Free «Der Richter und sein Henker und Das Versprechen» Essay Sample

Friedrich Durrenmatt, the Swiss-German writer whose plays, most notably the Physicists, have a certain fame for dramatizing contemporary issues, would hardly seem to be a literary artist capable of epitomizing any of the issues taken up in this paper. His plots in the Der Richter und sein Henker und Das Versprechen are unbelievable; his characterization stock-conventional; his penchant for the grotesque and macabre, along with the surprising turn of event, form a distasteful pastiche of Franz Kafka and O. Henry. Yet there is in one the murder mystery that is indicative of changing contemporary conceptualization - if not illustrative of contemporary artistic accomplishment. In ''Das Versprechen the subtitle of the Pledge is "Requiem for the Detective Story'" and it is in this sense a murder mystery written to "end" (all) murder mysteries, to point out the inapplicability of the form, as conventionally written, to the complexity and unpredictability of reality. This reality is not specifically "contemporary reality"; like Robbe Grillet, whose program for the nouveau roman can be seen as incorporating Durrenmatt's rejection of the neat solution, Durrenmatt only sees himself as ,making his fiction conform as they have become."



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The Pledge has two narrators: an outer-frame narrator, an un-named novelist; and an inner narrator who is also a participant, like Joseph Conrad's Marlow, in the story he tells. This is Dr. H., former police chief of Zurich, and it is his opinions concerning the relation of fiction to life that form the basis of our perception of the story. He compares, with heavy irony, the "duties" of the policeman and those of the writer: "Every audience and every taxpayer has right to his heroes and his happy ending, and we of the police and you of the writing profession are equally obliged to supply these" (pp. 17 - 18) - the policeman, or the detective, has the public duty of providing solutions to murders, catching the criminal, and the same things is expected of the writer of detective stories or murder mysteries. Dr. H., as the policeman who cannot set up or control the conditions with which he works, reserves his greatest scorn for the writer, who can control the conditions by his own invention yet deliberately falsifies their true nature. In fiction, therefore, fraud becomes too raw and shameless.

According to ''Das Versprechen, what the writer leaves out is just that element which decides whether or not the police do solve a case: chance ("in your novels chance plays no part"). When chance does occur in fiction, it is treated as something preordained ("some kind of destiny or Devine dispensation"), rather than as what we presume Dr. H. to mean and what the tenor of his remarks indicates: a fickle and powerful erratic force that upsets, and prevents the application of, logic and its analogues - chess strategy, deductive reasoning, the Sherlock Holmes approach (Eadington, 2006). Durrenmatt makes the application of this point to his murder mystery easy - all too easy, as is typical of him - by making his murderer insane. The criminally insane are, as we are accustomed to being told, either superhumanly accurate in their use of precisely logical steps, or wildly erratic and outside all human probability in their behavior. Either way they escape the meshes of a logical pursuit that attributes the "sense of motive, means, and so forth to their actions. Durrenmatt's murderer, Albert, who lures little girls with candy and then eviscerates them with a razor, belongs to an existent type of sex murderer, but that does not affect the large gulf between his life and life in general. Dwight Macdonald has noted this of Alfred Hitchcock's celebrated film Psycho: Despite its firm basis in reality and its neat Freudian explanation delivered in the form of pseudomedical epilogue, its hero is simply too far removed from our lives to be of interest to us. His madness is like Albert's, clear, complete, and irretrievable, totally lacking in the teasing, borderline quality of that of Grass's Oskar Mazerath or Robbe - Grillet's Wallas.

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The critical role of chance in the plot of the pledge is, like the narrative structure, double; naturally it is in compliance with the sentiments of Dr. H. First, when Albert's most recent victim is found, the police conclude that a peddler who was in the area and who has difficulty justifying his movements is the killer, and they intensify their third-degree questioning to the point that he confesses. He then hangs himself in his cell, so the case is considered closed. Albert, unsuspected as before, is free to kill again. The police are defeated by their logic, and by the unlucky chance that an innocent man incriminated himself. The second unlucky chance is somewhat more complex in its effect, and as malignant, for when the sensitive and intelligent detective-protagonist, Matthai, who feels uneasily sure of the peddler's innocence, pursues the investigation and lures Albert into a trap, he is defeated by chance just as victory, and justification, are within his grasp. For Albert is killed in a traffic accident on his way to meet, and to kill, the little girl Mtthai has set out as bait for him (Gabe, and Loveridge, 1996). Since Matthai only knows that the little girl has met someone, and she, having been charmed by Albert, denies everything, Matthai is left with nothing.

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His imagination and mental flexibility had enabled him to skirt the first logical trap, only to lure him into a second: The perfection of his plan to trap the killer, and its successful operation right up until the last moment, intoxicate down of the ratiocination break him, too. He becomes - with Durrenmatt's usual flair for the melodramatic - a seedy, drink - sodden wreck, forever lost to his career and the world. The logic of the murderer in this is hardly necessary to consult, either that he consciously seeks out little girls to kill because he hears a divine commandment to so, or that he is unconsciously revenging himself on womankind for the humiliating treatment he receives from a wife who is his social and intellectual superior. In combination with the accident that eliminates both Albert and his detective - pursuer, though, this logic can be seen to have a suitably "crazy" parallel to the situation of the real murderers in Capote's In Cold Blood. As the first half of the ''Der Richter und sein Henker'' ends, so does the actual detective work? The second half is given over to long philosophical discussions and considerable suspense. Barlach has greatly underestimated his opponent. Sonnenstein is a trap, from which no one has ever come back alive. Instead of frightening Emmenberger, Fortisching's story gets the incautious journalist murdered. According to the novel Hungertobel is to be next, and for the commissioner is planned Emmenberger's specialty: an operation without anesthetic.

