man. A misanthrope, a misogynist, a recluse, an obsessive bibliophile, and a fantasist, Kien is as close to being clinically insane as possible without inviting a formal diagnosis. However, he is not the only character in Auto da Fe, the 1981 Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti’s only novel, who is clinging on to sanity with, as they say, his eyelids. With the exception Georges, Kien’s younger, Psychiatrist brother (who makes a very late entry in the novel and, quite inadvertently, triggers the final crisis in the life of his reclusive brother)—incidentally, also the name of Canetti’s younger brother—all the other supporting characters in Auto da Fe are unhinged and appear to live in a fantasy world, although none of them is quite as extreme a case as professor Kien.

Kien lives for his books. He is so consumed by books that even when he goes out for his morning walk—precisely between 7.00 and 8.00 am—he carries with him a briefcase crammed with book, which he clasps very tightly, in a particular manner—he has given the matter a great deal of thought—so that the greatest possible surface area of his body is constantly in contact with the brief-case. The briefcase gives him the feeling that his library is with him all the time. Kien despises humanity; it holds no attraction for him; he is happy and contented in his cocooned world of books. Then the hermit-like Kien takes a step that would change his life, and not in a nice way. He marries! The only human being who inhabits Kien’s world in a shadowy peripheral manner is his housekeeper, Therese, whom he had employed eight years earlier. The sphere of Therese’s duties involves, in a cycle of four days, dusting all the rooms with the books in them from floor to the ceiling, one day at a time. The coarse and illiterate Therese has roughly the same relationship to books as an anorexic to a cheesecake. She has no understanding and therefore appreciation of the work and passion of her eccentric employer, who, she suspects, is hiding a dark secret. She snoops around in vain when Kien is away, taking his morning walk, for a mutilated corpse. Then, a series of comical misunderstandings lead to Kien marrying Therese: on his part, Kien begins to believe that the uneducated Therese has a quest for learning and is a lover of books; she is convinced that he is rich and her ticket out of poverty. Kien’s nightmare begins soon after marriage. The new ‘lady of the house’ has her eyes firmly set on two goals: she wants all of Kien’s money and property—the spacious apartment—and she wants him out of the way. Intellectual midget she might be, but Therese is lacking neither in low-level cunning nor in brutal physical strength. Therese repeatedly pesters Kien to make a will bequeathing everything to her, and, when that does not seem to be happening immediately—not because the unsuspecting Kien sees through her underhand scheme, but because he believes, improbable as it may seem, that Therese wants to bequeath him her property, such as it is, at the same time, and is waiting for her to make the first move—subjects Kien systematically to physical torture—at one stage Kien loses consciousness after an episode of vicious beating at the hands of Therese and is confined to bed for six weeks—, prohibits him from entering three of the four rooms, and eventually throws him out of his own apartment. The care-taker of the building, a brutish ex-policeman with fascist tendencies called Benedikt Pfaff, who has physically and mentally abused, first his wife and then his daughter for years till they both died of despair, and who is hated by all the tenants save Kien, initially agrees to help Kien, but later changes sides and moves in with Therese once Kien is thrown out, and helps her pawn Kien’s precious books when she runs out of money. Over the next few weeks Kien roams the streets during the day, carrying his library inside his head, eating meals in disreputable restaurants, and sleeping in different hotels. He still has the possession of his chequebook and he has cashed in all of his remaining money. In one of the restaurants, Kien meets a humpbacked dwarf called Fischerle, who is married to the owner of the restaurant who is also a woman of leisure. Fischerele fancies himself as a world chess champion, and, when not pimping for his wife, spends his time fantasizing about winning world chess championship in America. Kien hires Fischerele as his assistant so that Fischerele can carry inside his head the burden of Kien’s non-existent library. The crafty dwarf, with help of other low-life wastrels, hatches an outlandish plot to divest the increasingly erratic Kien of his remaining money, and succeeds. Fischerele’s plan is to escape to America on a false passport and challenge the reigning chess champion of the world, whose name, he decides, would be Casablanca. The dwarf spends the next few days fantasizing about his triumph and acquiring a passport from a thug by telling him colourful lies. However, Fischerele does not live to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of his skulduggery; he meets his comeuppance and comes to a gory end at the hands of his wife’s customer (who, ironically, is one of Fischerele’s associates), but not before he has carried out two acts that would, in fullness of time, send Kien hurtling towards his final crisis. He sends a telegram to Kien’s younger brother, Georges, a psychiatrist, in Kien’s name, informing him, Georges, that he, Kien, is going ‘crackers’. He also falsely informs Kien through one of his associates that the dreaded Therese is dead. Kien then runs into Therese and Pfaff at the pawnshop and, in yet another bizarre twist of events, is arrested for attempted robbery of jewels at the pawnshop, although he believes he is arrested for murder of Therese, having convinced himself that Therese must have starved to death in the apartment after he left it. He also convinces himself, in keeping with the novel’s tone of deliberate absurdity, that the Therese in front of his eyes is a hallucination and a sign that he must be losing his mind! In the police station, Pfaff changes sides yet again and brings back Kien to his residence, but not to his apartment. Paff keeps Kien virtually imprisoned in his own room and harasses him for money. In the meanwhile Georges, Kien’s younger brother, arrives from Paris and, after finding out from Kien—an extraordinary dialogue between the two brothers during which Kien gives him several examples of deviousness of women in Greek and Roman mythology—what has happened, takes the necessary steps to get rid of the pair of Therese and Pfaff, and installs Kien back in his apartment. However, a chance remark by Georges triggers the final disintegration of what is left of Kien’s mind.

