When it comes to Swiss-German literature, few names are bigger than Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990), so it seems appropriate to celebrate his centenary, even for only a day during GLM XI.
Although most famous for his dramas, I have come to Dürrenmatt through his prose writings. Best to admit this upfront, I’ve not always reacted well. In fact my Dürrenmatt journey started with The Pledge, which I found excellent, but it has gone downhill since then. I had too many reservations about the Inspector Barlach mysteries to say I enjoyed them. The Execution of Justice, which I was hoping to review in full here, was dnf’ed! 😬 A man cold-bloodedly shooting another in broad daylight being, eventually, cleared of murder, to the detriment of an innocent man, is a typical, twisted Dürrenmatt plot, yet the narration is so tedious. Dürrenmatt had problems with this convoluted piece; he started it sometime in the 1950s, revised and revised for some 30 years, before finally publishing it in 1985. Even so … The final paragraph of the review at Crime Review hits the nail right on the head: “The dense accumulation of detail which substantiates the action is impressive, but merely adds to the challenge to the reader’s attention span, and I suspect that few would be sufficiently stimulated by the philosophical issues raised to persevere to the conclusion.”
Now obviously this is not the way I intended to celebrate the great Swiss writer! Would I fare better with his dramas? I had one on the shelves – his most famous – The Visit. The moral question at the heart of the piece is this: can a whole town be persuaded to forfeit the life of one citizen for 1 million pounds? (The currency in Patrick Bowles English translation.) Not a fortune these days, but a significant amount for a town on the verge of bankruptcy in 1956.
Now who would put up an offer like that? The old lady, Clara Zachanassian, who returns to her home town of Güllen, a place she left – wronged and in disgrace – 45 years before. When she arrives by train, there is a welcoming committee for her. In the interim she has become very rich, and the town, having no inkling that she is returning bent on
revenge “buying justice”, think she is coming for sentimental reasons. The hope is that she will become a generous benefactress. Of course, she will – 1 million pounds – 500,000 for the town, 500,000 to be divided between the families – for the life of Herr Ill (and believe me, he’s exactly that on hearing the proposal).
Of course, the affronted burghers turn the offer down flat, but acts two and three show the gradual shifting of their moral rectitude, with families – including Herr Ill’s ! – improving their standard of living, living on credit, behaving as though the money is already in their pocket. Lip service to their support for the beleaguered man is always forthcoming; yet as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words! It’s no accident these people live in Güllen ( English translation slurries). It stinks to high heaven.
Time passes. In the meantime, Herr Ill tries to emigrate, yet the townsfolk prevent his departure. The old lady is quite sanguine. She’s busy working her way through husbands 7 to 9, totally confident in the knowledge that money is power and that the township’s greed will deliver the goods. There’s only one way for this can end … and yet Dürrenmatt delivers an ambiguous ending. It is quite brilliant …
… leaving me wanting more of his dramatic output. Because The Visit is not as laboured as his prose, and it made me laugh. Many times. Proving I do enjoy a good skewering of the hypocritical masses.