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Book Review : Examination of the Blurred Duality of a Driven Man

January 18, 1985|BRUCE DEXTER

The Inner Man by Martin Walser (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $15.95)

Nobody knows the real Xaver Zurn, chauffeur. His boss, the industrialist Dr. Gleitze, sits snugly in the back of his Mercedes 450, blotting out the tediousness of travel, and Xaver as well, with earphones and his beloved Mozart operas. He thinks that Xaver is a teetotaler, non-smoker and one-time German small-bore rifle champion. None of this is true. He doesn't even know that Xaver's favorite brother died at the age of 20 defending the Gleitze family's home city of Konigsberg against the invading Russians in 1945.

Xaver doesn't think his wife, Agnes, knows him either--knows how much he longs for her on his road trips, or that when he telephones her he wants her to say that she misses him, that she is anxious for his return. Instead, she says we --the children and I--miss you, we look forward to your coming home, and when he gets there, literally faint with longing, he is greeted with all the difficulties Agnes has had with Julia and Magdalena, who not only don't know him but don't think it's even necessary to do so.

The Wrong Questions Even Dr. Meichle, whom Xaver consults about a mysterious, nagging stomach pain, doesn't ask the right questions. "Are you ill?" he wants to know. The true answer, "No, but I have a stomachache," is inadmissible. "Are you ill?" the doctor insists, until Xaver finally has to admit that he isn't, not really.

As a result, there are two Xavers. The loyal, expert chauffeur who drives thousands of kilometers around Western Europe, rarely speaking to his passengers or being spoken to, and the Xaver who carries on an impassioned silent dialogue with himself, his employer and his family, in moods that shift from loving and respectful to querulous or enraged in the space between two thoughts.

But author Martin Walser aims at more than portraying a West German Walter Mitty. The tension between the overt and the underground Xaver builds until, during duty hours, Xaver downs a half-dozen beers, gets involved in a barroom brawl and is seen by Dr. Gleitze with a knife in his hand in the front seat of the Mercedes on a dark, lonely road.

Mining a Theme The real Xaver, once glimpsed, is let go as a chauffeur. He will become a forklift operator in one of Dr. Gleitze's warehouses. Instead of being crushed, he is relieved. Agnes is relieved, too, and suddenly is warm and loving again--she plays Mozart on the piano for the first time in years. Even the problems with his daughters seem less momentous--things will work out.

Now we see that Walser has been mining the theme of the inner cost of the surface relationship between master and man. It was the social role that Xaver played (and Dr. Gleitze casually exploited), willingly and even eagerly, that cost him his manhood and self-respect.

Perceiving this design has its disenchantments for the reader, however. One thinks back over this meticulously crafted book, complete with leitmotifs and subplots, and finds a fictionalized essay rather than the deeper stirrings of creative fiction. The portraits of Dr. Gleitze, Agnes, Julia and Magdalena, perfectly shaped pieces of the whole that they are, suddenly stand out as one-dimensional.

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