Walter Faber, a Swiss engineer working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, is on a flight from New York City to Latin America, where he is to help install turbines. In the seat next to him is a German man named Herbert Henke, who is trying to visit his brother, the supervisor of a Guatemalan plantation. All communication with the plantation has been lost. At a refueling stop in Houston, the passengers deplane. After registering his disconcerting paleness in a restroom mirror, Faber faints. Upon regaining consciousness, he is intent on not reboarding the plane. Trying to hide in the airport, he is discovered by a flight attendant and, though physically and mentally weak, is guided onto the plane.
Back in flight, the plane’s engines fail, forcing an emergency landing in a Mexican desert. Awaiting rescue, there is little for Faber to do but start filming events and play chess with Herbert. It emerges that Herbert’s brother, Joachim, had graduated with Faber from Zurich Technical University in 1936. Before graduation, Faber had a half-Jewish German lover named Hanna Landsberg. Learning that she was pregnant and foreseeing the dangers she faced in Nazi Germany, Faber offered to marry her. However, the wedding did not take place because Hanna sensed that Faber was acting only on obligation. Subsequently, she assented to Faber’s urgings that she have an abortion. Faber learns from Herbert that Hanna had instead married Joachim.
Faber and Herbert are now in a jungle village close to the plantation Joachim has been supervising. Faber, whom Hanna long ago dubbed Homo Faber, cannot help but notice the heat, the wildlife, the villagers, and the vultures feeding on carrion. The men reach the plantation after fording a river and running other obstacles, only to find that Joachim had recently hung himself, to the disinterest of the locals.
Faber is now in New York City. After separating from Ivy, his importuning lover, he decides to sail to France. Onboard he meets Elisabeth Piper, a student at an American college traveling to see her mother in Athens. Faber and Elisabeth, whom Faber dubs Sabeth, develop a close friendship. By the end of...
(The entire section is 900 words.)