The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Translated by – alas, I cannot tell you because the silly book doesn’t credit them!!
When I was planning what to read this week, it did appear that there was a danger I’d read nothing but vintage crime fiction (which isn’t in itself a bad thing). One the surface, this book might seem to fall into that category, but rest assured – “The Quarry” is no simple detective novel.
Friedrich Durrenmatt is an author I’ve read once before, in the form of his novel “The Judge and his Hangman”; I have a battered old green Penguin I read some years back and I don’t remember a lot about it, apart from the fact that it was quite dark. However, I picked up this Picador volume collecting his 5 novels last year having read about the second book on Jacqui and Grant’s blogs, and as it was published in 1951 it was ideal for the reading week.
Durrenmatt was a Swiss author, and perhaps initially known more as a dramatist, although it’s his novels that have come to us in translation. The story here, translated as “The Quarry” although it’s also been published under what Marina Sofia tells me is the more literal translation of “Suspicion” is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in “Judge”), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in Zürich.
It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.
…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.
“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.
I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated. So a slight variation to the crime books I’ve read so far this week, and it’s interesting to see 1951 from the viewpoint of writers from different countries – and there may well be other nationalities turning up later in the week.