The Assignment, or, On the Observing of the Observer of the Observers, Friedrich Dürrenmatt (trans. Joel Agee). University of Chicago Press. 129pp, 15.00.
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s short novel The Assignment, originally published in German in 1986, is written in twenty-four long sentences (Dürrenmatt’s model for the novel’s structure was said to be the twenty-four sections of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier I). It is about a filmmaker, a woman simply referred to as F., hired by a famous Swiss psychiatrist named Otto von Lambert who has written a well-known book on terrorism. F’s job is to solve, and document via film the solving of, the mystery of the death of von Lambert’s wife Tina, assaulted and murdered at the foot of a ruin in Egypt called Al-Hakim. It is soon revealed that von Lambert’s reasons for commissioning the documentary are deeply rooted within his intrinsic selfishness and desire for fame (indeed, within the novel the investigation into the death of Tina von Lambert is followed closely by the international press). The psychiatrist feels a sense of responsibility for his wife’s murder, but only because he treated her as “a case, instead of a person.”1 It was this maltreatment, which Tina apparently discovered through his notes on his observations of her, that made her flee their home. Now the psychiatrist would like to have his voyeuristic actions toward his wife documented, partly as an ostensible warning to others against such an unethical doctor-patient relationship but primarily so that he might pacify his own conscience while still expanding his fame within his field, even when it is at the sake of his reputation.
Before her death, Tina von Lambert kept her own diary—which F. reads with great interest—in which she observed the attentions of her husband (whom she describes as a “monster”). In fact, she has observed her husband as much as he has observed her. Of particular interest to F. are two passages in Tina von Lambert’s diary in which she has written, chillingly, “I am being watched.” It is a statement that casts a long shadow over the narrative. Who had been observing Tina von Lambert? And if not only her husband, for what reasons did the other observe her?
It is an extremely open-ended question, and one that suggests a mimetic quality between F. and the way in which the reader of the novel “observes” F. unraveling the story of Tina von Lambert. The narrative is written in the third person subjective, and as it follows F.’s descent into the world of intelligence gathering, The Assignment considers the degree to which the roles of observer and observed define the reader’s place within society. It is interesting to note that Tina, who is both observed and observer, elicits both sympathy and contempt. Even F., one of the most The Assignment’s sympathetic characters, directs her creative energies toward wholly voyeuristic ends: Otto von Lambert has come across her while she is filming the funeral of his wife. The film is being made as part of a documentary project F. undertakes toward the “still vague idea of creating a total portrait, namely a portrait of our planet, by combining random scenes into a whole.”
In fact the preposterous, even monstrous impetus of both F.’s and von Lambert’s projects within the novel—the “total” portrait of the planet, as if such a thing were possible, and the solving of one person’s murder not out of any sense of justice but as an act of self-abnegation—are indicative of the futility Dürrenmatt expresses in The Assignment: the futility of any attempt to reach a point of certainty and origin in a search for absolute knowledge, and the madness with which human beings nevertheless try to accumulate such knowledge in the face of the destructiveness that such an accumulation inflicts on others.
For example, after accepting von Lambert’s proposal F. travels to North Africa to investigate Tina von Lambert’s death and falls into a world in which surveillance is used to gain political power, even when the knowledge gained from surveillance is nearly always flawed and warped in its transmission. The victims of this knowledge are haphazardly punished in order to reach a point of conclusion and certainty: at one point F. comes across a man who is imprisoned and then summarily executed as the supposed murderer of Tina von Lambert. (It is later revealed that the man, who is innocent of the crimes he is accused of, has simply been used as a political symbol.) It’s a telling point about how reaching a conclusion is often more important to the person who uses knowledge as a form of control than whether that conclusion contains any sense of justice.
Two other characters, both of whom become profound symbols within the novel, share F.’s and Otto von Lambert’s desire to pursue self-created, Sisyphean tasks in order to give themselves the impression of self-agency. One, known only as D., is a logician who has chosen his field because logic is “beyond all reality and removed from every sort of existential mishap.” D. feels that
a very suitable definition of contemporary man might be that he is man under observation—observed by the state, for one, with more and more sophisticated methods, while man makes more and more desperate attempts to escape being observed, which in turn renders man increasingly suspect in the eyes of the state and the state even more suspect in the eyes of man
Despite this philosophy, D. professes that the act of being observed is something profoundly desired by mankind, “that [people], too, felt meaningless unless they were being observed, and that this was the reason why they all observed and took snapshots and movies of each other, for fear of experiencing the meaninglessness of their existence in the face of a dispersing universe.” Here humanity is on a pivot point between existence and non-existence, and balancing these two positions drives D. into madness; without observation it is as though human beings are cast into the darkness of non-existence.
Another character, a photographer named Polypheme (after the cyclops in the Odyssey) has built a career out of doing surveillance work for governments and weapons-manufacturing companies. Polypheme also who takes pictures of operatives being assassinated, utilizing technologically advanced cameras that allow him to divide time into infinitely small pieces, far beyond what human perception is capable of capturing. He tells F. (with the certainty that D. has used in describing the privileged place of logic as a tool in assimilating reality) that “reality [can] only be comprehended by means of a camera, aseptically, the camera alone was capable of capturing space and time within which experience took place, while without a camera, experience slid off into nothingness, since the moment something was experienced it had passed and was therefore just a memory and, like all memory, falsified, fictive.” Even the methods of the logician and the photographer, however, do not preclude the idea that, were they granted a glimpse of “reality,” they would only understand that reality through the limitations of human perception.
As in the opening segment of Citizen Kane—where a newsreel detailing a man’s death is unable to encompass the breadth of his life, giving way to a detailed narrative that is still unable to capture him—The Assignment, construes time and memory as things that are constantly fading into darkness, while humanity deludes itself into believing that the darkness is conquerable.2 In fact, the darkness’s enormity—the darkness of oblivion, time, and space—is (quite literally) unimaginable by the human beings who attempt to grasp it, and use it for their own ends.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon. His main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures.
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