Auto da fe was first published in Germany in 1935 as Die Blendung (The Blinding or Bedazzlement), when Hitler’s National Socialistic Party was at the height of its power. In America, it was first published as The Tower of Babel). Canetti was 30 at the time. Born in Bulgeria in a family of Sephardic Jews, Canetti, the eldest of three brothers (his youngest brother, Georges, was a microbiologist, and discovered a strain of tuberculosis-causing- pathogen which is named after him—microbacterium Canetti), he had lived in Vienna, a city to which his family had shifted, since the age of 10. He was trained as a chemist but had never worked as one after getting his degree in 1929 from the University of Vienna. He had instead published a couple of plays (The Marriage, in 1932, and The Comedy of Vanity, in 1934) and translated works of the American Writer Upton Sinclair into German. When first published, the novel while it sold moderately well and was well received critically, remained largely unknown outside of Germany, where, too, with the advent of the second World War, it was banned, and subsequently went out of print, its author having fled Germany in 1939 to France and then to England where he settled. The novel was first published in Great Britain as Auto da Fe, in 1946, superbly translated by C.V. Wedgwood under personal supervision of Canetti (and reissued in 2005), but it would be fair to say that it did not make much of an impact at the time. It was rediscovered in the 1960s after the publication of Crowds and Power, Canetti’s strange and surreal anthropological musings on the bipolar world post World War II and the stalemate of the Cold War. It was reissued again in the 1980s after Canetti won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1981. By that time Canetti, a man famous for holding deep-seated grudges, had banned his works from being published in Great Britain—his adoptive country where he had lived for almost four decades—an act of vengeance and spite triggered by Penguin’s decision, in 1977, to delete Auto da Fe from its list of publications . He could not, however, prevent its republication as also of his other masterpiece, Crowds and Power, but he withheld his wonderful memoirs Tongue Set Free and Torch in My Ear from getting published in the UK at the time. Auto da Fe now sits amongst the towering novels of the twentieth century.

Auto da Fe, at almost five hundred pages, is a humongous novel. It is not an easy book to read; a reviewer described it as a ‘long, provocatively odd and emotionally demanding novel’. Although written prior to the Second World War, and having its roots in the Weimer era, its appeal is ageless, no doubt because of its social relevance—the increasing predicament of the estranged and world-weary aesthetes—which strikes a chord with readers of successive generations. (Indeed, when the novel was re-issued in the1960s, coinciding with Canetti’s enhanced stature in the literary world, it was widely regarded as ‘contemporary work’, and was mistakenly believed to be a ‘post-war’ novel.) Besides, Canetti’s lifelong interest in social arrangements—discoursed at length in the novel—has universal appeal. Canetti was a man of varied interests and experiences, and the panoply of his erudition is on a magnificent display in Auto da Fe as he satirises Freudian theories as well as some or more of the philosophical movements that arose in-between the two World wars, and makes links between the virulent anti-Semitism and failure of humanism. He could also be deliberately provocative, as he impishly makes a cultural case, through its eccentric protagonist (who, nevertheless, is repeatedly beaten by his female adversaries), for misogyny! Auto da Fe can also be described as a study of madness. Everybody is to a greater and lesser degree insane, and all the characters have some or more notions, and behave, at some or the other time, in a manner that is strange, absurd, and incomprehensible; yet the internal logic that drives their behaviours makes these actions seem somehow reasonable, a triumph, above all, of the power of Canetti’s narration. Indeed, the grand finale of the novel, Kien’s final act of destruction of everything that he has held sacred, the clue of which can be detected in the novel’s title—Auto da Fe seems more apposite than the original Die Blendung—, does not seem insane at all in the light of Kien’s nightmarish experience.

Auto da Fe is a viciously funny novel. The humour is unrestrained yet bleak, and it is the genius of Canetti that he manages to convey big and strong symbols through the absurd and unrealistic notions to which the protagonist and supporting characters seem prone. There is a brilliantly comic image early in the novel. During one of his several flights of fancy, Kien imagines himself to be a general, preparing his army of soldiers, his books, for a blitz against his scheming hausfrau, and turns all of them with their spines towards the wall! The dwarf Fischerele’s schemes, first to defraud Kien and then to obtain a false passport for his escape to America are boisterous; at the same time there is an underlying pathos in the wheeling-dealings and petty aspirations of these characters. Withal hilarity, the strong impression left on the reader’s mind is of the desolate lives they are leading. The trials and tribulations of all the characters and their struggle for survival are narrated in a tone of detachment and amusement, and not of sympathy, as though for the omniscient narrator, they are nothing more than experimental guinea pigs. None of the characters is particularly likeable—one may pity Kien as he is abused by Therese, or shake one’s head in wonder at his naivety, but one cannot empathize with him. His mind remains an unsolvable puzzle until the end. There is an edge to the humour. Canetti’s fictional world may be funny, but it is also an unpleasant, twisted place full of absurdities and betrayals—as Salman Rushdie once said, everyone gets in the neck in the end. In its nightmarish vision of the horrors of the modern world, the novel relentlessly depicts the increasing disconnectedness of the experiences and mental processes of Kien, the protagonist, paving way for fragmentation and disintegration of thought processes, and, ultimately destruction. Peter Kien is a radically individualistic man who has no time for the outside world, the forces of which, nevertheless, exert their (what he considers as) nefarious influences. Canetti is often compared to Kafka, and with very good reasons. In its content, if not in form, Auto da Fe, described by Iris Murdoch as ‘savage and beautifully mysterious’, is ensconced at the very top of the twentieth century modernist literature.