The Pledge


            (This column was first published in the March 1, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


      I am an unapologetic fan of Jack Nicholson. Ever since he ordered that sandwich -- "Hold the...." -- in "Five Easy Pieces," he has been able to do little wrong in my eyes. Even at his worst, I'll take him ahead of most Hollywood actors. So my interest was piqued when he was to appear in the movie version of a detective story, The Pledge. I decided to read the book before I would go to the movie.


      It turns out that the book is far from new. Written in German by Friedrich Duerrenmatt, The Pledge was originally published in this country by Knopf in 1959 with a translation by Richard and Clara Winston. Timed to fit with the movie release, it was rereleased in paperback in late 2000 by Boulevard with a new translation by Joel Agee. Interestingly, the new version omits the first 'e' in Duerrenmatt's name. (It seems that publishers today play the same kind of role that Ellis Island interviewers played early in the 20th century.) In any case I read and report here on the older version. I expect the new is every bit as good.


      This is not a standard police procedural. It is more in the style of Ruth Rendell's odd psychological introspections (most written under her alternate name, Barbara Vine) but Duerrenmatt is simply much better. He also -- thank goodness -- cuts to the chase much faster. He describes in two or three pages what takes Vine a half dozen chapters. The version of this story that I read took only 183 pages of rather large print.


      I note here that I have been regularly impressed with the German books that have been arriving on our shores. Some years ago I discovered those of Hans Helmet Kirst by following up my enjoyment of the motion picture made of his book, The Night of the Generals. (My appreciation for that movie was not shared by reviewers.) It turned out that Kirst had written a series of delightful novels about Gunner Asche, a minor character played by Tom Courtenay in that movie. They are great stories about an attractive scrounger and I recommend them all to you, including The Night of the Generals. More recently I was impressed by The Reader by Bernhard Schlink, which I reviewed last November. In its depth it shares some of the characteristics of The Pledge. (In fairness to our own books, it should be said that we only get to see the best of foreign books. Readers of the books not translated know that foreigners produce their share of lemons too.)


      But let's get to this book. It seems at first as though this is just another of those stories of a retiring detective who hangs on to solve a crime:


      "The story started just about nine years ago, M. continued after he had passed a Shell Oil truck. Matthai was one of my inspectors, or rather one of my captains, for in the cantonal police force we use military titles. He was a jurist like myself, a Basler who had taken his doctorate in Basel, and by choice a solitary man. Some of the characters with whom he had 'professional' dealings called him 'Matt the Automat,' and after a while we picked up the expression. It became his standard name around headquarters. He was always carefully dressed, formal, impersonal, aloof, neither smoked nor drank, and he had a harsh, merciless command of his profession which made him as unpopular as he was successful. I could never quite make him out. I imagine, though, that I was the only one who liked him -- because I am fond of single-minded people, even though his lack of humor often got on my nerves. His mind was superb, but because of the all too solid structure of our country he had become emotionless. He was a man for organization who manipulated the police apparatus like a slide rule. Unmarried, he never spoke of his private life, and probably did not have any. He thought about nothing but his work, and although he was a first-rate detective, he worked without passion. Stubborn and tireless though he was as he went about his business, he seemed bored by it -- until the day came when he was involved in a case that suddenly stirred him to passion."


      Matthai has to convey to the parents news of the death of their daughter. Moviegoers will recognize how closely the movie script follows this excerpt although the film moves the action from a Swiss forest to a Nevada turkey farm:


   "Matthai placed the basket on the stump on which Moser had been splitting wood.


   "'Gritli has been found dead in the woods near Magendorf,' he said.


   "Moser did not move. The woman, too, stood without stirring in the doorway in her red skirt. Matthai saw the sweat begin to flow down the man's white face, streams of sweat. He wanted to look away, but he was spellbound by the face, by the sweat, and so they stood staring at one another.


   "'Gritli has been murdered,' Matthai heard himself saying in a voice that seemed wholly devoid of sympathy. Suddenly he felt a hatred for himself.


   "'It isn't possible,' Moser whispered. 'There cannot be such devils.' His fist, clenched around the ax handle, quivered.


   "'There are such devils, Herr Moser,' Matthai said.

   The man stared at him.


      "'I want to see my child,' he said almost inaudibly.


   "The inspector shook his head. 'I would not do that, Herr Moser. I know that what I am saying is cruel, but it would be better for you not to go to your Gritli now.'


   "Moser came up close to Matthiii, so that the two men stood eye to eye.


   "'Why is it better?' he roared.


   "'We ourselves scarcely dared to look,' the inspector told him.


   "For a moment Moser weighed the ax in his hand, as though he wanted to strike out with it; but then he turned and went up to his wife, who still stood in the doorway, still motionless, still mute.


   "Matthai waited. Nothing escaped his notice, and he suddenly realized that he would never be able to forget this scene.


   "Moser clasped his wife in his arms. He was suddenly shaken by a silent sob. He buried his face against her shoulder, while she stood staring into space.


   "'Tomorrow evening you may see your Gritli,' the inspector forlornly promised. 'Then there will be nothing horrible -- she will look as if she has fallen asleep, believe me.'


   "Suddenly the woman spoke.


   "'Who is the murderer?' she asked in a voice so calm and matter-of-fact that Matthai was chilled.


   "'I intend to find that out, Frau Moser.' The woman looked at him, threateningly, imperiously. 'Do you promise that you will?'


   "'I promise, Frau Moser,' the inspector said, impelled solely by the desire to leave this place immediately.


   "'By your soul's salvation?'


   "The inspector was taken aback. 'By my soul's salvation,' he said at last. What else could he do?


   "'Then go now,' the woman commanded him. 'You have sworn by your salvation.'


   "Matthai wanted to say some consoling last word, but he could think of no consolation.


   "'I am sorry,' he said softly, and turned away. He walked slowly back the way he had come. Before him lay Magendorf with the woods beyond. Above, the sky, now cloudless. He caught sight of the two children again, cowering by the side of the road. He trod spiritlessly past them, and they tripped along behind. Then, suddenly, he heard from the house behind him a cry like the bellowing of an animal. He quickened his pace, and did not know whether it was the man or the woman who wept so."


      Well, we've heard all that kind of thing before. But it is the strange working out of this pledge that makes this novel so different. And the conceit of the outcome is so remarkable as to make this story indeed unique.


      I was struck by the extreme care and resulting authenticity devoted to this small book. For example, at the end the narrator tells us:


      "I should also add, as a purely technical point, for the sake of literary honesty and in due homage to the craft, that I have of course not always reproduced the story exactly as it was told to me by the loquacious chief. When I say this I am thinking of those parts of his story which he did not relate from his own point of view, as his own experiences, but described objectively as happenings in themselves -- for example the scene in which Matthai made his pledge. At such points I had to interfere, to shape and reshape, although I took the greatest pains not to falsify the events, but simply to rework the material that the old man supplied to me, according to certain laws of the writer's craft."


      In any other novel that statement would come across as self-justification. Here it fits perfectly with the winding down of the story.


      I finally did go to the movie last week when there were only six of us in a multiplex audience. I enjoyed the picture but not nearly as much as I did the book. And I felt genuinely sorry for Nicholson. It was almost impossible not to overplay his role as Matthai in this movie and, despite his clear effort to contain himself, I feel that he still didn't tamp down his penchant for posturing nearly enough. Could anyone have done better? I am not at all sure.-- Gerry Rising