Surrealpolitik: The Assignment

Author: Friedrich Durrenmatt

Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2008, first published in 1986)

Quick Summary

A novella in 24 chapters, each consisting of one long convoluted sentence. This peculiar (and frankly irritating) motif was inspired by Durrenmatt's listening to Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier I, which has 24 movements. It forces you to read an entire chapter in one stream of consciousness style blast and hold a lot of information in your head at once. I suppose somebody had to try it but it's not a great way to read, although the writing is excellent and elegant. Anyway, the book explores terrorism and intelligence agencies in a way that exploits not only the blurring of lines between fact/fiction and reality/fantasy but also the notion of observing and being observed. The flip side of the total surveillance society is the constant selfie society where anything that isn't posted to Facebook to be observed by others didn't really happen, which is a point worth making about the relationship between terrorism and the media as well. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the novel is its dreamy quality, and multiple women wearing the same red fur coat, moments where you're not sure if somebody is looking in the mirror or seeing somebody else there, and all sorts of concomitant uncertainty about the actual identities of both the terrorists and the victims. Shares with DeLillo's Mao II an aside or two about the confusing interplay about which sponsor is responsible for what and the role of various national military-industrial complexes in using war as product testing grounds.


There are 12 quotes currently associated with this book.

[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... (page 16)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Fascism, Postmodernism, Culture]
[H]e...would have to conclude that other people suffered as much from not being observed as he did, that they, 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 with billions of Milky Ways like our own... (page 19)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Postmodernism, Culture]
[T]he intellect too, he said, was incapable of coming up with a persuasive illusion of meaning outside of man, for everything that could be thought or done, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, natural law, art, music, poetry, was given its meaning by man, and without man, it sank back into the realm of the unimagined and unconceived and hence into meaninglessness and a great deal of what was happening today became understandable if one pursued this line of reasoning, man was staggering along in the mad hope of somehow finding someone to be observed by somewhere... (page 20)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Culture]
[M]any, indeed most, people could not stand themselves if they were not observed by someone, and would flee either into the fantasy of a personal god or into an equally metaphysically conceived political party that (or who) would observe them, a condition from which they in turn would derive the right to observe whether the world was heeding the laws of the all-observing god or party -- except for the terrorists, their case was a bit more complex, their goal being not an observed but an unobserved child's paradise, but because they experienced the world in which they lived as a prison where they were not only unjustly locked up but were left unattended and unobserved in one of the dungeons, they desperately sought to force themselves on the attention of their guards and thus step out of their unobserved condition into the limelight of public notice, which, however, they could achieve only by, paradoxically, drawing back into unobserved obscurity again and again, from the dungeon into the dungeon, unable, ever, to come out and be free... (page 21-22)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Culture, Terror]
[M]an, in the final analysis, was a pedant who couldn't get by without meaning and was therefore willing to put up with anything except the freedom to not give a damn about meaning... (page 22)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Postmodernism]
[T]here was no self, or rather, only a countless chain of selves emerging from the future...a process that seemed to imply a fiction of selfhood in which every person made up his own self, imagining himself playing a role for better or worse, which would make the possession of character mainly a matter of putting on a good act, and the more unconscious and unintentional the performance, the more genuine its effect... (page 24-25)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion]
[A] multiracial thicket of travelers all busily photographing and filming each other and forming an unreal contrast to the secret life inside the compound of the police ministry, like two interlocking realities, one of them cruel and demonic, the other as banal as tourism itself... (page 48)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism, Simulacra/Illusion]
[H]e had read von Lambert's book on terrorism, there were two pages devoted to the Arab resistance movement, von Lambert refused to call them terrorists, which didn't preclude, and he had emphasized this, that nonterrorists were also capable of atrocities, Auschwitz, for instance, was not the work of terrorists but of state employees... (page 58)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Fascism, Terror]
[S]he experienced with certainty that freedom was the trap into which she was expected to flee... (page 89)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror]
[I]ts principal source of revenue was a war with a neighboring country, a war for control of an area in the great sand desert that was uninhabited except for a few stray bedouins and desert fleas, where not even tourism had dared to set foot, a war that had been creeping along for ten years now and no longer served any purpose except to test the products of all the weapons-exporting countries, it wasn't just French, German, English, Italian, Swedish, Israeli, and Swiss tanks fighting against Russian and Czech tanks, but also Russian against Russian machinery, American against American, German against German, Swiss against Swiss, the desert was peppered with the wreckage of tank battles, the war effort was constantly seeking out new battlefields, quite logically, since the stability of the market depended on weapons exports, provided these weapons were truly competitive, real wars were constantly breaking out, like the one between Iran and Iraq, for instance, no need to mention others, where the testing of weapons came just a bit late, and that was the reason, he said, why the weapons industry was so committed to this insignificant war, which had long lost its political meaning, it was a make-believe war...its only meaning resided in the fact that it could be observed... (page 93-94)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism]
[T]he camera alone was capable of capturing the 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 already passed and was therefore just a memory and, like all memory, falsified, fictive, which was why it sometimes seemed to him that he was no longer human -- since being human required the illusion of being able to experience something directly...God was not subject to observation, God's freedom consisted in being a concealed, hidden god, while man's bondage consisted of being observed... (page 107-109)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Postmodernism]
[T]he enemy had become more and more abstract, a barely perceptible target for the marksman aiming through a telescopic sight, a subject of pure surmise for the artillery, and as a bomber pilot, he could, if pressed, indicate how many cities and villages he had bombarded, but not how many people he had killed, nor how he had killed and mangled and squashed and burned them, he didn't know...and after the attack he did not feel himself a hero but a coward, there was a dark suspicion in him sometimes that an SS henchman at Auschwitz had behaved more morally than he, because he had been confronted with his victims... (page 113-114)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, The Other, Rationality]