"Ich bin Techniker und gewohnt, die Dinge zu sehen, wie sie sind. Ich sehe den Mond uber der Wuste von Tamaulipas--klarer als je, mag sein, aber eine erreichbare Masse, die um unseren Planeten kreist, eine Sache der Gravitation, interessant, aber wieso ein Erlebnis?"And so Herr Faber, the narrator of Max Frisch's novel Homo faber, describes himself. Faber is an engineer working for UNESCO, employed on projects that improve the lives of citizens in undeveloped nations. Faber could care less about the citizens; he's only interested in the projects, the technology. Faber doesn't like people, and despite his own highly-strung nature he has no patience for nor understanding of the emotions of others.
"I am a technician and I live to see things as they are. I see the moon over the desert of Tamaulipas--clearer than anywhere else, maybe, but a thing we can reach, that circles around our planet, a source of gravitation, is interesting, but how is it an experience?"
The novel opens in 1957 with Faber boarding a jumbo jet bound from New York to Mexico City. The plane is delayed for hours on the tarmac by a snow storm. Faber, a Swiss, is forced to listen to his chatty German seatmate, a young man whose name Faber didn't quite catch and isn't interested in hearing repeated. The German likes to think of himself as a world traveler, disparaging everyone he's met, particularly the Russians. "I've been to the Caucasus," he says. "I know Ivan, I can tell you. The only thing Ivan understands is a weapon. Oh, I know Ivan, all right." It's a long flight and Faber spends most of it sleeping, pretending to sleep, hiding in the toilet, wondering if he can switch to a new seat, and otherwise behaving as a classic comic misanthrope. When the plane lands in Houston for a brief layover, Faber hides in the men's room of the airport bar rather than having a drink with his German seatmate. In the men's room, Faber has a panic attack, passing out in front of the sink. He's discovered by the cleaning woman while the final boarding call for his flight is being given. Faber decides not to get on his plane; as the loudspeaker calls his name over and over, Faber hides himself in a closet until he hears the noise of a jumbo jet's engines. He is not sure why he's hiding. Faber, the engineer, the technician, has no curiosity about the workings of his own psyche. He's as unreal to himself as everyone else is. Of course he is discovered and escorted to the plane, still waiting on the tarmac. The plane lifts off, and several hours later one of the four engines dies. The passengers, all but Faber, are quite concerned. Faber knows that the plane can operate with only three engines, but even so he has another panic attack and launches into a monologue about the Mexican city of Tampico, where the pilot intends to make an emergency landing.
Ich kannte Tampico von fruher, von einer Fischvergiftung, die ich nicht vergessen werde bis ans Ende meiner Tag.* "And with that, the conversation came to an end." All translations from the German here are mine.
"Tampico," sagte ich, "das ist die dreckigste Stadt der Welt. Olhafen, Sie werden sehen, entweder stinkt's nach Ol oder nach Fisch--"
Er fingerte an seiner Schwimmweste.
"Ich rate Ihnen wirklich," sagte ich, "essen Sie keinen Fisch, mein Herr, unter keinen Umstanden--"
Er versuchte zu lacheln.
"Die Einheimischen sind naturlich immun," sagte ich, "aber unsereiner--"
Er nickte, ohne zu horen. Ich hielt ganze Vortrage, scheint es, uber Amoeben, beziehungsweise uber Hotels in Tampico. Sobald ich merkte, dass er gar nicht zuhorte, mein Dusseldorfer, griff ich ihn am Armel, was sonst nicht meine Art ist, im Gegenteil, ich hasse diese Manie, einander am Armel zu greifen. Aber anders horte er einfach nicht zu. Ich erzahlte ihm die ganze Geschichte meiner langweiligen Fischvergiftung in Tampico, 1951, also vor sechs Jahren--
I knew Tampico from earlier, from a fish-related food poisoning, that I will not forget until the end of my days.
"Tampico," I said, "is the filthiest city on earth. Oil ports, you'll see, stink like either oil or fish--"
He fingered his life jacket.
"I advise you sincerely," I said, "to eat no fish, sir, under any circumstances--"
He tried to smile.
"The inhabitants are naturally immune," I said, "but one of us--"
He nodded, without hearing. I kept up my lecture, it appears, about amoeba, or rather about the hotels in Tampico. As soon as I noticed that he wasn't listening at all, my Dusseldorfer, I grabbed him by the arm, which is not at all my way, on the contrary, I hate those fellows who take each other by the arm. But otherwise he wouldn't have listened at all. I explained to him the entire story of my boring fish-related food poisoning in Tampico, 1951, which was six years ago--