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- Published on Amazon.com
If you're near the end of your tether, fed-up with the daily routine, the people in your life, the punditry on TV, the e-mail jokes, the need to belong, the inflated bills and the obligations of civility; if your every thought is a rejection of something imposed on you, and your every observation another sad comment on the untrustworthiness, petty-mindedness and common viciousness of others, then you are ready for the mordant misery of ZȔNDEL'S EXIT.
Konrad Zȕndel's story does not proceed smoothly, in a straightforward fashion, but skips and jumps from thoughts to notes to recollections, and from real conversations to imagined ones, mostly his own, but also those of his wife Magda, his landlord Viktor Busch and possibly others. The landlord claims to be writing or reconstructing the account, and it seems he is able to summon up Zȕndel's thoughts on the basis of dates, reports and diary entries alone, or out of the air. There is also, it seems, an omniscient author, who might be Swiss novelist Markus Werner, Viktor Busch again or a creative presence lurking somewhere between the two of them and their disgruntled hero. In this uncertain environment you would need an academic analysis to find a steady ground of narration.
Which is not to say that there is no plot. There is, and it's founded on one cardinal event: Zȕndel has left home. Is it a vacation, an abandonment, flight? The plot makes its connections in inconspicuous ways: a signpost here, an explanation there, skillfully attached to one or another fragment in the stream of ratiocinations. You can figure it out, in your own way. In the end things become clearer, or at least more outspoken.
And yet it's not a hard book to read; on the contrary, it's a page-turner. The backbone of the work, the thing that makes it worth reading, is the succession of all-too-truthful, biting comments that Zȕndel makes about himself, the world and others. Like Howard Beale, the news anchor in NETWORK, he's mad as hell and doesn't want to take it anymore. Yet, unlike Beale, he doesn't mutate into a prophet, but steadily grows into a totally alienated, highly motivated misanthrope.
Here he is at the start:
"Oh, the hale individual can talk. But once his hair starts falling out, he won't care so much about hunger in the Third World. And when he has a festering carbuncle on his cheek, he will give it as much attention as he once gave the oppression of the working classes. What was it Albert said, who once claimed to Zündel that his social conscience forced him ─ rain or shine, in sickness or in health ─ to hand out flyers at least once a day? On Christmas Eve Albert had diverted his two little nephews by tying a rubber band round his nose, causing it to turn into a luminous red lump in the middle of his face. For five minutes, maybe, ten at the most. The following morning, Albert's nose was a blueish green hematoma. Albert spent the next fortnight at home and informed his comrades by telephone that he was undergoing a period of ideological reappraisal."
Later Zȕndel goes to the train station and thinks everyone looks mysterious. Then, in the men's room, he stands at the urinal and thinks:
"Don't overdo the amazement, I've been away for a week, and already people are strange to me, and the most natural things startle me. So I think what I'll do now is buy myself a newspaper, there, after all I'm not an ostrich. I know there are more current things than me. I know too how much world history depends on our involvement. What's a boxing match without a public? A pallid dumbshow. What's a sermon without a congregation? A bit of absurd theater. What would politicians be without publicity? Masks of stiff cardboard or papier-mâché. Yes, but for us onlookers, world history would probably grind to a halt. We stir the doers to action and so give rise to a brisk and colorful pageant."
So he gets a paper and starts reading about "credit rating," "comfort zone," "organ harvesting," "jailbait," and feels he is entering a swamp:
"The Kremlin's stick-and-carrot policy and generous offer from the White House and lockable paradises. The words stink and the sentences stink, as if they'd slipped out of the hemorrhoid-wreathed intestines of pest-infected morons. The stock market didn't get out of bed this morning, three-ply toilet paper is uncompromising, the intermediate missile program is on course. Shrill formulations are smeared over unresisting facts. Data spread their thighs and admit well-used linguistic particles. A noun acquires a stiff adjective and sticks it to reality from behind. Endless, shameless, comfortless sentences and contents pair off, and the product of their unchastity is called a newspaper."
And there's a lot more after that. Amazingly, this most timely of social correctives was written way back in 1984, when the author was 40, but translated only recently (2013) by Michael Hofmann ─ into crisp contemporary English. The technology has changed, the terminology as well, but the mass media, mass mind and mass mess have only gotten bigger. Read the newspaper, digital or otherwise, do your taxes, smile and repeat the platitudes ─ then reach for this liberating emetic. After experiencing it, you'll find that you can do it all over again with equal or even greater pleasure.