The Truth Will Not Out
Hannah Arendt reckons "A gift for story-telling which half a century ago could be found only among the great is today frequently the common equipment of good but essentially mediocre writers." It was a comment she made in a review of Hermann Broch's Sleepwalkers back in 1948, a decade before the publication of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Pledge, a novella that is nothing if not capable of telling its story well, as many a reader will page-turn with the excitement to be had in fiction that often goes by that very term. Durrenmatt's reputation though isn't as a second-rate writer, and while comparisons with Kafka (sometimes made) are hard to justify, to view him as a minor figure because of his narrative skill would be an injustice. What Durrenmatt does very impressively in The Pledge, as well as other short novels like The Judge and the Hangman and A Dangerous Game, is create narrative suspense without much dramatic tension.
Maybe we would be inclined to use these terms (narrative suspense and dramatic tension) interchangeably, but reading Durrenmatt we notice that while he very much wants the extrapolating purpose of the good storyteller, he cannot quite believe in the unequivocal belief system that underpins the thriller format, nor does he wish to dramatise events that would imply he does believe in this system. Opening and closing on the ruminations of a Federal Deputy talking of a case to a thriller writer, at one moment near the beginning of The Pledge the Federal Deputy notices how often such writers make things easy on themselves. "You writers have always sacrificed truth for the sake of your dramatic rules. It's time you threw those rules out of the window. These things can never be equated because we never know all the necessary unknowns." Near the end of the book, the inspector says that a writer would probably turn the incidents that took place into a major dramatic set-piece. Justice will be seen to be done, he says, and the combination of the dramatic and the judicially reaffirmed come together in a well-constructed plot. The Federal Deputy understands why this is necessary - there is so little excitement and justice in the world isn't it understandable that the public needs such soporifics?
Is art's purpose not to reaffirm one's assumptions but instead, amongst other things, explore the nature of values and how they come about? In this sense, Durrenmatt wouldn't at all be a second-rate writer. As Arendt says, many great twentieth century figures sacrificed their narrative talents, because "they refused to continue telling tales about the world because they had realized that this world was going to pieces." In The Pledge, Durrenmatt wants to couch the story within the self-reflexive as an ironic search for first principles. Instead of the writer telling the story about a detective, we have here a Federal Deputy telling a story to a writer about a detective. The self-reflexive serves analytic purpose as Durrenmatt wants the suspense of the tale but at the same time offers a close examination of investigative workings that are not easily contained within the thriller. His work consistently shows a gap between justice and morality, detection and evidence. If people are inclined to invoke Kafka, it lies in Durrenmatt's belief not so much that the punishment fits the crime, but a 'criminal' should fit the punishment. Whether the person is innocent or guilty is less important than that justice must be seen to be done, and a criminal (who might be no more than a victim) is brought to justice so that an example is made to deter others. It is as if the important thing, finally, is not to make sure that truth is revealed, but the criminal investigation is completed.
The Pledge hinges on the gap between the two, as the story the Deputy tells is of someone called Matthai who is sure that after a murder has been committed the most likely culprit, Gunten, is not the murderer. It is clear that this figure everybody else believes is guilty was an unsavoury character responsible for earlier sexual misdemeanours, and that Gunten was in the field where the young girl, Gritli, was abused and killed. But Matthai thinks that whatever the man's odious characteristics, this was a crime he didn't commit, and Matthai believes it is a murder consistent with two earlier ones from the previous five years.
This is the detective's hunch, but it isn't totally without evidence, it is just that there is more immediate evidence available on Gunten; and where the figure Matthai thinks is the killer is merely an imaginary possibility, Gunten they already have in custody. Gunten confesses under duress, and when shortly afterwards takes his own life this is, for others, the case closed; the suicide final proof of Gunten's culpability. Matthai doesn't see it that way, and the rest of the story concerns his unwillingness to let the case rest. What interests Durrenmatt is both the investigation and the personal madness of a man who cannot let something go, and will not let it go because the hunch is stronger than the evidential. Now often what would happen in a thriller would be that the hunch would incrementally accumulate evidence, so that the psychology of the detective is of less importance than the case that is being built. But Durrenmatt wants to emphasise the psychology of Matthai and the pragmatism of the law. The law does not need the truth, but it does need to show that justice functions well. When the villagers gather together as if ready to lynch Gunten, Matthai says to the local councillor, "whether or not he is guilty, the law must be respected." It would be a sentiment echoed by the others in the police force, but only echoed. Matthai actually believes, and will devote the rest of his days to finding out who really did kill the little girl. For most, justice is what works. Of course like Matthai others in the force would not have allowed a mob to lynch Gunten, but they can happily accept that if Gunten hangs himself then they aren't going to ask too many questions. Social justice has been seen to be done, in the sense that civilization continues and hasn't given way to mob rule. Yet the truth Matthai feels has not been revealed, and he suffers from the occupational hazard that is only likely to cause problems for someone dedicated to seeking the truth, rather than someone who feels that justice is what works and keeps society functioning.
