Friday, 3 January 2014

Book Review: Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt year 2014 has just begun and I’m determined to share my pleasure in good literature with you, my readers, also in the beginning cycle of months. This week it’s a prose comedy by a famous playwright from Switzerland which inspired me to write a review. Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (or Duerrenmatt as his name seems to be spelled in the English-speaking world) marks the grotesque and funny next stop on my tour around Europe: Switzerland. The original German edition uses to be on stock in every good book shop here, but apparently the English version of the novel is much harder to come by. Not only has the satire first been translated into English about ten years after its original release in 1955, but it has also been out of print already for a while now. If you ask me, this is a pity. To me the message of the novel seems very up-to-date and so I decided to review it.

Friedrich Dürrenmatt was born in Konolfingen near Berne, Switzerland, in January 1921. He studied philosophy and literature in Berne and Zurich, but soon decided to aspire to a literary career. In 1945 he published stories in local newspapers for the first time. 1947 turned out to be a particularly happy year for the emerging writer: he married, his son was born, his play Es steht geschrieben (It Is Written) was put on stage and earned him an important award starting his highly successful career as a playwright. His numerous dramatic works include the famous plays The Marriage of Mr. Mississippi (Die Ehe des Herrn Mississipi: 1952), The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame: 1956) and The Physicists (Die Physiker: 1962). Friedrich Dürrematt also produced murder mysteries The Judge and His Hangman (Der Richter und sein Henker: 1950) and Suspicion (Der Verdacht: 1951), the prose comedy Once a Greek (Grieche sucht Griechin: 1955), the novels The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel (Das Versprechen. Requiem auf den Kriminalroman: 1957) and Justice (Justiz: 1985). In addition he always continued to paint and draw. Friedrich Dürrenmatt died from a heart attack in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in December 1990. 

The satire Once a Greek is set in French-speaking Switzerland, presumably in a (fictitious and nameless) capital because there are a Parliament with a Greek tympanum and a Presidential Palace right beside the Ministry of Economics… and the colossal concrete premises designed by star architect Le Corbusier where the Machine Factory Petit-Paysan plc. has its headquarters and where the story’s protagonist works. Arnolph Archilochos is a middle-aged sub-accountant in the Delivery Forceps Division, an insignificant underling in one of countless open-plan offices. He’s a very principled and religious man, a model of virtue imitating a number of chosen idols. In order to be able to financially support his brother as well as his entire family while disregarding and excusing their idle and criminal habits, he even lives in dark and smelly attics with a view at nothing but bathroom walls. In short: he leads a rather ascetic and bleak life. One Sunday the hostess of the Chez Auguste where he has his meals convinces him to place a Lonely Heart’s ad in the paper. Being the descendant of a Greek immigrant of the times of Charles the Bold (1433-1477), he seeks a Greek girl, an innocent like himself. Beautiful and charming Chloé Saloniki answers to the ad and everybody except Arnolph realizes at first sight that she is a prostitute. They agree on getting married quickly. Early the next morning, the day before the wedding, Arnolph’s comet-like as well as seemingly miraculous rise to the top of society begins and at the same time the collapse of his idyllic view of life as well as the fall of his idols announces itself. 

The plot of Once a Greek is absurd. Essentially Friedrich Dürrenmatt satirizes in a matter-of-fact language our inclination to idealize the world before our eyes and to simply fade out or mentally alter everything that doesn’t fit in. In other words: often we don’t see what actually is, but what we want to see. Despite his high moral principles Arnolph finds no harm in working for a company that produces atomic cannons because his place is in the Delivery Forceps Division. No matter what his brother and his people do, in Arnolph’s eyes they remain innocent and good at heart because they are family. People of rigorous virtue are particularly prone to it, if they – like Arnolph – take for granted that others observe the same moral values as themselves. But sooner or later everybody has to face reality and to decide how to deal with it. Run away? Surrender? Adapt? In any case the world will never be the same again – it certainly isn’t for Arnolph and his wife Chloé! They realize that unconditional love is all that counts in the end.

For me Once a Greek by Friedrich Dürrenmatt has been a quick and interesting read which I enjoyed very much. The absurd usually annoys me, not in this case, though. I reckon that this is because I didn’t need to spend hours on end meditating about the message. The truth behind all the ridiculous exaggerations was quite obvious to me. Friedrich Dürrenmatt may have been a greater playwright than novelist, but his prose comedy definitely deserves being read more widely… and my recommendation.

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