Downfall
by Per Olov Enquist

In his book the author tells about three different stories about love and hate. He uses his trademark "investigative style, an attempt to reconstruct events reported to have happened but where the truth is often too inaccessible, the facts too complex to yield anything but ambiguous answers" (Contemporary World Authors, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993, quoted after http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/enquist.htm). Thusly, the book lingers in the gray area between facts and fiction. Fragments of the different plot threads frequently alternate, giving a rather confusing experience at first.

The first love story is about Berthold Brecht and Ruth Berlau, both real people, and is arguably true for the most part. After their fallout, Ruth cannot live without Brecht and goes mad; after his death, she starts to carry around and talk to a plastercast of his head. The author employs a rather journalistic way of writing in these parts of the book, and quotes from Ruth's letters to Brecht.

The second one is about a doctor called K, his wife and "the boy", a patient of his. K and his wife are divorced and hate one another (which still does not stop them from having sex) and the boy is an inmate in a mental institution, for he has killed a little girl for no apparent reason. The wife falls in love with the boy, who subsequently kills the the couple's daughter. K starts to hate the boy, but by and by his hate turns into a kind of love for the boy as well.

The third one is about a twoheaded "monster" called Pasqual Pinot and his relationship with Maria, the second head on his forehead. They are first imprisoned in a mine in Mexico, then they join a traveling freakshow as the were common at the beginning of the 20th century, and finally Pasqual dies - 8 minutes before Maria, thus leaving her in complete loneliness for the first time after they spent their whole life inextricably linked in love and hate. Incidentally, 8 minutes is also the time the light from the sun needs to reach the earth - but there might of course be other reasons why they author chose exactly that timespan.

All these fragments are linked by the narrator's account of his research into Pinon's life, his dreams and his memories. He is fascinated by his father, who died when he was just 6 months old. There are also autobiographic elements, eg: PO Enquist comes from Västerbotten, and his father was a lumberjack as well. Furthermore there a few ideas that feature in Enquist's later play "The Hour of the Lynx" too - "the boy" and his causeless violence, and the "heavenly harp" (p. 56).

Another topic seems to be the relation between seeing and being seen. "A human being can live without sight ... But if one is not seen, then one is nothing." (p. 7); the narrator has a revelation when he sees himself from another perspective, ie from the inside during a gastroscopy (p. 23f); "Are those two identical points of view? The fear of being seen and the fear of not being seen?" (p. 26). The impresario Shideler "made (Pinon) visible" (p. 42). Pasqual wraps Maria in cloth to protect her from being seen, as does the boy in his prison cell. Possibly on a related note, there is also the parallel, "hidden" society of the monsters and the freaks, the outcasts of society, who worship Satan, another fallen angel cast out from Heaven. Yet they make their living by being letting themselves being stared at.

The book is constructed like a piece of music. It is made up of different "songs": There is the "Opening Song", the "Song of the Corpse Picture" - referring to the photograph of his dead father the narrator finds - the "Song of the Headlamp" - Maria is often likened to a miner's headlamp - the "Song of the Strong Thread" - meaning the thread the nurse uses to stitch Pinon's head back on - the "Song of the Fallen Angel" - the boy calls himself a fallen angel (besides it corresponds to the title, the Swedish original is more accurately called 'Nedstörtad ängel') - and a "Coda".

Songs are also found in the text itself - K and his wife on the phone not saying a word is a "wordless song" (p. 20) and the mute Maria communicates telepathically with Pasqual via "songs", or torments him with her "evil song".

The book also features many other recurring themes and symbols. The following lines stand out: "Agape - not to have to earn forgiveness" (p. 57) and "One cannot explain love! ... But if one does not try ... where would we be?" (p. 8).

There are birds, both real and scratched into ice - possibly representing death: "Soon it will be dead, resting in it's death like a bird" (p. 22). In particular there's an albatros circling over the mine where Pinon is held as well as over the ice grave, which is itself a symbol, apparently inspired by the Swedish polar explorer Finn Malmgren (p. 34). Then there's the veil of ice over the face, which is also used as a comparison for suffocation (p. 69) - which is the way the boy finally manages to kill himself.

In the last chapter very literally everything comes together when (in a dream) all main characters meet for a journey to the ice grave. "Together (they) formed a human being" (p. 106/107). In there the narrator himself lies, covered under a sheet of ice on which a bird is engraved. The meaning is not apparent, but with PO Enquist as well as real life, that does not always have to be the case.

a node your homeworkTM production

Down"fall` (?), n.

1.

A sudden fall; a body of things falling.

Those cataracts or downfalls aforesaid. Holland.

Each downfall of a flood the mountains pour. Dryden.

2.

A sudden descent from rank or state, reputation or happiness; destruction; ruin.

Dire were the consequences which would follow the downfall of so important a place. Motley.

 

© Webster 1913.

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