Thursday, 20 December 2012

Book Review: Auto da Fé by Elias Canetti
As I love books so much, I decided to write a review. However, I don’t intend to write a state-of-the-art review, I’ll just put down some of my thoughts.

Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. Auto da Fé is an interesting story, confusing, even disturbing at times. If I were asked to use only one word to describe this writer’s only fiction work I’d probably call it weird.

At first, it seems to be a critique of society. On the one hand, there’s the well-to-do people (represented by the sinologist Peter Kien) who exaggerate the value and importance of education and reading to such an extent that it makes them unable to understand or at least cope with real life. On the other hand, there’s the common people who fight for survival every day and who have learned to care a lot about money, so much, in fact, that they don’t shrink back even from murder.

However, I think that the novel’s original German title – Die Blendung which is 'blinding' or 'deception' in English – hints at something else. Each one of the protagonists of the Auto da Fé is to a certain degree obsessed by something: Kien lives for and through his private library of 25,000 volumes stored in the four rooms of his flat; his wife Therese – the former housekeeper, an old maid who deceived the inexperienced and asexual Kien into marrying her after eight years – only thinks of money and property, beauty and sex; the caretaker of the house is wrapped up in his past as a police officer and keeps living out his violent traits in order to press money from the tenants who he’s 'protecting' from bad lots like beggars and door-to-door salesmen; and last, but not least, the crippled Jewish crook Siegfried Fischer, called Fischerle, who is obsessed with chess and with going to America in order to prove that he’s better at that game than the current world champion, for which scope he – of course – needs a lot of money.
The obsessions of all those people result in an inability to see the world the way it really is. They always give information, conversations, and events a meaning which is consistent with their very own idea of a perfect life. So in a way, all of them create an imaginary world within themselves which differs from reality to a certain degree.

But you should see for yourself…

An interesting fact about the background of the story:
Elias Canetti wrote it  in the early 1930s under the impression of rising National Socialism in Germany and of the first auto-da-fé of books on 10 May 1933. Even being Jewish himself he could hardly have imagined then what was still to come … the concentration camps. Heinrich Heine's saying that 'Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings' unfortunately proved right…


  1. According to his autobiography, Canetti wrote this book in 1931 - two years before the Nazis burnt books. It was supposed to be part of a Comedie humaine, a series of novels based on insane or obsessive characters. A direct inspiration for the book was the fire at the Vienna Palace of Justice which Canetti witnessed in 1927 (including the following shooting of more than 70 people by Austrian police on the spot). His lifelong research on Crowds and Power but also this novel seem to have been triggered by this extraordinary event. A fascinating novel and it is a pity that it remained Canetti's only one.

    1. Thanks for your instructive comment! Yes, the historical background and almost clairvoyance of this novel are amazing. I hinted at part of it by the end of my review (which was the first that I ever published, by the way!). And I agree that it's a pity that Canetti didn't write any other novels...


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