Monday, February 1, 2016

"Damit war dieses Gesprach zu Ende*" The thoughts of the working man, by Max Frisch

"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?"

"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?"
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.

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.

"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--
* "And with that, the conversation came to an end." All translations from the German here are mine.

20 comments:

  1. a character study i presume, implying the dangers associated with not pursuing a rounded life? reminds me of some of my relations. i had amoebic dysentery twice when i lived in mexico; like being stabbed with a kitchen knife in el estomago. not pleasant, no... at that time one could purchase antibiotics over the counter. saved my life, i do believe...

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    1. Yes, I think it's a comic picaresque character study, a misanthrope forced to interact with humanity. Not quite "Timon of Athens," though. I'm not sure if Frisch will draw any morals for the reader. I've really only just started the novel, only about a fifth of the way into it.

      Dysentery: the good old days, what? The worst thing that's ever happened to me while traveling abroad (why were you living in Mexico?) was insomnia in Prague. By the time we got out of there, I was a zombie, not having slept for four or five days. Not life-threatening until meine Frau threatened to push me into the Danube Canal the evening we got into Vienna. I had it coming, I admit.

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    2. is there a physical reason for insomnia? i've had it but it was because i was nervous. i had a job in chihuahua in la sinfonica de la noroeste(2nd clarinet).

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    3. Wow, were you in the symphony when Henryk Szeryng performed with them? Szeryng is one of my violin heroes.

      I've always had problems with insomnia, since I was a kid. Nobody has ever found a cause. I didn't sleep at all on the 13-hour flight to Europe and that knocked me out of my sleep cycle, I guess. Then I just didn't sleep until we got to Vienna almost a week later. Prague seems like a dream to me in many ways because I was stumbling around half-asleep the whole time.

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    4. my answer got disappeared; to iterate: we had six soloists, i think, a bass player, a soprano, a pianist, and a violinist, the latter of which might have been szeryng, i just can't recall back fifty years. the whole thing was quite an adventure for a young person... oh, and the first oboe did the strauss concerto, which was a real thrill. it's not done very often, being very difficult.

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    5. i just remembered the oboists name: roland dufrane; from the netherlands, brilliant red hair, had a wife with red hair and four children(some of whom are now active in mexican classical music) with red hair. they used to walk to the store in a row, one after the other-it was kind of surrealistic to see...

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    6. Henryk Szeryng wasn't a member of the Sinfonica; he was Mexico's cultural ambassador and played with a lot of Mexican orchestras.

      I've never heard the Strauss concerto, but I'll look it up. I'm a big fan of the oboe. What sane person isn't, right?

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    7. no, i caught that; i was just listing what i could remember(not much) of the soloists who performed with the orchestra(which was disbanded, rumor held, after the maestro was observed in a school bus apparently smuggling tv sets over the border).

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    8. Haha! That's good: the conductor, the tv sets and the school bus. I will have to steal that for a book sometime.

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    9. I guarantee that if I steal that story, I'll have no idea from where the idea came, and I'll assume it's the product of my own genius. That's just how I am. Maybe at some level all art is a pastiche, a quilt or a collage, but I sometimes worry that I'm an extreme case.

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    10. well, if you accept the tabla rasa theory, everything in everyone's brain is someone else's first. i got mad at a friend once for always saying, "nothing new under the sun" until i realized it was probably true....

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    11. "My lover's eyes are nothing new under the sun."

      Originality is overrated, and the last of my concerns as a novelist. Of course that's easy for me to say, seeing as I steal all of my best bits from other people.

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    12. there are good questions and bad questions; good: what is better, pie or ice cream? or which is more fun, reading or walking? bad: what is the meaning of life; why are we here? good questions make people feel good and optimistic; bad ones make them want to shoot themselves or someone else and lead to other bad things.

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    13. The question I indirectly ask my readers is "why don't you treat other people better?" I think that's the most important question. I assume it makes people feel bad, which is good. The other question I ask is "why don't you see beauty when it's right in front of you?"

      Pie, by the way. Pie.

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    14. i guess i figure people don't really listen, so demonstrating by example works better; i read a paper long ago about how eskimos raise children without punishment, just love and encouragement and crime is very rare among them. that's the way i tried to raise my kids and they are both successful and relatively happy. one's a veterinarian and the other's an insurance guru. pie for me, too... it's mea culpa this blog got off books. lo siento. es tut mir lied...

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    15. oh, i appreciate your remark re beauty. that could solve everything, if people would do that...

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  2. This is interesting. My familiarity with Frisch was limited to my appearance in a play -- read generally about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fire_Raisers_(play) -- in 1970. The play was dreadful, the production was terrible, and I -- one of the leads -- was a tortured embarrassment. I really didn't know my lines, I was under the influence for most of the rehearsals, and I didn't understand anything about the play or the character I portrayed (the man whose home is invaded by the "criminals"). How is that for a Frisch story! Hey, a man has got to know his limitations!

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    1. I've sort of been circling around Homo faber for a couple of years, one of those many books I've been aware of but hadn't actually read. I didn't know Frisch had written plays as well. It seems that in the German-speaking world, writers have much more broad careers than they do in America, at least: novels, stories, essays, news articles, plays, screenplays, etc. Maybe it's not like that in Europe any more, maybe that went away with the Grass/Frisch/Boll/usw generation of writers. I don't know.

      I've never been in a theatrical production that was unrehearsed and under the influence, but I've been in the rock band equivalent. Ah, youth. It's a wonder some of us survive it.

      The novel seems pretty good so far. There's an English translation that I haven't read, if you can pry yourself away from Miss O'Connor.

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    2. Oh, I can put MFO aside for a while. My most recent posting at Beyond Eastrod points to that surprising separation from the Abbess of Andalusia. I'm going to Concord MA to understand much better MFO's antecedents and influences. Onward!

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