Wednesday, 15 March 2017

homo faber [max frisch]

Homo Faber is one of the more indefinable novels you are likely to read. Part travelogue, part mid-life crisis, part Oedipal nightmare. The novel relates an extended journey taken by Walter Faber, an engineer. His plane has to make a forced landing in the Mexican desert, which then propels him on a journey to meet an old friend in the Guatemalan backwoods. Only the old friend has recently hanged himself. He ends up back in New York where he takes a boat to Southampton and falls in love with a young woman who happens to be the daughter he never knew he had. In most hands this level of coincidence and melodrama might have rendered the tale ridiculous. No-one can plausibly experience this degree of bad fate that Faber does in the course of a few weeks. The gods are crueller to Frisch’s protagonist than they even were to Oedipus. Through it all, the narrator’s voice remains not so much stoic as near-imbecilic, insistent that he doesn’t believe in anything except for a rational twentieth century logic. Faber is almost heroically unmoved by the events that befall him. So much so, that one begins to believe the lady doth protest too much. At a certain point, it feels as though the object of the author’s irony is not so much his protagonist as the reader. Constantly expecting the protagonist to rebel against his fate, but instead finding someone whose tone remains phlegmatic and dispassionate throughout. The blurb suggested this was an ‘existential’ novel. Perhaps there is something of Mersault in all this, but there’s no angst, no expression of alienation. A closer comparison might be that other arch ironist, Houellebecq, another writer half-in love with a kind of Schopenhauerian cruelty. The writing is what might be described as flinty, with staccato dialogue and vivid descriptions. Vultures consume a dead donkey. A man contemplates the shape of his daughter’s hips. Frisch constantly pre-empts the drama, relating that which is to pass. The reader is placed in the god’s chair. Should we judge this curious anti-hero? Or should we accept that morality is flat, life is flat, shit happens, we just have to learn to live with it? 

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