Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
Elias Canetti divides Auto-da-Fe into three sections: “A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” and “The World in the Head.” The “head” is Peter Kien, a reclusive, internationally renowned sinologist who lives in a top-floor apartment, engulfed by his twenty-five thousand books. He is a purely cerebral bachelor, divorced from any awareness of human beings or human values. He has no significant contact with the world beyond his scholarly reading. Therefore, he believes that “Knowledge and truth [are]... identical terms. You draw closer to truth by shutting yourself off from mankind.”
Kien hires a housekeeper, Therese, who is noiseless and seemingly devoted to each of his tomes, handling them with gloves. Soon Kien has a nightmare in which he is the sacrificial victim of two Mexican priests who, disguised as jaguars, drive books through his body and then burn both him and the books on an altar. Awakening, Kien dissects the dream rationally, finding the origin of each element in his recent reading and dismissing the vision’s subrational omens. He decides to marry Therese, regarding her as “the heaven-sent instrument for preserving my library. If there is a fire I can trust in her.”
Kien and Therese are soon at odds in a bizarre maze of misapprehensions and cross-purposes. The vehemently materialistic Therese screams greedy demands at him and insists on obtaining his bankbook; she also wants him to make his will in her favor. (She has the mistaken idea that her husband is wealthy.) When he refuses, she bodily ejects him from their apartment. Kien then meets Fischerle, a hunchbacked, dwarfish pickpocket who dreams of becoming the world’s chess champion. Kien’s demented devotion to books drives him to “buy” copies of a vast number by taking inventories in the city’s bookshops of all available volumes that correspond to his own library. He then mentally “unloads” them in his hotel room each night, lifting “packet” after “packet” out of his deluded head. Yet he never actually purchases any of them. Fischerle profits from Kien’s madness by inventing a quartet of quasi-sellers who “sell” books to Kien, while the dwarf pockets the lion’s share of the money Kien has withdrawn from his savings account to pay for them.
Kien also imagines that his harridan wife, driven by her avarice, has taken no time to buy food and has, therefore, had to cannibalize herself, eating portions of her own body until she has consumed herself. Convinced that Therese is dead, Kien strenuously denies her weighty presence when she insists on having him arrested for the “theft” of their savings. In a grotesque address to the mentally retarded police officers, Kien asks them, in the terrifying presence of his wife, to “Liberate me from this hallucination!... Prove to me that she is dead!”
After Fischerle has been barbarously murdered and mutilated by one of his whorish wife’s lovers, Kien returns to his home. Fearing Therese, however, he hides in the brutal caretaker Benedikt Pfaff’s cellar apartment, subject to his cuffs and kicks. There, he is discovered by the novel’s only sane and stable personality, Kien’s younger brother George, director of a mental asylum in Paris. George is able to rid Peter of both Therese and Pfaff, and restore him to his library. Once George has returned to his patients, however, Peter breaks down completely. He imagines his beloved books revolting against their owner, with letters detaching themselves from their pages to assault his ears, footnotes kicking him, and the whole library becoming a “damnable mob.” Fantasizing that even his brother is plotting to rob him of his books and that the police are outside the apartment door about to arrest him for having murdered Therese, Kien sets his books ablaze, climbs to the top rung of his ladder, and there awaits a Wagnerian self-immolation while laughing the loudest laughs of his life.