January 2014

Will George

fiction

Zündel's Exit by Markus Werner, translated by Michael Hofmann

Originally published in German, the straight-faced comedy Zündel's Exit follows the wanderings of Konrad Zündel, a thirty-three-year-old amateur philosopher who leaves his wife for a three-week bender in Italy. On his drunken ramble, the contemplative and quotable hero blunders into a hash of misfortunes, most of them preventable, in a humiliating study of high-mindedness about desperately low subjects. This was the debut of the distinguished Swiss novelist Markus Werner, and the book now arrives in English for the first time thanks to translator Michael Hofmann.

Zündel's mortifying jaunt opens with mystery and confusion. Zündel loses an incisor, has his pocket picked, and discovers a severed finger (not his own) on the floor of the train to Milan. Luckily, none of this affects his itinerary, which is random and driven by sheer ennui. "I want to be able to sit on a park bench," Zündel declares, "and say: You know, I really couldn't care less." Despite this professed indifference to bad luck, personal anguish fills his voyage with steadily worse accidents. In Genoa Zündel drinks his way through a series of waterfront bars, ineffectually visits a prostitute, then gets cheated trying to purchase a black-market revolver ... but not before reaffirming his "commitment to a total apathy," as he puts it, "without language and without compromise." That's to say, Zündel doesn't give a damn without even wanting to say he doesn't give a damn -- a highly principled unconcern. Who knew not caring about anything had to be so conscientious?

In fact, Zündel gives enough of a damn to whine about nearly every misstep on his journey, spouting puffs of softcore philosophy that form the high points of this novella.

Everything is hostile, everything that happens to me exceeds my capacity to endure it. Why does God have to send me a finger? And take my tooth. Sooner or later, everyone feels unviable. Humanity is assembled from partially reformed bed-wetters who never quite shake the feeling of existential displacement.

Bed-wetting, and urination more generally, comprise a major motif of  Zündel's contemplations. Bodily secretions -- lowest of the low subjects -- are this thinker's theory and practice:

In the little bay of San Michele he sat down on a stone bench, smoked and looked out at the sea. ... [He] suddenly couldn't remember if a human being had four, five, six or seven senses, thought that was a disgrace, but perfectly symptomatic of this cerebral culture; thought this, thought that, jumped up and widdled spitefully into the sea.

Philosophizing and peeing. Some vacation. Then again, that's lively for a man committed to total apathy.

As the bender proceeds, Zündel's reflections grow increasingly vile: "Why are there so many terms ... for diarrhea, and so few for constipation?... What is visibly and olfactorily evident is talked to death, but what is discreet and not apparent elicits from us a mute respect." Cleaning up some vomit, he ponders: "What to make of the fact that almost everything that comes from within us smells bad?" A confirmed pessimist -- "My damned brain sniffs a dungheap behind every paradise" -- Zündel thrives on morose aperçus and slogans: "Beware of fraternizing with reality," "Love is nothing but chronic anxiety punctuated by occasional spasms of pleasure." And finally:

Everyone is a more or less elegant, more or less resourceful escapologist, master of disguise and self-justifier, who knows how to lend dignity to his meanest steps. Every word is a coughed-up bogie. Every sentence a slithery pretext. Skullduggery as a basic form of human existence. Dishonesty as second nature and principle of form. So we all lie and cheat our way from one falsehood to the next, from self-deception to self-deception, and in the end every death bed contains nothing but a stinking, slimy, loathsome bunch of deceit.

These lugubrious analyses, meant to reveal character rather than be taken at face value, reflect the nature of the comedy in Zündel's Exit: the protagonist's overreactions to misfortune make him ridiculous. This is comedy in the traditional sense invoked by the degrading tribulations of the hero; the trials that subject him to ridicule. Comedy in this sense need not be a genre dominated by verbal humor. Not that the book is entirely humorless. In one place the narrator meets Zündel and wryly observes:

Zündel stayed until four in the morning. He talked a lot of stuff... He expressed himself vaguely about holiday plans. He spoke for a long time about his job, but when I asked him why he didn't give up teaching if it left him feeling so hollow and misshapen, he replied that having to answer questions was the opposite of contentment.

On a train, Zündel tries to pick up a girl with the awkward line, "Miss, do you think our trousers might be related?" Later,

...he [Zündel] lay in the bathtub, not singing. He spoke: Ladies and gentlemen, singing in the bath is a cliché... [but] I think the liberation of women will be a good thing for you men as well! -- Here's how! exclaimed Zündel, and let slip a resounding fart.

These humorous touches aside, the writing is mostly straight. Its comedy derives from a relentless mocking of gloomy Zündel, coupled with an emphasis on low characters, settings, and subjects. In the end Zündel comes to perceive himself as ridiculous:

What now? he asked... In the first place, I'd like to get so far as to be able to see myself as negligible, as the little cosmic pea I really am. I want to be able to giggle about my existential earnestness and pampering of self. I'd like to be able to see myself retrospectively, as the banal prequel to a rotting corpse. And secondly, I wouldn't mind writing a little novel...

The "giggle" here is a scornful one. Much more usually, people giggle at what's funny. If something's off-balance in the comedy of Zündel's Exit, this is it. There's far too much of the laughter of derision, and not nearly enough of the priceless laughter induced by humor.

Zündel's Exit by Markus Werner, translated by Michael Hofmann
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 978-1564789211
160 pages