Gargoyles chronicles a day in the life of an unnamed Austrian country doctor as he travels from patient to patient in the company of his son, an engineering student home for a visit. Although the son, who narrates the day’s events, remains an uninvolved observer, the stories of the people whom he watches his father treat reflect his own family’s alienation from one another. While the day’s journey could perhaps have provided both father and son with some understanding of each other, the book’s ending suggests that nothing will change.
The novel opens in the early morning as the father and son set off to treat an innkeeper’s wife who has been mortally wounded by a drunken miner in an early morning tavern brawl. As they ride in the innkeeper’s wagon, the father describes the life such people lead: one of anger, despair, and enslavement—a life that goes nowhere and provides no satisfaction or worthwhile human contact. Estrangement and betrayal are the fate of all the people in the doctor’s region. By the time the pair reaches the innkeeper’s wife, it is too late. The doctor’s only reaction is that, given the squalid nature of the woman’s marriage, murder was inevitable. This detachment sets the tone for the day’s visits.
Back on the road, the father and son discuss the death of the doctor’s wife, yet they never express their inner feelings about this woman. It becomes clear from the beginning that these two men do not know each other and probably never will. The next patient is a Frau Ebenhoh, a woman slowly dying of cancer and whose dull-witted son works in a tannery. Like the other patients in the novel, Frau Ebenhoh is estranged from her family, and she is convinced that her son and his wife will squander the inheritance that she will shortly leave him.
The doctor and his son next see a diabetic industrialist who lives in a decaying, empty hunting lodge, isolated from the rest of the world—except for his half-sister, with whom he conducts an incestuous relationship. Kept outside, the doctor’s son overhears the ravings of this crazed philosopher, who destroys every text he writes only to write each over again in search of the perfect statement concerning an undisclosed subject. When the doctor concludes this visit, the two men make their way up a narrow valley toward Hochgobernitz, the castle of Prince Saurau, stopping along the way to see more patients.
At a mill, the doctor looks in on an aging couple, the man ailing from gangrene, the woman immobilized by dropsy and incipient tuberculosis. Trapped in their fetid room with a Russian wolfhound that refuses to go outside without them, they oversee the workings of their mill. The doctor’s son stays outside, a witness to the equally bizarre events there: The couple’s sons and Turkish hired hand have been wringing the necks of dozens of exotic birds in an effort to silence their frenzied cries. It seems that the birds’ owner, the boys’ uncle, had died several weeks earlier, and since then the birds have been frantic, their cries becoming intolerable to the inhabitants of the mill. Creating a museum of stuffed, rare birds seems to be the only solution.
On the way out of the oppressive valley, the two men stop at the home of an incurable cripple, a gifted musician who had played the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the age of four but who is now a physically twisted, frenzied lunatic, confined to his room. His sister, also his caretaker, lives in the same room with him, a room filled with reminders of his lost promise: countless musical instruments as well as paintings of the composers whose works he used to play.
The final patient whom the doctor and his son see is Prince Saurau, whose fractured monologue takes up more than half of the book. Isolated within his castle, the prince is a prisoner of his delusions, hearing inaudible sounds and imagining impossible intrigues plotted against him. Perhaps the most important thing the narrator hears during this visit is the prince’s account of his ungrateful son, a student in London. Part truth and part nightmare, the prince’s story tells of his son’s plot to destroy his inheritance once the prince has died. The novel concludes as the two men prepare to leave for home; nothing is resolved.
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