Dürrenmatt, Friedrich Entries

The Assignment

"When Otto von Lambert was informed by the police that his wife Tina had been found dead and violated at the foot of the Al-Hakim ruin, and that the crime was as yet unsolved, the psychiatrist, well known for his book on terrorism, had the corpse transported by helicopter across the Mediterranean, suspended in its coffin by ropes from the bottom of the plane, so that it trailed after it slightly, over vast stretches of sunlit land, through shreds of clouds, across the Alps in a snowstorm, and later through rain showers, until it was gently reeled down into an open grave surrounded by a mourning party, and covered with earth, whereupon von Lambert, who had noticed that F., too, had filmed the event, briefly scrutinized her and, closing his umbrella despite the rain, demanded that she and her team visit him that same evening, since he had an assignment for her that could not be delayed."

So goes the first sentence, which is also the entire first chapter, of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Assignment (or, on the observing of the observer of the observers). In fact, every chapter consists of a single long sentence, a technique which leads, at its best, to evocative, noir-ish snapshots of the action, and at its worst to confusing, breathless run-ons with no clear referent. I actually think both best- and worst-case scenarios have their place in creating Dürrenmatt's chosen atmosphere: as the titular "assignment" spirals out of F.'s control, the chapter-sentences get longer and more labyrinthine, mirroring her own descent from unease to panic. It's cleverly and effectively done, and also allows Dürrenmatt to condense a standard-length novel into a scant 129 pages. Into this brief first chapter, for example, is packed a remarkable amount of information, relevant to both the plot (von Lambert is a psychiatrist; he is "well known for his book on terrorism"; his wife has been brutally raped and murdered; her body was found at the foot of a desert monument) and the enigmatic atmosphere ("over vast stretches of sunlit land, through shreds of clouds, across the Alps in a snowstorm"; "closing his umbrella despite the rain"). Indeed, especially in these first few chapter-sentences, I was spellbound by Dürrenmatt's extreme economy of language. It's right next door to a political thriller told in verse, so compressed and evocative is the prose.

Although I generally preferred the shorter chapters, one of the most memorable is much longer: in it, F. drops into a cafe to talk with her logician friend D. about the case, and D. proceeds to develop the novella's obsessive preoccupation with observation and aggression. Dürrenmatt's overarching fear, in this book, seems to be the dual dependence on and incapability of constant observation: just as Tina von Lambert and her husband were constantly observing (and therefore objectifying) one another, so countries and individuals are constantly locked in a (to Dürrenmatt) unhealthy relationship of obsessive observation:

[The case reminded him of] a logical problem loosely involving a mirror telescope he had installed in his house in the mountains, an unwieldy thing that he occasionally pointed at a cliff from which he was being observed by people with field glasses, with the effect that, as soon as the people observing him through their field glasses realized that he was observing them through his telescope, they would retreat in a hurry...for the people observing him and discovering that we was observing them through a mirror telescope felt caught in the act, and since being caught in the act produces embarrassment and embarrassment frequently leads to aggression, more than one of these people, after retreating in haste, had come back to throw rocks at his house as soon as he had dismantled the telescope...
...but, he added, after suddenly bursting into laughter and becoming serious again, what he was constructing here was of course only one of two possibilities, the other one being the precise opposite of what he had described...: if, in his house in the mountains, he was being observed less and less, so rarely that, when he pointed his mirror telescope at people who he presumed were observing him from the cliff, they turned out to be observing not him but something else through their field glasses, chamois or mountain climbers or whatnot, this state of not being observed would begin to torment him after a while, much more than the knowledge of being observed had bothered him earlier, so that he would virtually yearn for those rocks to be thrown at his house, because not being watched would make him feel not worth noticing, not being worth noticing would make him feel disrespected, being disrespected would make him feel insignificant, being insignificant would make him feel meaningless, the end result might be a hopeless depression...man was staggering along in the mad hope of somehow finding someone to be observed by somewhere...

As sophomoric as the character D. (for Dürrenmatt?) can sometimes be, this ongoing trap of observation is at the heart of The Assignment, and manifests in personal relationships as well as international relations. Being under constant observation, argues Dürrenmatt, makes people antsy and suspicious, desperate to escape into some modicum of privacy and aggressive towards the ones observing them. Yet without the presence of an observer, one who provides some kind of feedback, modern people lose their sense of self. Toward the end of the novel, he even argues that in certain circumstances the inability to observe directly - the modern dependence on intermediary tools and measures, which abstracts peoples' experiences of concrete reality - can have disastrous and violent consequences. These are all thought-provoking claims, especially in the era of Twitter, GPS, and iPhone apps that broadcast to one's friend network whether one is walking, shopping, or sitting on the john. I'm not sure I agree with all of them (it might actually be logically impossible to agree with all claims made in the book), but it definitely got me thinking, in a very stylish way.

There were two things that mitigated my pleasure in The Assignment, the first of which is somewhat unreasonable: I was expecting a work of modern absurdism, a kind of thriller version of Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, whereas Dürrenmatt's work turns out, in the end, to be full of rational explanations for all the weird and atmospheric stuff that goes on in its early pages. There's more weird stuff that goes on in its latter pages as well, but, sadly for me, this is all explained too, and kind of lamely at that. I know that it is a convention, in the mystery/thriller genre, that the crime is tied up neatly in the end and explained to the reader, and I like that okay when I'm in the mood. But I dearly love a well-executed absurdist novel, and they're much harder to come by than a well done standard murder mystery. Having psyched myself up for the former, it was disappointing to be left with the latter.

My second issue is, I think, more widely applicable. Throughout the whole novella, I was mentally commending Dürrenmatt for writing a thriller with a female protagonist who is independent and gutsy, without making an issue out of her femaleness. F. engages in almost exclusively un-gendered, yet noirish, activities: she shoots reels of film (which are then swapped for others by her mysterious antagonists), meets a friend in a shady café, descends into the lair of the chief of police, decides whether or not to accept the advice of mysterious drunken strangers, and so on. Even her single-letter "name" is gender-free. Aside from a casual reference to her "changing into a denim dress" partway through, F. could just as easily be a man. This is, to me, very refreshing, especially in a genre where female roles are usually limited to helpless victim or femme fatale, and where, on the few occasions when detectives are female, they are usually presented with a dashing love interest who rescues them right on schedule. I was just reveling in the welcome change when BAM!: F. is threatened with a grisly rape. (Orbis Terrarum people: I do actually read books that don't involve rape, I promise.) To me, this rape threat is totally unnecessary to furthering the plot or developing any of Dürrenmatt's points about observation and violence. It seems to me that the author uses rape, irresponsibly, as short-hand for "extreme violence," and the way the scene is handled undermines the entire prior development of F.'s character: in the final analysis, she is reduced to just another person whose victimhood is synonymous with her womanhood. This, coming in tandem with the (to me) unwelcome explanations of all that went before, soured me a bit on the book as a whole.

But! For those thoughtful readers who like a little weird but still prefer their loose ends tied up, and who don't mind the predictable victimization of the female lead (and you can't mind that too much if you like thrillers), I would still recommend The Assignment. As an experiment in style, an atmospheric political portrait, and a parable of observation and violence, it was quite memorably effective.

(The Assignment was my second book for the Orbis Terrarum challenge)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography