Tuesday, September 8, 2009

11: Auto-da-fe

Elias Canetti, Auto-da-fé (Die Blendung, “The Blinding” in the original German)

Elias Canetti won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1981. The title of C. V. Wedgewood’s English translation refers to the opening quote of Heinrich Heine (“where they burn books, there they will burn men also” or similar) and the auto-da-fés of the Inquisition.

Auto-da-fé is about sinologist Peter Kien who lives in an apartment with his great library of obscure texts. He abhors human interactions and keeps to himself. By some stroke of fortune, he feels himself pressured to marry his ignorant housekeeper, Therese. There, all hell breaks loose. Though Kien is under the illusion that Therese married him out of a reverence for his books or some other silly nonsense, Therese is only interested in his money and when Kien’s illusion is shattered, he is driven from his own home by Therese. He takes up with a dwarf, Fischerle, who dupes him and robs him of his money, after seeing Kien pay people, who have come to a pawn shop to pawn books, to keep their books. The books is satirical and Canetti’s world and characters are so ridiculous and strange that it was hard to read.

It’s hard to read about Therese and Fisherle fooling Kien and robbing him of his peace or his money or both. I do feel bad for Kien, but he is a fool. The only people in that book who were intellectual enough to understand him and to be understood by him are his brother, who tried to cure him, and the little boy who asked him about Mencius, but he shunned them both and drove them both away, preferring, instead, the low, uneducated company of Therese and Fischerle.

The thing is that he cannot understand those simple uneducated people. He makes the same mistake as Carol Kennicott. Because they are simple, he assumes that they are also pure and have the purest motives. But they don’t. They in fact have the easiest motive of all; money. Kien endows them in his mind with all sorts of noble qualities, thoughts and tragedies which they have no conceptions of. Kien's reality in his mind is quite a fine place. The real world and Kien’s perception of it are rarely in sync. When he discovers the discrepancy, he is, understandably, destroyed, following in the manner of the strangeness of all events of this book.

I think “The Blinding” is a better title, even if “Auto-da-fé” sounds as strange and foreign as this book feels. Kien is, in fact, very blind to the reality around him. Indeed, it is hard not to be. Reading this was like being sucked into a nightmarish world, which had retained its ability to reason.

No comments:

Post a Comment