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German writer's novel fuses the fantastic and the familiar

The Assignment: On Observing the Observer of the Observers, by Friedrich D"urrenmatt. Translated from the German by Joel Agee. New York: Random House. 128 pp. $14.95. In his essay ``Problems of the Theatre,'' Friedrich D"urrenmatt - speaking as a playwright - disclaims all labels. He asks readers not to view him as a spokesman of any movement or dramatic technique, nor as a ``traveling salesman'' of any philosophy, whether existentialism, nihilism, or expressionism. As a novelist, the Swiss writer shows himself equally ready to defy categorization: In ``The Assignment,'' mystery, political satire, black comedy, intellectual and moral dis-course, and fantasy are ingeniously fused.

The book opens with a mystery: Psychiatrist Otto von Lambert's wife, Tina, has been found murdered at the Al-Hakim ruin, a shrine in an unidentified Arab country, and he asks the filmmaker F., ``well known for her film portraits,'' to investigate the crime. F. accepts the assignment, reluctantly at first, but increasingly determined to uncover the ``reality'' Tina met in the desert, and to meet her own.

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In the desert, F. encounters international intrigue and political subversion. The stated interests of the investigating magistrate and the police chief can't be trusted, their true interests can't be discerned, and they are watching each other as closely as they are watching F. It is a world in which everyone - including, of course, F. herself - is filming, videotaping, photographing, spying on everyone else, a world in which a photographer may kill someone simply to film him in the act of dying.

Despite her crew's objections, F. decides to stay and learn the truth about Tina, but she soon finds she is seeking the identity not only of the murderer but also of the victim, who may not have been Tina, after all, but a journalist who seems to have borne a curious resemblance to F.

From the first, D"urrenmatt sets his mystery, and F.'s quest, in a broad philosophical context. The prelude to ``The Assignment'' is a passage from Kierkegaard's ``Either/Or.'' The book's resident philosopher is the logician D., F.'s friend, ``an eccentric and sharp-witted man,'' who frames the novel's central questions as he reflects on the uncertain nature of identity, and a destabilized world in which we are increasingly dependent on observation to validate our lives.

The sense that we are being watched makes us hostile, says D., but the sense that we are not being watched makes us feel insignificant, meaningless. If a ``personal god'' is ``no longer possible in the face of such a monstrosity as this universe, a god as world regent and father who keeps an eye on everyone, who counts the hairs on every head,'' then man alone is left to pay attention to man, to give meaning to life. Much of what is happening, suggests D., - from the arms race to personal craving for the limelight - becomes ``understandable'' if we view man as ``staggering along in the mad hope of somehow finding someone to be observed by somewhere....''

D"urrenmatt's wit, his keen sense of the absurd, and his intellectual breadth make the novel's philosophical framework and ruminations, which might easily have turned pretentious, as engaging as the mystery with which they are intertwined.

``The Assignment'' is a journey through a landscape that is both fantastic and familiar: the human condition, the contemporary world, penetratingly observed.

Gail Pool is a free-lance reviewer.

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