244. Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

Reading Elias Canetti's Auto da Fe (Penguin Modern Classics, 1935; 522)* after Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment is like travelling on an underground railway connecting two cities in different countries - the transition is seamless and without notice. Not only were both books translations - one from Russian, the other from German - but they both address identical issues: introducing new elements into a hyper-functioning cognitive process leading to an imbalance that bothers on insanity. Again, both books discuss matters of knowledge or ideas, albeit in different forms; whereas Canetti discusses an intelligent bibliomania, Dostoevsky discusses a deductive theorist hoping to practicalise his theories. Finally, both books make references to ideas in other important books. It was therefore a unique privilege to have read these books in succession.*

Professor Kien is a Sinologist, the best of his time. He has an extraordinarily boundless memory and can read several Eastern Languages. He has time for nothing else apart from scholastic writings and his four-roomed library. Apart from his housekeeper, he virtually lives alone. And only for his books for which he has spent a fortune to acquire. His daily activities are routine: he writes early in the morning, goes for a walk with his briefcase, comes home to his library, et al. This was Professor Kien's life, until he misread the intentions of his housekeeper. A misreading that would go on for a long time and which would lead him to his doom. 

When Therese - a woman about sixteen years older than the Professor - made a request for a book to read, the Professor, who brooked no nonsense especially from individuals outside the intelligentsia fraternity (sometimes even including some of whom he considered inferior), was amazed. However, it was not only the request that surprised him but Therese's personal relationship with the book she was given: first, she received the book in a clean wrapper; second, she bought brand-new hand-gloves which she wore when she handled the book. And to stretch matters, when the Kien spied on her to see if she was reading or pretending to be so, he found the book resting on a sewn pillow. Seeing a book he considered to be of no or little value treated this way surprised him, for he found that he - a lover of books - did not even treat his books in such a reverential manner as Therese did. When questioned why she had not read that far, Therese made it known that she read a page several dozens of time to absorb them before opening the next page. All these endeared Therese to the professor and a man who had remained unmarried, unattached, and a virgin, for four decades decided to marry his housekeeper of fifty-seven.

Whereas Kien married her for her devotion to knowledge and books, Therese married for love, money and property. And this is the point where the pathogen was introduced into the organism. Therese sought to claim ownership of Kien's entire properties including the books, the flat, his money and all. She started with part of the flat but gradually allocated three of the four rooms to herself and finally shared the remaining room with the professor. Later, she would throw the Professor onto the street, and Kien would become psychotic, of sorts - twisting reality (believing that she had locked her wife in the flat and that it was his strategy to leave home), believing the friends he picked up (like the dwarf who conned him out of his savings through his weakness for saving books and who planted a dangerous idea in his mind - that his wife was dead, which would later lead to the Professor's death).

Therese and Kien were opposites. Therese was limited in her vocabulary, but loquacious; Kien's language skills are unrivalled but taciturn. Kien's love is for books and knowledge (intangible); Therese's love is for the material properties and she considered the books only because of their financial value; so great was Therese's love for property and wealth that she thought Kien a thief for not giving her his savings at the bank and not willing her his properties. Kien was a virgin at forty; Therese knew what love should be, even at fifty-seven. And even though she was this age, she saw herself not a shade over thirty. These differences set the marriage up for failure even before it began. Kien was unsure how to consummate his marriage and if it was even necessary. He wondered if he should call his gynaecologist-turn-psychologist brother or if he should just buy a book on sex and if the latter who should get the book. These thought processes would later lead to his fall and his inability to fulfill Therese's marital expectations left her bitter and vengeful. These events together with her own psychotic tendencies would lead her to claim proprietorial ownership from the tall, lanky, spineless Kien - a man whose understanding of the world beyond books is as infantile as it could possibly be.

