Helmut Krausser's Satan
By Helmut Krausser
Dedalus Ltd., UK, 153 pp.
To read The Great Bagarozy is to wish that more of Helmut Krausser were available in English. This first translated novel shows Krausser to be a narrative stylist of deceptively light touch and rhythm. The prose moves in a quick and breathless way, giving us all that is essential in the meeting of his protagonists: Cora Dulz, the middle-aged psychiatrist, and Stanislaus Nagy, the impossible patient who slowly reveals himself to be under the delusion--or is it a delusion?--that he is the Devil. Cora Dulz, who falls in love with her delusional patient, who hopes to cure him and be cured by him, but who until the end resists believing his claims might possibly be true.
At the very first session in Cora's consultation room, Nagy tells of his reasons for seeking treatment: he has had hallucinations or visions of Maria Callas. He explains that on occasion the great opera singer appears to him as a revenant of sorts, singing. It happened to him first at a garden party, then in a city park. Cora rather indifferently takes notes as her patient describes these visions. But this is only the beginning. In fact Nagy's visions of Maria are not really the essence of his problem: he has not, he admits, only known Maria in these visions, but was there at her side through her whole career. Cora wonders how such a thing could have been possible, given that the man before her appears to be in his thirties, whereas Maria Callas died in 1977. Nagy explains it is possible because he is not human. He is the Devil. And we learn over the following sessions that he, the Devil, actually fell in love with Maria Callas: he needed her, punished her; he put the burden of his decrepit satanic being on her. And now that she's gone he is left with nothing but his own suffering: he, the Devil. This is the real reason he has come to Cora Dulz for treatment. It is not merely a matter of hallucinations.
Krausser's novel finds much of its power in its balancing of the two worlds: that of the Devil and that of Cora Dulz, the Devil's shrink. Nagy is such a talented case of delusion that his explanations of his predicament never miss a beat: he is always a step ahead of Cora, who keeps trying to trip him up or find some weakness in his story. She is too much in love with him--with all the aggressivity that often implies--to step back and question how it is that her patient's story seems to have no chinks. Cora feels humiliated by such a sharp patient, one who is clearly delusional, but who nonetheless is far beyond her in the arts of dialectic. She can never catch him out in some inconsistency that would prove he is delusional.
Along with the tug of war between Cora and Nagy, Krausser offers us a somewhat comic but ultimately compelling portrait of the decline of Satan. We learn from Nagy/Satan that God himself has tired of the world, and that ever since His departure the game of evil is no more fun. It turns out that God also involved himself somewhat with Maria Callas, and that between them there was a certain competition over her. But since then it seems God has withdrawn, and the Devil is now left on an empty playing field. When Nagy first speaks of God and their sparring over Maria, Cora wants more information. The exchange is typical in its minimalism. Nagy is explaining how during one wartime incident in Greece the young Maria was supposed to be arrested by a patrol of Italian soldiers. Having harbored the enemy, she could have been sentenced to death. The soldiers enter her flat:
". . . And what happens? Maria sits down at the piano and sings arias from Tosca. The Italians lower their rifles, sit down in a semicircle round the piano and listen with rapt attention. Forget they're supposed to be searching the flat! Unbelievable? I thought so too when I heard it. I sensed there was something going on. I wasn't the only one who had noticed Maria. She wasn't just my toy any more. He was joining in."
"Who do you mean by 'he'?"
"Well. . . Him. You know."
Nagy gave an exasperated nod and a sideways look up at the ceiling. Cora put on her enthusiastic act.
"You know God personally?"
"We tend to avoid each other."
"What does he look like?"
Nagy made a gesture to say he found the subject disagreeable.
"We haven't seen each other for a while now. The last time he looked pretty old. He'd had enough of the world. May I proceed?"
If indeed Nagy is delusional one of the great charms of his delusion is just this blandness: he refers to cosmic history and its players as if they were tiresome and shrunken, not even worth talking about. We learn that at one point he was more glorious and truly satanic: back when he still had wings. Cora acquires the story of his growth and decline slowly, in bits and pieces, as a byproduct of her attempts to trip him up. She asks him how old he was at the time he became interested in Maria. He replies: "No older than I am now."
[Cora:] "That's no answer."
"Oh yes it is. And a profound one at that."
"I don't think so. Would you like to talk about your childhood?"
"I never was a child. In the beginning I was a thought. Later on came images. The images became flesh. At some point or other the process of personification was. . . was overdone, probably. Nowadays there is hardly anything to distinguish me from the idiot you think I am."
"But I don't think you're an idiot."
Ultimately Cora's love for Nagy fails because of her lack of faith. She is smitten by him, willing to risk everything for him, but even so she cannot give up her clinical perspective. Faced with such charisma as the Devil possesses, she can only maintain her self-respect by upholding the sham of being his doctor. Nagy is not really the Devil. Nagy/Satan at least admits that he began literally to worship Maria. But Cora can never come near to such admission. This expert in the tricks pulled by the ego to protect itself is unable to unmask her own self-deceptions. This doctor cannot heal herself, and Nagy/Satan becomes disgusted by such evident cowardliness.
With Nagy, Krausser creates a character worthy of Dostoyevsky. The unique strength of this novel is that he does so with a lightness and speed that normally doesn't come with such existential heaviness. One waits for more of Krausser's work to be translated, as one wonders if the style that is so compelling in The Great Bagarozy is unique to this work or is Krausser's style in general.
The Great Bagarozy is translated from the German by Mike Mitchell. I encourage him to bring out another of Krausser's novels.
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