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THE MAIMED, A Novel, By Hermann Ungar, Translated from the German by Kevin Blahut, Twisted Spoon Press: 222 pp., $14.50 paper

June 09, 2002|THOMAS McGONIGLE | Thomas McGonigle is the author of "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov" and "Going to Patchogue."

Christians and Jews have fantasies about each other. Though the fantasies (or assumptions, you might say) that Christians have about Jews have been much studied because of their often dire and deadly consequences, Jewish fantasies about Christians are less well-studied, though they weave through the novels and stories of such writers as Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and through the films of Woody Allen. In the works of such artists, these fantasies are usually sexual, harmlessly neurotic and often intensely comic.

Now, thanks to the literary archeology of Prague-based Twisted Spoon Press, we have a rediscovered novel by Czech Jewish writer Hermann Ungar, "The Maimed," which focuses on the collision of sexual obsession and religion in the life of a bank clerk. Originally published in 1923 and accurately described by Thomas Mann as depicting "a sexual hell," "The Maimed" is also one of the most provocative novels I have ever read.

Ungar, the brilliant son of a wealthy brewer from Moravia, was the author of two novels as well as a few plays and stories. He worked as the trade attache in the Czech Embassy in Berlin and died in 1929, at 36, of acute appendicitis. "The Maimed" enjoyed modest success upon its publication but was quietly forgotten in the subsequent years, which had little time for such a peculiar novel.

"The Maimed" takes us into the mind of Franz Polzer, a bank clerk for 17 years whose career is meticulously described as one of routines, fear and more fear (of the outside world and of what might possibly happen even within his rented room). And of course there had been the servant girl when he was younger: "Once she met him on the dark stairwell. He pressed himself into the dark niche, where a wooden cross of the Savior was hanging. He could no longer flee. She came to him, and she laughed because she saw that he was afraid of her. Her hands grasped him. He did not move. Her hands fumbled at his buttons. Polzer trembled."

When Polzer was at gymnasium, he met Karl Fanta, the Jewish son of a very rich man, and they became friends though "he [Polzer] knew that the Jews murdered the Savior and that they worshiped God with dark cruel customs. He thought it to be sinful and dangerous for a Roman Catholic to visit the house of a Jew."

In spite of these beliefs, the boys become lifelong friends, but Karl sickens from some mysterious condition. Eventually, in the course of this dark novel, he loses his legs and one arm--the amputation of which is described in gruesome detail, with much attention given to what will happen to the severed arm. He finds himself totally dependent upon a wife he aggressively humiliates and upon the thuggish, muscular servant Sonntag, a former butcher whose prized possession is a knife that he used to kill his last calf before becoming ecstatically religious.

For his religious services, Sonntag dresses up in his former butcher's bloodstained apron and declares: "The blood is on my breast and the knife beats against my thigh. Thus I have the power to say the name of Jesus. For there is no other atonement than the one that comes from taking up one's sins again, for they have not been laid to rest.... In spirit I suffer again and again the dead for which I bear the guilt, and thus, with Jesus in my heart, with remorse, humility and shame, I atone through the debasement of doing it all over again."

The bedridden Karl ends up living with Sonntag in the same apartment where Franz has been renting a room from the young widow, Frau Porges, who demands sex from the timid clerk in exchange for his room. The level of creepiness is epitomized when Franz notices, during one of her assaults on him, how "her ears lay flatly against her head.... They were yellow like the wax of church candles, dead flattened ears."

One thing leads to another, of course, and the landlady becomes pregnant. Franz watches her, thinking: "Her belly breathed with her. The child in her belly was breathing, the living child. Soon her belly would be opened and the child would lie before Polzer, naked, with tubular limbs and deep creases in the flesh at the joints .... No he did not want it."

Murder arises from this desperate situation, but Ungar is unclear about the identity of the perpetrator or what exactly happens. The publishers, however, have supplied both the original ending of the novel, in which the identity of the perpetrator is ambiguous, and a rejected final chapter that removes any ambiguity as to who ends up using Sonntag's knife.

"The Maimed" is surely part of the necessary background to the far more accomplished work of Franz Kafka, Robert Musil and the under-appreciated Robert Walser. The disturbing sexuality, the obsessiveness and isolated condition of the characters all seem a little too starkly drawn, and that certain seam of ambiguity that is the hallmark of genius is missing. "The Maimed" is an honorable minor work of fiction, hinting at the author's future accomplishment.


From `The Maimed'

Every week he counted his possessions: books, newspapers, old forms, linen, clothes. He wanted to be certain that nothing had changed.

Polzer knew that he owned no treasures. There was no doubt that his belongings, his patched-up linen and his shabby suits, were not worth very much. It was hard to imagine that anyone might want to take them. Nevertheless, he could not rid himself of this fear. It overcame him as soon as darkness fell ....Something was hiding, the conspiracy breathed from the darkness, and Polzer could not do anything against it. The attack rasped, breathed, and sulked at the door....

Polzer longed to share his room with someone, someone whose presence would silence the menacing solitude.... He heard the bed creak beneath the burden of Frau Porges's body and decided to ask her in the morning to allow him to sleep in her room. He wanted to buy a screen that would separate his bed from hers.

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