A wailing child lost in the neon aisles of a department store finally finds his Mama. Upset, the mother reacts poorly, slapping the child; he begins to vomit on her. Onlookers stand back, thinking, we imagine, that this terrible Mama is getting just what she deserves—but Zündel, our hero, steps forward, holding out his plastic bag to help her catch “the violet spew.” “Yes, I acted, true,” thinks Zündel, but it’s “the wrong thing and too late.” So begins Zündel’s Exit, and so it continues: humor and horror, action and (over)contemplation, bodily function and regret, isolation among the masses. The awful inscrutability of the “right thing” is what finally drives Zündel to the edge. The novel’s crisis is the one beneath all crises: the fact of having to exist at all.
Zündel’s Exit, the first novel by Swiss writer Markus Werner, written in 1984, just now translated into English by Michael Hofmann, is a highlight reel of the last legless month in the life of thirty-three-year-old high-school history teacher Konrad Zündel. Our narrator is Zündel’s smart, sympathetic friend, pastor Viktor Busch, who reconstructs the story through various sources. For such a short, quick-moving novel (126 pages), it is remarkably full: action, hearsay, philosophizing, diary entries, imagined dialogue, advice. The speed and force and assurance with which the novel moves is arresting: it convinces us of the drama in the drama, and the drama in the everyday. There is a kind of brutality in having to read, day in and day out, that little warning sticker on one’s toilet.
It’s the beginning of summer break when the novel opens in Ancona, where Zündel is just about to depart by ferry to Patras. He and his wife, Magda, have decided to vacation separately. They’re on the outs; Magda has been spending increasingly more time with her women’s group, though one gets the sense that her real trouble is with Zündel’s increasing depression, his inability to participate entirely in their partnership. But just as he boards the ferry, Zündel’s tooth falls out. He must lie to get the crew to lower the gangplank for him. “See, I’m not so unworldly as all that. I can lie. I am competent,” thinks Zündel (haven’t we all thought such a thing?). It’s a small consolation. Zündel soon realizes that, with his tooth missing, no one will rent him a hotel room. So he returns home to Zurich on a hellish train ride: he finds both a severed finger and his own wallet in the train bathroom.
Zündel’s return dismays and worries Magda, who, after an argument, goes to stay with a friend in Bern. Zündel spends the night drinking and talking with Busch, our narrator. (“Beer or wine?” Busch asks. “Something harder!” “Kirsch, whiskey or brandy?” he asks. “Wine!”) When Zündel gets home, his landlord, Schmocker (what a name!) tells a malicious lie about Magda, sending Zündel into total despair. He takes off again, this time for Genoa, vowing to live “the spontaneous life,” and commit himself to “total apathy.” He picks Genoa for two reasons: one, he was conceived there; two, it’s a seedy port town (Zündel later identifies the “four cardinal points of frying oil, urine, fish, and excrement”) and he’s sure he will be able to purchase a gun, just “a plain little common-or-garden revolver,” with which to end his life. The rest of the novel chronicles Zündel’s two debauched weeks in Genoa, and his last heartbreaking return home and final disappearance wearing a knee-length cardigan and striped wooly hat.
What makes the novel so special is the way Werner holds contradictory ideas and feelings in suspension, creating “a remarkable splicing of farce and reflection, tragedy and humoresque,” as Hofmann puts it in his introduction. It is heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny: “Everything is hostile,” thinks Zündel. “Everything that happens to me exceeds my capacity to endure it. Why does God have to send me a finger?” His defeatism is, we feel, warranted. He’s like a Beckett character who has to live in the real world, or the Underground man aboveground, kinder and more sensitive, Dostoyevskian without the acerbity. We might only laugh at Zündel, were it not for the overwhelming compassion he compels; we might chide him for drinking grappa for breakfast were it not for the real, true pain he feels in the supposed loss of Magda’s love, in his “finally confirmed unbelonging.”
Zündel and the novel are full of contradictions, the way we all are, the way life is. “I’m a vain fellow,” he thinks, “but I really don’t like myself.” He vows in the space of one sentence both to accept his position in life as a “cosmic pea” and also to “write a little novel.” He’s three Zündels to Borges’s two, declaring that a name is only “the intestine [that] holds the sausage together,” and that the insane are merely those who will have no truck with this “identity nonsense.” But again, it’s not that Zündel is a mere self-pitying cynic; it’s that he’s all too aware and thoughtful. He wants people to be kinder. He knows that life is a mess of chance and will and meaning and non-meaning, and he wants to sort it all out. At the same, time he knows that’s impossible. “Everything is subject to continual revision,” Zündel states. “So fragile is the past, so idiotically menaced by the least bit of now.” He has a hard time making a decision not because the choice is difficult, but because the terms of decision-making are themselves suspect: how can one possibly know what one wants?
Yet for all its contemplativeness, the book is full of action, a real plot. Will Zündel get the gun? Will he get the girl? What will become of him? There is a police chase; a prostitute; a lover called Nounou; criminals; a hospital; countless scenes of vomiting and urination. It’s a book of body as much as mind. When Zündel and Magda make love, he thinks, “their flesh was still willing, still had the strength to overrule their dissident brains.” Zündel is desperate for love, for touch. He knows all too well “the premium on physical contact.” He dreams of the amalgamation of a “Union of Abandoned Husbands” and a “Sisterhood of Beaten Wives,” whence “All hearts are thawed… and body fearlessly presses against body.” He even opens his gun packet “with a feeling of tenderness that surprised him.”
And for all its farce—Zündel’s getting caught peeping at lovers in the shower, his pathetic attempt to purchase a revolver (“he’s just an all around nice guy,” Zündel says of the criminal as he buys him a drink)—there is real beauty, a real attention to language and expression. Zurich looks “as though a million tongues are continually licking it clean.” Zündel gets the phrase “dietary wagon” stuck in his head. The inane term “parcel of measures” in the newspaper outrages him. Of the prostitute, he says, “the only lovable thing was her ugliness.” The most difficult thing about reviewing the novel is not being able to quote it all.
And yet, finally, for all of its delicacy and attention to detail, Zündel’s Exit asks the big questions, the ones always running in the brain on low, like the humming of the furnace one notices every so often (or more, depending): What is the meaning of life? Why do some people seem to have thicker skin than others? Who are really the good, the “suitable angel material”: the weak or the strong? Is it right or good or even possible to live happily in a society with which one fundamentally disagrees? These are questions worth asking even if there are no real answers, and it is a treat to think of them in the context of heightened awareness and feeling that Werner achieves with Zündel’s Exit. It’s one of those books that makes me envious of those who still have it ahead of them—and yet it’s a book so wonderfully clever and thoughtful and original, I know I will come back to it. For now I only hope there will be more Werner-by-Hofmann in our future.