It is by searching out the gap between the truth sought and justice established that Durrenmatt arrives at writing of importance. It is a method that creates suspenseful narrative while dedramatising the sequence. Where a conventionally good thriller writer will dramatise the tension that he has created, Durrenmatt searches out ways in which to undermine the drama without refusing the tension. What happens is that the thriller retains its epistemological function but eschews its cathartic expectation. Now the epistemological function of a good thriller is not epistemology as truth, but as plot. One seeks out the narrative revelation, and any truth-seeking is absorbed into plot function. If there are six possible candidates for a crime, and the story concludes on the exposure of a seventh character who has not been offered as a suspect, then the reader rightly feels cheated because they have been applying the rules of plot epistemology not truth-seeking. Durrenmatt respects the logic of the plot function - the killer isn't arbitrarily offered at the end with no hint of his presence earlier in the story - but he cares little for the mechanical functioning of the plot. There are not a handful of suspects as there is in an Agatha Christie novel like The Murder on the Orient Express, merely Gunten whom everybody else believes is guilty, and someone else whom Matthai alone thinks is the actual culprit.
Up to a point this makes the book a psychological thriller, but it is equally structuralist - The Pledge is as interested in the structures of the legal system as of Matthai's personality, even if it takes a personality like Matthai to show up the system's limitations by his own need to search out certain truths. As Durrenmatt explores through the Deputy the details of Matthai's existence, so we're informed that Matthai's never really had a personal life. "Unmarried, he never spoke of his private life, and probably hadn't got any." But neither up until this particular case did he have much of a professional one either. "He thought about nothing but his work, and although he was a first-rate detective he worked without passion. Stubborn and tireless though he was, as he went about his business he seemed bored by it - until the day came when he was involved in a case that suddenly stirred him to passion." This is the Gritli case. However, it is as though Durrenmatt wants to utilise the psychological to explore the structural: to understand a little bit about Matthai so he can understand a little bit more about the legal structures that contain and constrain man.
Our use of the psychological and the structural find their correlative in Durrenmatt's notion of man as a conceptual being, both existentially and logically. As he once proposed in an interview with Violet Kettles: "The contemporary problem is that man is a paradoxical being. I base that on the fact that man is the only being which creates concepts. Man creates two types of concepts: existential ones and logical ones. In the existential concepts he abstracts himself from the logical ones. In the existential I am alone, I am I, and as an individual I feel myself to be the absolute center of things. I have my life: I must die. I can feel only myself. I cannot feel the other. Out of the general concept of man I cannot come to myself. There I am a man among other men. There I am a mass concept."
Durrenmatt, who once worked on an unfinished PhD on Kierkegaard, understands that man is both individual and dividual, but that sometimes this dividuality becomes a problem when the law seeks out a victim that has no interest in one's existential reality. Gunten is, structurally, logically, the perfect victim because though he didn't commit the crime he fits it. The difference between Matthei and everyone else is that while the villagers and local police believe Gunten must have committed the offence since he was at the scene around the time the murder took place, and had a criminal record for sexual abuse, and thus logically should be punished for the crime to which his profile fits, Matthei's instinct supposes otherwise. Durrenmatt is interested in the psychological to explore the problem of the judicial: to insist that just because someone fits the crime this doesn't mean they committed it; and a concern for the individual and the existential brings out this problem. When Matthai says "there is something I must ask of you as I would of any other Court...that is justice. For it is clear that we can only surrender the pedlar to you if we are convinced that you want justice," Matthai is here addressing the angry mob: people from the village, relatives and friends of the girl who has been murdered. Now there is clear difference between judicial justice and mob rule, but that doesn't mean in either instance they are necessarily interested in the truth. Where the former is legally disinterested, the latter is emotionally inflammatory; the former serves to be just; the latter vengeful. The vengeful approach looks for an instant victim; the judicial, a logical one. Matthai though wants to seek out the truth of the situation existentially, and this is why he makes two promises that will haunt him, that even destroy him.
The first is to Gritli's mother, who asks him to promise that he will find the murderer. When he replies that he will, she insists that he promises to do so on his soul's salvation. "By my soul's salvation", he replies. The second is to Gunten, where he insists that he doesn't believe Gunten committed the murder, when, after Gunten says he's innocent, Matthai replies of course, and even though he isn't at this moment fully convinced, says "I know you had nothing to do with it." Gunten knows Matthai is the only person likely to help.
