Saturday, January 06, 2007

Book Review: "Auto-da-Fé"

Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé, published in German as Die Blendung and translated here by C.V. Wedgwood, is considered a great masterwork of twentieth-century fiction. That reputation, I humbly suggest, is well deserved. While it is certainly one of the more bizarre pieces of writing I've read in quite some time, it was also one of the most provocative and intriguing.

Dr. Peter Kien, a leading sinologist, is the reclusive and introverted protagonist, whose life revolves solely around his great personal library and the work to which use he puts its contents. In a move he sees as crucial to the protection of his books, he marries his housekeeper, a gold-digging harpy who ends up slowly evicting Kien from his own flat and forcing him into the streets of Vienna. The plot twists and turns sharply from there, and comes to involve a red-headed and abusive caretaker, a devious hunchback, Kien's psychiatrist brother, and a gang of hapless policemen.

Canetti's fictional world is - to a rational reader - totally ridiculous, with the characters behaving in ways that seem completely strange and incomprehensible. And yet the internal rationales they provide for their actions somehow seem perfectly reasonable. It is a sick, twisted, violent and unpleasant place, filled with misunderstandings and betrayals; everyone, as Salman Rushdie blurbs on the back cover of my copy "get[s] it in the neck." It doesn't seem real, and yet ...

Not a fast read by any stretch, but the language is clear and concise (and excellently translated, I suspect without knowing German). A fascinating, enthralling tale.