Kien sought solace in his books and partnered with them to fight the enemy, Therese. This provided enough allusion to Nazi Germany and its reaction towards Jews at the time. For instance, Therese's gradual takeover of Kien's apartment and his property could be an allusion Nazi Germany's occupation of foreign lands.
The enemy believes we shall not dare to render void conquests in territory already occupied; trusting in our ignorance of these new conditions, the enemy seeks to initiate a policy of abduction, unnoticed by us, and without an open declaration of war. Have no doubts of this, the enemy will lay hands first upon the noblest among your ranks, upon those whose ransom will be highest. [104]
He continues as he addresses his books to prepare to battle Therese:
Who among you would be reft from your native land, scattered through all the world, treated as slaves, to be priced, examined, bought, but never spoken to - slaves who are but half listened to when they speak in the performance of their duties, but in whose souls no man cares to read, who are possessed but not loved, left to rot or sold for profit, used but never understood? [104]
In this warfare address, Kien made reference to the song the Israelites sang as they were being taken into captivity recorded at Psalm 137. This reference extends to the Jews and their migration from their homeland into the diaspora. He writes
We have no time now for songs of lamentation, ..., or we shall be singing them next by the waters of Babylon. [105] 
In relation to this, Canetti discussed argued that the world remained blind to the events that took place during the Inquisition leading to the loss of several souls. He argued this by stating that sometimes only a small action is required to avert a bigger problem and that though our contribution towards the alleviation of a universal misery might be small, we should not hold it out. No one should think he is too small or too weak to make an impact.
Our widow's mite for the alleviation of universal misery is small, but we must cast in. If a man should say: alone I am too weak, then nothing would be done, and misery would devour further. [245]
But one can say that Kien was the cause of his own victimisation; he's responsible for his own problems by refusing to defend himself and allowing others to direct his life, by believing everybody and misinterpreting people's actions and statements. And after people have told him the things he want to hear, those he had been wishing for, he internalised them and make them his. He retells them as facts they coming from his prodigious mind. Besides, his narrow world-view beyond books made him not a master of people or of the world. Only of books. In his pathetic and often times comedic situations filled with glaring misunderstandings and misinterpretations, which a child of five might not even make, resulting mostly from the superimposition of his thoughts and beliefs on other people's actions and statements, Canetti might be deriding such narrow-mindedness and limited search for knowledge. Also, Kien never consulted anyone and worked in isolation, he was overly opinionated and thought that if it did not come from him, it wasn't important. Clearly, Canetti expects intellectuals to be involved in the discourse of the time, to participate and speak against evil and even if all you can do is little, do it. Else, in the end you might get what you fear the most.

Some aspects of the narrative investigate mob action - its causes and its mind. Canetti shows clearly that each person in a mob has his own unique motive and understanding of what is happening and most often these run counter to those of the others in the mob. He also discussed humanity as a single mass lodged within the individual. Thus, the individual carries within him the mass-soul and it is this mass-soul that is being attacked.
We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. In certain circumstances it can become so strong as to force the individual to selfless acts or even acts contrary to their own interests. 'Mankind' has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered into an idea. [461]
These deductions percolate into Nash's Equilibrium. Thus, Canetti might be discussing what is referred to in Xhosa as Ubuntu - I am because We are. The universal philosophy of togetherness; the oneness of purpose or of mind distilled into the Buddhist concept of Itai Doshin, or many in body but one in mind. This universal principle is antithetical to the individuality and self-centredness of current political and economic principles. Canetti's discourse showed that though mankind has lost this togetherness, a time will come when humanity shall realise its singularity of purpose, which would be translated into unity.
There will come a time when it will not be scattered again, possibly in a single country at first, eating its way out from there, until no one can doubt any more, for there will be no I, you, he, but only it, the mass. [461/2]
Issues of existentialism were also touched upon. Kien could be described as an Existentialist in the mould of Descartes whose existentialist thought is summed up in the maxim 'I think therefore I am'. Through Kien, Canetti discussed what is it to be dead. For him, since one cannot see the soul, there is no need in discussing it. What one sees is the skeleton and that's the most important thing.
When they found her, on the floor before the writing desk, she was a skeleton; not a soul...' [357; author's emphasis]
Esse percipi, to be is to be perceived. [79]
Marriage as a social contract and its overrating of sex and the relationship between the genders were all discussed. Women were both vilified and praised. But the motherhood role was magnified. Also, with the exception of Therese who did the abusing, most of the women in the story were abused.

Canetti employed comedy, caricaturing and augmented reality to tell this unique story. The turn in his imagery are sometimes sharp, unpredictable, and therefore fulfilling. For instance, two jaguars attacking from the flanks of a man suddenly become sacrificial priests of ancient Mexico. Some of Canetti's descriptions are fantastic; like how Kien packs an entire library into his head and unpacks them every night before going to sleep. He also wrote most of the story from the consciousness of his characters, especially Kien, thus conflating the real and the surreal. The distinction between reality and fantasy is therefore thin. Characters easily see what they have been wishing for or dreaming about, like Kien believing that he had killed his wife or Fisherle - the hump and dwarf - seeing himself as the Chess World Champion to the extent of adopting the title Dr. There are several moments of laughter interspersed with broader intellectual discourse.

Finally, the author's love for the German language was visible in this story. He made references to accurate use of words, people's inability to speak properly and those with limited diction.

There is more in this book than could be discussed here. It would be more beneficial if one reads the book instead. This book is highly recommended.
* Translated by C. V. Wedgewood
*After this I read Ben Okri's Infinite Riches and then followed it up with The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola. The progression with these four books is seamless.
* Read quotes from this book here.


  1. I ve yet to read this tried a couple of years ago but had to return it to library unread ,your review reminds me I really need to thanks for timely reminder Nana ,all the best stu

    1. you will enjoy it. It will also count towards your translation readings. i love such books.

  2. I enjoyed reading more about this book. In the childhood memoir I have been writing about, Canetti mentions incidents in his life that he would later use in some way in this novel or other books.

    1. Thanks for sharing this. I would love to read his memoirs and other writings since this was his only novel.

  3. One of my favorite books ever! Thank you, Nana for the review. Everyone should read it.

    1. Me too, Kinna. It's a shame I kept this treasure and had to rely on a blog review to pick it up. But as they say, better late than never.


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