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The Smile Suppressed , by Adolf Muschg

Das gefangene L├Ącheln. - Adolf Muschg

Adolf Muschg (b. 1934) , though he is not on the level of Robert Walser, Ludwig Hohl and Max Frisch in my esteem, was, nevertheless, one of my favorite Swiss-German authors. He published this novella in 2004, so it is a late work, and, not inappropriately, the story is told in the form of a letter addressed to a six year old grandson, to be opened 20 years hence. The narrator has been given the news of his imminent death and therefore won't have the opportunity to tell his grandson what he feels he must tell him at an age capable of understanding.


In the letter he confesses to a murder he lived with for most of his life and only recently learned was not fatal (this is not a spoiler - he alludes to this repeatedly almost from the first page). But, first, he relates his melancholy life history, the sadness of which is largely due, he feels, to his parents and upbringing. Granddad's parents were deeply disappointed with each other and cool to him.  His father was a Nationalrat(*) for the conservative-nationalistic party and an asshole.(**) His mother had been in love with someone else but circumstances and society intervened. And they were fundamentalist Christians of the Swiss Pietist variety. So, when Granddad was a teenager and they said he had to become a man, that meant, above all, stay away from the temptation of women. Women and girls were the objects of bad jokes, offensive attitudes and ordered about like servants by all the men and boys he knew. The boys themselves were prey to the wildest stories about sexual matters - the subject was all so incredible, so mysterious, so repulsive/alluring. (Why do we do these things to ourselves?)


So, part of the book is a bitter, biting, sardonic criticism of a certain kind of attitude towards women, including the "religious" attitude that women are naturally sinful and naturally lead men to sin, that I hope one day readers of this book will shake their heads at in horrified amazement, whereas I just shook my head in disgusted recognition.


Muschg turns his irony in turn upon college students, the dynamics of their cliques, his Pietist ancestors, patriotism, the sexual desperation and insecurity of inexperienced young men, among other matters. Looking at Muschg's birthdate and the fervor with which he writes these passages, it seems rather safe to say that a fair amount of personal experience enters this text. 


Granddad meets Magda, who from the beginning kept him at arm's length, but he refused to recognize the significance of her coolness towards him and slowly slid into an obsession with her. He recognized the power of this obsession and despised himself for it, but it did not weaken.


However, the story one could have anticipated here (and enjoy) was not told; a series of unusual events occur and the ironic, engaged narration completely changes. And, for me, this change was for the worse. 


Granddad stumbles from one unlikely event to another, all irony gone, the tone now flat as if that would help the reader to believe any of it. One example of many: at a fancy company party where Granddad has been ordered to act as waiter, the 21 year old daughter of the president of the firm learns that her father has "sold" her to a middle-aged Saudi sheikh for marriage; in order to avoid that fate she has sex that night with Granddad (then in his 20's) , whom she has never before seen, so that she is no longer a virgin, thus ruining the deal with the Saudi. Granddad marries her (weeks after the sex she appears before him for the first time since that night, tells him she is pregnant, and he proposes marriage to her) and eventually becomes the head of the firm himself. Aside from the fact that this tale could have been ripped from the pages of a romance novel, the role it actually plays in the book is to allow her to be the first woman important to him who does not hate herself and thus "save" his wasted life. Then why the fantastic circumstances?  


I do not recommend this book, so it is perhaps not a tragedy that it has not been translated. It now sits in the bottom of my garbage can.


(*) A member of the Swiss federal parliament. 


(**) Could it possibly be otherwise???