(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 649 words.)