Zündel’s Exit arrives in an English translation for the first time since its appearance in Austria thirty years ago. Its author—a Swiss student of philosophy and psychology, born in 1944 and responsible for more than a half-dozen books, most of which have been unavailable to English readers—is hardly known in this country, making Michael Hofmann’s translation of this sly, confounding work a welcome contribution. Markus Werner finds company among an elect and heroic group of voluptuaries, but of a special kind; like Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, or Beckett’s Murphy, or the high-pitched monodrama of the impasse we get in Buster Keaton, Zündel’s Exit gorges on the limit point of madness, of fidgeting hands and heads and hearts punished by the sclerosis of cramped conditions. Solitude supplies one way out, although the route to the promised land is split: the terrors of the abyss can be allayed by redefining the terms of one’s relationship to the world (think of the eponymous and reflective hero of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, for example, whose mind is only as swift as its talent for turning any city block into a repository of fantastic historical associations); or they can be inventoried, enumerated and thus made unexceptional (paperwork, highway signposts, operating instructions, sucking stones in a coat pocket). Werner’s fractured creation, Konrad Zündel, composited here from diary scraps and a few piecemeal memories of the book’s narrator, looks, at least initially, like an epicure of this latter category of solitude. But the book is too appetitive, too obsessive, to stop at the unexceptional. Zündel’s exit, the slammed door of a kinked consciousness, is nourished by a stubborn feat of mental alchemy.
There’s a hint of this early on. Werner’s wounded picaro, arraigned by his wife and deployed alone to Italy on his summer holiday, turns a rather bald matter of the mouth into the tuft of an epiphany. “There is something brusquely proprietorial in the way Zündel’s tongue forces itself into the alien, still-soft gap in his gums,” says Zündel’s friend the Reverend Busch, who narrates the book. “Curious, how a missing incisor can narrow one’s perspectives. And how it can give one the sense of being the focal point of the whole world.” Then, a little later, come the discoveries in a train washroom:
Zündel bent down disbelievingly to inspect it. It was a human finger, yellowish, encrusted with black blood, the nail blue. Straightaway, Zündel could sense he was not equal to this discovery. When he straightened up, he saw a wallet in the trash basket. He eyed it. Then he pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and thought: Keep cool, boy. —He pulled the wallet out of the wastepaper basket. It was his own, Zündel’s, wallet.
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The missing tooth, the severed finger, the lost wallet retrieved from the least likely of places—Werner supplies the standards, in the form of two or three intrusions upon the everyday, for judging the correctness and precision, the chronic prodigious absurdity, of Zündel’s splintered Grand Tour of the head. Not being equal to our discoveries—a problem of scale—may be one way of paraphrasing what Werner’s novel is about. It may also have something to do with its apparent closeness to that special taste for the incongruous called, with varying degrees of accuracy, surrealism, in literature (Lautréamont, Aragon, Breton) as well as in movies, where any word or gesture can be juxtaposed against the clock (Buñuel and Cocteau aside, the great screwball or physical comedies of the 1930s, for example, share with Werner their mania for pitching words and persons at the greatest possible speed, with the consequence that they become deformed, uncanny, a little untoward). Werner’s habit of marking Zündel’s travels with a very limited litany of transitions—“a little before seven,” “until midnight,” “for five minutes, maybe, ten at the most”—estranges a number of lowly chance encounters and fiendish observations from any discernible reality. When Zündel trails a prostitute through the narrow streets of Genoa, or when he eavesdrops on conversations in train compartments, we get an elided vision of a larger, increasingly staccato chronology. The idea: to complete a series of minuscule, incremental movements, strung together discontinuously, designed to illustrate the last known moments of Zündel’s life. The result: frustrating, even delirious, because what Werner hides from view through his shuttling of clipped narrative details has the noxious effect of turning whatever we do learn about Zündel into something strangely inadmissible to the imagination. The feeling: perverse. Thus, Zündel’s defeat: “Everything is hostile, everything that happens to me exceeds my capacity to endure it.”