(Sidharth Vardhan’s review of
‘Auto de Fe’ a novel by
1981 Nobel laureate Elias Cannetti (1905-1994)
The novel was first published in 1935
as “Die Blendung” (“The Blinding” or “Bedazzlement”)
Review first written on January 7, 2020
Set in Bulgaria
(5 / 5))
“Auto-da-Fé” is the story of Peter Kien, a distinguished, reclusive sinologist living in Vienna between the wars. With masterly precision, Canetti reveals Kien’s character, displaying the flawed personal relationships which ultimately lead to his destruction.
Manipulated by his illiterate and grasping housekeeper, Therese, who has tricked him into marriage, and Benedikt Pfaff, a brutish concierge, Kien is forced out of his apartment – which houses his great library and one true passion – and into the underworld of the city. In this purgatory he is guided by a chess-playing dwarf of evil propensities, until he is eventually restored to his home. But on his return he is visited by his brother, an eminent psychiatrist who, by an error of diagnosis, precipitates the final crisis…
If I wasn’t cautioned by acts of a psychologist in this book trying to read the nature of intellectual in his theories; I could be disturbed to think that Canetti was only 26 when he wrote this masterpiece. There are books that are cynical about humanity and others that talk about how low humanity can fall. However, this book presents an entirely new level of the disturbing picture of humanity. Canetti offers no hope for humanity in here. Every single one of the characters are motivated by base instincts – though sometimes capable of fooling themselves into believing they act on some higher ideals.
There is a totalitarian tendency to almost all the characters – an utter lack of ability to think from someone else’s perspective. Peter Kien, the protagonist of the book, is one book lover that shows all base values of book lovers and intellectuals. He is supposed to be really wise in his own field, but shows little understanding of humanity and life. One disturbing tendency that I find rather common among all readers which he shares that excessive love for books, not wanting to share books with a child who might read them. Books seem to be of value to him of themselves rather than what they say and are of greater value than humans. Personally I treat my books in a bad way. They might get worn out, dusted, sometimes torn, etc. And I won’t mind if others treat them the same way as long as they are being read. I actually avoid buying them since I consider it a waste of them that no one will read them after I am done with them. Peter Kien is also excessively snobbish, incapable of having an open mind, etc.
And he is just one bad character. The book is full of such characters who barely tolerate the existence of most other humans. A lot of it can be seen as misogyny (the second last chapter is a big misogynistic debate) and antisemitism but really all characters in here are villains. George gets married to an older woman whose greed throws him out. The title alludes to the last chapter so won’t discuss that. The story is irrelevant I guess, it is the atmosphere that counts. In a way, it forecasts totalitarianism – in a world where we are all carrying out our obsessions barely tolerating the existence of other human beings; it is only a matter of time before hate becomes the driving force.
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Copyright – Sidharth Vardhan