Wednesday 29 April 2009

The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

I saw the film made from this movie when it came out; somehow I was less than impressed. The novel is much more effective and profound. Instead of a hard-boiled morality tale set in the America of a 1,000 crime movies*, we have a framed narrative, told by an aging police chief to a chance acquaintance who happens to be a mystery novelist, set in the picture-postcard world of rural Switzerland. The framing of the narrative is an important part of the story. It puts this novel's themes in the context of the tropes of the mystery genre - something addressed directly by the narrator-within=the-narrator at one point. It also distances us from the personalities in the story - a point completely lost in the movie, with Jack Nicholson's shameless hamming and Robin Wright's jaded, empathetic portrayal. The frame also allows for a climax of far greater power and force than is found in the movie. Because the story here is not so much about the personalities, or ever the unfolding of the mystery - largely told second-hand here - as it is about the uncoiling of personality that was held in too tight a check for too long, about the ways in which violent crime distorts everyone it comes in contact with, and the role that blind chance plays in everything we do, however much we may ascribe volition or sentience to ourselves. The blurb on my copy of the 1964 Penguin edition of this novel (with a cover illustration by George Mayhew)compares the author's terse, assured construction to that of Simenon. Indeed, this novel belongs squarely to Simenon's stream of existential crime fiction rather than to the contemporary morality plays, with all their baggage of characterisation, emotional narrative arc and forensic pornography, evoked by Penn's film. This is something far more terse, unsettling and ultimately satisfactory.

* I should clarify: this is more than aesthetic complaint. Set in America's melting-point society, the story took on a racial element that I felt was muddied the waters and brought in angles to the story that, perfectly poised as it was in the original, it did not need.

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