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 voyage (during which Faber has turned fifty years old), Faber proposes. Sabeth declines, however, and they part ways. As per destiny, they meet again at the Louvre in Paris, where Faber advises her on a cultural itinerary through southern France and Italy.
Faber and Sabeth are now in Italy, as lovers. The two talk, and progressive revelations make it clear that Sabeth is Hanna’s daughter, a truth that becomes inescapable to Faber when he questions Sabeth on her mother’s birth name and her alma mater. However, he tries to calculate and reckons that Sabeth must be Joachim’s daughter, rationalizing that Hanna must have gone through with the abortion in Zurich. He cannot admit that Sabeth is his daughter.
Faber and Sabeth take a ferry to Greece. Instead of proceeding directly to Sabeth’s mother in Athens, they tour cities tied to mythology, a choice that becomes a tragic mistake. They are together on a beach one night. At one point, Sabeth walks off, falls back against a rock and hits her head, and is bitten on her breast by a poisonous snake.
Faber struggles to get Sabeth to a hospital and, after finally finding one, collapses from physical and emotional exhaustion. When he regains consciousness, the first person he sees is Hanna. The doctor had assured Hanna that the snake bite could be treated, so she and Faber are calm and begin conversing about their past as well as...
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the present. The doctor treats Sabeth for the snakebite, but he had not been told that she had also hit her head; she dies from her head injury.
Faber reports on these events while on his trip to Caracas, Venezuela, to help install the turbines. Before arriving in Venezuela, Faber had spent some time again in New York City, where he drank and smoked too much and formed a negative view of the United States. After Caracas, Faber had an ecstatic stopover in Havana, Cuba. After fending off a slew of street offers for heterosexual sex, a shoeshine boy performs oral sex on him.
Faber revisits the Guatemalan plantation and finds Joachim’s brother, Herbert, in a semisomnolent state there, deadened to reason by the heat, humidity, and seemingly vegetative local culture. Faber, the representative of technology, tries to provide an escape by rebuilding the engine of a car there, but he fears that Herbert will ignore the chance at escape and suffer Joachim’s fate.
Faber is now in the Düsseldorf, Germany, headquarters of the plantation’s corporate owner, where he is trying to show film he took in Guatemala. He had failed to label the cans holding the film reels, and in a tragic and almost-comic scene, the projectionist puts on reels of his travels with Sabeth. When the correct reel is finally found, an already distressed Faber is pushed over the edge by an image of the hanged Joachim, and he flees the building.
Now in an Athens hospital, Faber is about to be operated on for stomach cancer. His typewriter has been taken from him, so he writes his thoughts by hand. Hanna visits, to Faber’s surprise, as he is about to be wheeled into the operating room.