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Emmenberger gives Barlach one chance to escape death and obtain his freedon. He needs only to convince the Nazi doctor that he possesse a belief in anything strong enough to stand up to the latter's nihilistic credo. If perceived corruption in Durrenmatt's homeland was a motivation in the ''Der Richter und sein Henker'' and ''Das Versprechen'', so too was the state of detective fiction. Durrenmatt has certainly not written conventional detective stories. While all the famous fictional detectives have their signature idiosyncrasies, nearly all play more or less by the rules, just as writers of detective fiction. Durrenmatt has certainly not written conventional detective stories (Lehne, 2001). While all the famous fictional detectives have their signature idiosyncrasies, nearly all play more or less by the rules, just as writers of detective fiction are expected to follow certain rules out of fairness to the reader. That the system works, justice is rational, and crime does not pay are universal lessons of the detective novel. It is actually a conservative, baroque form of literature. Through it rapture in the pre-or-dained order of society, created by the commission of crime, is healed; the moral status quo is restored through the solving of the mystery and the apprehension of the antisocial perpetrator. For the detective to restore the social order in the mind of the reader, however, he or she must employ the legitimate methods sanctioned by that order.

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Were the detective to stoop to the criminal's level and employ blatantly illegal methods to entrap him, the result would be an affirmation of anarchy rather than of order. Switzerland has spawned the villains of both novels, and, more important, has facilitated their criminal career. Gatsmann, merely the final alias of a man whose real name is never revealed, returns as an old man to establish thje base of his illegal empire in the village of his birth, Lamboing. In reality it is less nostalgia that draws Gastmann to the hills above Lake Beil than the anonymity and privacy his native land affords him. Swiss bureaucrats ask no questions, especially when the answers threaten to be embarrassing. Von Schwendi, member of the National Assembly and Gastmann's attorney, is such a bureaucrat. He knows what Gastmann is doing, but keeps silent for three reasons. First, the deals are lucrative to his client, and thus indirectly to him; this is nothing unusual in Switzerland, where the right to privacy is so greatly revered; and finally, to expose Gastmann at this point would embrass not only the Swiss government, but also some very powerful foregn governments whose diplomats are exploiting their immunity to consummate the illicit deals. Von Schwendi's permissiveness taken to extremes results in a perversity of logic, by which Gastmann is justified and those trying to stop him are portrayed as anti-Swiss (Gazel, 1997). Yet Von Schwendi's plethora of titles so daunts Barlach's superior Lutz that the forbids further interrogation of Gastmann. The message is clear. In Emmenberger we have a villain of a different magnitude, and through him Durrenmatt explores a considerably more complex and taboo subject. As a Nazi death camp doctor, Emmenberger represents a national shame the Germman people bore.

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However, Durrenmatt is so bold as to question whether his own people would have resisted the demons any better had they not been spared Hitler's influence by that wall of neutrality. He illustrates universal human vulnerability to evil by bringing a miniature death camp into metropolitan Zurich. One can already hear the protestations of unfairness. Sonnenstein is, after all, a fictional place, posted into downtown Zurich by an ungrateful Swiss author whose patriotism could be questioned.

In all the novels Durrenmatt wants to show that the ordinary detective story's belief in rationality is itself irrational. Human planning is futile because reality is unfathomable and defies calculation. "The more human beings proceed by plan," he later formulates in the "21 points" to his play The Physicists, "the more effectively they may be hit by accident." Tschanz [chance] is the name of the helpless policeman in the The Judge whom Inspector Barlach uses as his instrument. By pure chance, a gaint and a dwarf rescue the same inspector in the Quarry. After correctly solving the crime, the protagonist in the pledge has prepared a trap. The murderer is about to fall into it, but on his way there he gets killed in an automobile accident; pure chance foils the clever plan. Thus in all the three novels chance has only one function: to demonstrate man's powerlessness and the futility of reasoning. They offer no less suspense than the traditional detective story, yet it is a starling and uncanny world with which we are confronted, and the "justice" meted out is in a normal sense quite illegal.

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The quest for justice acts as substitute for religion and the reader is shocked by their conclusion. Most commentaries count Die Panne, 1956, among this group as well. In its introduction the narrator again formulates the dilemma: "no gods threaten us, no justice, no fate as in the Fifth Symphony, but traffic accidents, incorrectly programmed breeders. Our course leads ever deeper into this world of snafus. Maybe, he concludes, some stories are still possible, just barely, "stories in which judgment and justice become visible, perhaps even grace, haphazardly caught, mirrored in the monocle of a drunk."

In conclusion, if, unlike the theory, reality holds no irrefutable logic, then "things do not happen the way they are supposed to." This insight obviously undermines the well-known pattern of the detective story. If single-track logic is suspended and replaced by many layered diversity, only chance, random and unpredictable, decides the outcome. The application of the uncertainty principle of physics and biology to literature results in a parody of the genre, in "a requiem for the detective story," as the subtitle to one of his novels reads. Durrenmatt's refutation of causality, his denunciation of the basis of traditional storytelling, leads to parody, not only of the detective story, but of romance, and of historical drama.


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