The psychological lies in the respect for the individual: yet this isn't only because Matthai understands the loneliness that awaits Gritli's mother (she had lost her only child), nor that he feels pity towards Gunten ("he was sorry for the man"). It is that he also projects his own loneliness and isolation onto others, and this gives him a deeper instinct about the case than those interested in either justice or revenge. Here is a man we are told without a personal life, but maybe here we can differentiate between a personal life and an inner one. A personal life as the police chief couches it concerns marriage and kids, but maybe an inner life attends to its own individuality and can see also the individuality in others. When the Deputy describes Matthai to the writer, he says: "He was always carefully dressed, formal, impersonal, aloof; he neither smoked or drank, and had a harsh merciless command of his profession, which made him as unpopular as he was successful. I could never quite figure him out." Yet Matthai does seem to be someone who wants to figure people out, and for all the Deputy's inability to understand people, and for all the thriller's writer's need to write a work of conventional detective fiction, between the two of them, the chief and his interlocutor, they arrive at a work that forces upon the latter nuance, and the former emotional complexity, instead of the convenience of a case.
Near the beginning of the book the Deputy explains why he doesn't much care for detective thrillers, and links it to his problems with the law. "The trouble is that in all these mystery stories a different type of fraud is perpetrated. I am not even referring to the fact that the criminal has his punishment meted out to him. Such pretty fairy tales are morally necessary, I suppose. They are in the same class with the other lies that help preserve the State, like that pious phrase that crime does not pay, whereas one only has to look at human society to find out just how much truth there is in that." But the Deputy's dismissal of the thriller and his cynicism of the state come through the character of Matthai, since it is Matthai's story he tells, someone who tried harder than most to seek the truth and, in doing so, half lost his mind without finding the murderer.
What Durrenmatt does is allow for a conclusion to be reached, but not at all for the truth to win out. After Matthai is offered new job in Dubai at the same time as Gritli is murdered, Matthai is so fascinated by the case that while he can't get his old job back neither does he want to leave the country when this murder nags away at him. Instead what he does is he opens his own petrol station, takes on a local woman and her daughter and waits. He is willing to wait years, if necessary, and finally it looks as if his instinct will be rewarded, rather than that his obsession will destroy him. While the inspector initially worried that his mental health was in danger when he hears the lengths Matthai will go to in finding the killer, later he sees that Matthai's theory might be correct, and agrees to release a large team to try and catch the murderer. Matthai believes that if the young girl he semi-adopts replicates the situation and wears the clothing of Gritli, then eventually the killer will try and strike again. Sure enough, the young girl talks of a man offering her chocolate hedgehogs each day just as he had offered Gritli the same years before. The girl describes the same man as Gritli once described, someone who would talk to her on several occasions before she was murdered, and it looks like they've got their man. But as the force is deployed the figure coincidentally, it seems, stops coming, and it isn't until much later that we find out why. In the meantime there are no more killings, and Matthai goes slowly mad as everyone assumes the killer must have been Gunten after all.
Some years later, though, the Federal Deputy says he got a call from the Cantonal priest, and it was there that a dying old woman, rambling away, tells him the story that she'd told the father. Her much younger husband was the murderer and the reason he didn't turn up was that he died in a car crash on his way to see the little girl. Throughout Matthai's instincts were correct, but the evidence eluded him, so that instead of solving a case, he lost his mind. The thriller writer might like his stories tied up in a neat moral bow, but Durrenmatt ends his in futile irony. The girls were murdered, Matthai went insane and the guilty man dies 'innocently' in a car accident. The Federal Deputy gets the story as the babblings of an old woman probably as batty as Matthai had become.
As in A Dangerous Game, The Judge and the Hangman and The Quarry, Durrenmatt subverts the thriller without quite denying the thrills. In A Dangerous Game a mock jury condemns the central character for killing his boss even if this 'murder' (the boss died of natural causes) was based on no actual culpability: nothing a court of law could condemn a man over. In The Quarry, a police commissioner with perhaps not long to live thinks he's found a Nazi doctor, and is willing to sacrifice his own life to pursue the truth. The doctor would perform operations without anaesthetic, and so the commissioner allows himself to fall into the doctor's hands to see if he has the right man. In The Judge and the Hangman, the central character Barlach has for years tried to capture an evil but intelligent, cold-blooded murderer and finally gets his chance when a fellow officer kills a lieutenant in the Berne police. He sets the fellow officer against the evil killer, and justice is achieved by Barlach's manipulations. The truth doesn't win out - nobody know that the officer killed the lieutenant, the evil killer dies in a shoot-out with the officer, and the officer dies in a crash that might have been suicide but could have been an accident. The guilty are punished, but hardly through the conventions of the legal system.
Durrenmatt's purpose lies in telling stories but acknowledging that is exactly what they are. However, he does this not chiefly as a post-modernist undermining the fictional form; more as a writer interested in legal issues and undermining the assumptions behind the law. Consequently, his work combines a classical gift for storytelling, with a modernist, even post-modernist interest in undermining the truth. However, he does so without any hint of facetiousness; instead emphasising the horrible paradoxes of a system where truth doesn't have to win out, legalist reasoning is enough. The justice system might apparently be there to serve both the truth and the individual, but in Durrenmatt's work it is more likely to undermine both of them.
© Tony McKibbin