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Max Frisch


Homo Faber

Category: Fiction | Published: 1957 | Review Added: 06-10-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

Swiss writer Max Frisch is best known in the Anglophone world for his plays Andorra and Biedermann und die Brandstifter (The Fireraisers). Both plays deal with themes of self-deception, complacency and guilt; they portray communities and individuals that "allow things to happen", much as, to critical eyes, Switzerland sat back comfortably through history, making money, while wars raged around it.

Like the plays, Frisch's novel Homo Faber deals with guilt, but here its treatment is metaphysical. The UNESCO engineer Walter Faber sets out on a multi-stage journey from New York to Venezuela, where he is to supervise the assembly of some turbines. Owing to a series of technological mishaps, and impulsive decisions that he cannot wholly account for, his journey is diverted for several days in the central American desert and jungle. Faber's rationalist faith in technology and progress begins to be undermined by both the repeated breaking down of the machinery upon which he relies, and exposure to the chaotic, incomprehensible and unstoppable workings of nature around him:

The thing that most irritated me: the salamanders in every pool of water; even in the tiniest puddle there was a mass of salamanders; and more generally, this game of propagation everywhere, the stench of fecundity, of blooming decay.
You couldn't spit without something germinating!

His central American sojourn is just the beginning of a journey Faber makes into the world of the irrational - as manifested both in nature, and in his own subconscious mind. A series of barely plausible coincidences introduces him to a young woman on a cruise ship on his way back to Europe. Despite their age difference, the two fall in love, and a tragic sequence of events is set in motion. Faber is forced by twists of fate and an incomplete view of reality into a state of guilt that he could have done nothing to avoid.

Homo Faber is a paradoxical tale of spiritual growth in the context of regression and decline - Walter Faber discovers love, and his true self, while his world falls apart and reveals to him his inherited share of original sin. "Faber" is Latin for "creator" ("Homo Faber": "Man the Creator") - Faber has always seen himself as a builder and a champion of progress, yet by the end of the novel he is describing himself as one "who destroys everything". Mirroring his belief that nature could be channelled, Faber's own life is channelled by powers outside his control - and not just random powers, but powers counteracting exactly those he presumed to master.

This novel operates, and succeeds, on so many different levels. It is not just fascinating in its themes and moving in its narrative: its construction is also brilliantly subtle, and it is full of effective imagery and allusion. In German-speaking countries, it features frequently in school and university reading curriculae: being short, readable and intricate, it's a model to students for the kinds of detail to look for to get the most out of literature.

Homo Faber would be a masterpiece were it not for a brief, but very irritating, falling-off in the quality of the writing towards the end. Faber's description of a stay in Cuba is long-winded, and reads more like a piece of reportage that Frisch wanted to get in from his own travels, than an episode that belongs in the story. In this and subsequent scenes, the writing becomes by turns sentimental, repetitive and essayistic, as though Frisch is clawing around for a route that will take him to the story's end. That end, when it comes, is effective, but Frisch should have gone back and tightened up the twenty pages leading up to it.

Despite this flaw, Homo Faber is a classic that should be more widely read outside Europe - a profound and thought-provoking page-turner that one knows will reveal more subtleties on each re-reading.

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