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Auto-da-Fé Paperback – December 1, 1984
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None of these things, however, have anything to do with whether a book is good or not. A few people have said that Canetti's prose is difficult to understand: that is nonsense. You are allowed not to like this book, but if you can't comprehend prose of such clarity, the problem is yours, not the author's. The book reads like a hallucination, but the lines of the image are sharp, like Kafka's.
Someone else wrote that the book is a glimpse into the mind of a psychotic: this is also not true. The world that the author describes may be insane, but the characters all live and think with a strange internal logic that is completely coherent with their environment. A character deciding to become immobile to fend off the corrupting presence of his wife seems, here, to be a perfectly appropriate response. In this world, it makes sense; in our world, it does not, and if you like reading books that breathe the same air as you, don't bother with Auta da Fe.
But if you can accept this world, which is at a very disturbing angle to our own, then you will live through a strangely purifying experience. I can't explain why it happens, but encountering the horrible and comic events of this book, the greed and blindness of the characters, leaves you better in some way: freer of ambition and stupid vanities. Read it: you'll see what I mean.
Yet those already familiar with "Auto da Fe" know that there is no character named Brand in the book. During the year (1930-31) that Canetti finished his novel, he changed the main character's name from Brand [German for conflagration] to Kant and the novel's title to "Kant Catches Fire." Canetti explains in the second volume of his memoirs that the lingering emotions he felt from his presence when a mob burned down Vienna's Palace of Justice in 1927 made this new title "hard to endure." And so "Kant became Kien [German for resinous pinewood]; the ignitability of the world, a threat that I felt, was maintained in the name of the chief character." Likewise, he changed the title to Die Blendung [The Blinding], a reference to the biblical legend of Samson. It was under this title that the book was published in 1935, but it was soon banned by the Nazis.
The main character is a leading Sinologist whose meticulous scholarship and linguistic expertise make him famous among an elite group, but Kien's lack of social skills ultimately defines him: he refuses to be part of the crowd (the dynamics of which is one of Canetti's real-life intellectual preoccupations). Kien's 25,000-volume library overtakes his entire apartment, the 40,000 characters of the Chinese alphabet challenge his intellect, and his only human relationships are daily contacts with a housekeeper of eight years and morning ventures to the bookshops that dot the city of Vienna. His cloistered life is shattered, however, when he decides to marry the housekeeper; her conniving greed is eventually wedded to the brute force of the building's superintendent, a retired police officer whose nascent fascism finds full expression in his treatment of Kien. Eventually, Kien conflates his fear and hatred of his wife with the misogyny he has learned from his vast readings.
Simultaneously bizarre and uncomplicated, the story reads like a 450-page Homeric epic filtered through the psychoses of the Brothers Grimm. Expelled from his book-dominated oasis, Kien descends into the underworld of Vienna, a journey that results in the destruction of the world as he knows it. Dwarfs, prostitutes, blind men--each of the major and minor characters develops his or her own perspective of the events through which they live; when their internally consistent yet outwardly incongruent worlds clash, the results alternate between absurdity and madness. What it is all supposed to mean will engage the patient reader's imagination for weeks.
Despite all this, Canetti's humanism shines through due to the fact that Auto Da Fe is, ostensibly, a modern morality play. Human virtue would be rewarded, were there any to be found in the novel; as it stands, vice is clearly spelled out and its practitioners are punished. For instance, Canetti is obviously not suggesting that the reader should relate to or sympathize with the character of Peter Kein; he exists merely as an unfortunate example of intellectualism (and egoism) gone awry. At the same time, we shouldn't relish his downfall, but learn from it and apply its lesson (and the lessons of other characters) to our own lives. This is why it's hard for me to call Auto Da Fe nihilistic. While Canetti doesn't have much sympathy for fictional people, he seems to have boundless sympathy for the real ones which comprise his audience.
Also of note: earlier reviews have cited problems with the translation. This is absolutely not the case. Aside from a few errors here and there in grammar and tense, the novel reads very lucidly in English.
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