Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420
Between three and four o’clock in the morning, on a train traveling between Nice and Paris, two Austrians are seated opposite each other in a locked compartment, to which the narrator’s fellow passenger has somehow obtained a key. Describing his unexpected companion, the narrator uneasily likens him to a seal and wonders why he does not show his tusks. This partly comical, partly anxious description grows menacing when he pictures the contents of the other’s small black suitcase. He correctly conjectures that it contains carpenter’s tools—a hammer, saw, chisel, and drill. What he has guessed earlier has now become undeniable: The owner of the black bag is a cannibal, intent on murdering and eating him.
Although the friendly cannibal appears sure that he will accomplish his aim, the protagonist expresses his determination to thwart him. Having gotten fair warning, he insists that he will remain awake through the night’s journey. The cannibal persists in his confidence, however, and matter-of-factly describes how he will dismember and consume his fellow traveler. The narrator’s resistance yields to curiosity, and he asks if the ears can be digested or if they have bones in them. Soon convinced that his life truly is endangered, he attempts to ward off the threat by maintaining a steady stream of conversation. This leads to a detailed account of dismemberment by the cannibal as he opens his black bag.
The narrator slowly succumbs to his companion’s perverse logic and mentally accepts the inevitability, even the reasonableness, of the violent end that awaits him. Only hesitantly and feebly does he manage to express his will to live, asking that he be spared long enough to go for a walk in Paris. The cannibal asserts himself still more sardonically and reopens his bag of tools. The narrator instinctively leaps to his feet and pulls the emergency cord. The train screeches to a halt, and the cannibal speedily disembarks, bitterly chiding his intended prey for the foolishness that will now cost him a huge fine. As several upset passengers crowd into the compartment, the cannibal disappears into the darkness, still shouting invectives.
“Journey Through the Night” is the second of seven stories in Jakov Lind’s debut book Eine Seele aus Holz (1962; Soul of Wood, and Other Stories, 1964). Although only three stories deal directly with the Holocaust, the collection immediately gained its Austrian-born author international fame as a savagely inventive, often grotesquely humorous portrayer of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Given the atmosphere of horror that pervades the book, along with Lind’s biography as a survivor of Nazi persecution, a sweeping view of his early stories as Holocaust parables was widely espoused, and “Journey Through the Night” has often been cited as such a parable. Lind himself appeared to suggest reading the story in this vein. Writing on the annihilation of the Jews in his native Vienna as a result of Nazi racism, he expressly linked the central motif of the story with the Jewish catastrophe. “Vienna died,” he said, “when it destroyed its [Jewish] spirit in an act of autocannibalism.”
An analogy with the Holocaust will, however, appear less evident to readers unacquainted with Lind’s larger work and the forces that motivated it. If the Nazi universe of industrialized genocide can be imagined at all, it is only in terms of its own singular realities. These, however, were so enormous as to defy both objective historical portrayal and literary representation through metaphor or symbol. However Lind may have intended his decidedly elusive tale, it is bare of any reference to the Holocaust. The reader may thus legitimately view its central theme in more universal terms: as humanity’s endless capacity for evil or, alternately, as the insanity of a world in which evil has seemingly become normal. Lind’s success in conveying his theme depends, in turn, on the psychological plausibility of the story’s uneventful plot, the morbid interplay of victimizer and intended victim as developed through the motif of cannibalism.
Within the locked train compartment, Lind’s narrator discovers that the social codes that regulate interpersonal behavior and guard human society from physical assault have been suspended. His fellow passenger claims the right to commit the unthinkable—to murder, dissect, and consume him. His Paris vacation trip, which promised some degree of civilized enjoyment, turns into a nightmare of brutality. At first disbelieving his would-be killer, or perhaps in order to shield himself against believing him, the narrator attempts to dismiss the man’s evil intent jokingly. This can be accepted as the normal, if anxious, response of a person educated to respect the sanctity of human life and thereby to expect the safety of his own.
When the cannibal tauntingly opens his black bag, the mere sight of the tools seems to convince the narrator that he is hopelessly trapped. He capitulates intellectually to the immorality of brute power and, without prompting by his captor, begins to accept his impending gruesome death as reasonable: “Every animal eats every other just to stay alive, men eat men, what’s so unnatural about that?” Although comically distorted, this sympathy on the part of the victim with the aims of his tormentor validly reflects a psychological phenomenon well documented in the literature on captivity and imprisonment. Only at the last second, when the cannibal wields his mallet, does the succumbing narrator almost miraculously spring to his feet and pull the emergency cord.
In his autobiographical writing, Lind has spoken of his own deep shame at the helplessness and, as he saw it, the passivity of the Jews as they were rounded up by the Germans and deported to their deaths. Possibly he wished, in “Journey Through the Night,” to provide a moral corrective to the depravity that holds sway in the train compartment by having the narrator overcome his psychological torpor and save his own life. Nevertheless, it is the embodiment of evil, the cannibal, who has the last word in the story. Although his murderous hand was stayed, his potential to wreak evil remains undiminished, and the irate passengers who crowd into the compartment—among them, as representatives of public order, a conductor and a police officer—will hardly believe the narrator’s unlikely tale. As the cannibal charges as he scurries off, his intended victim has made a fool of himself for life.
Lind’s story is slightly more than six pages long. Narrated in the first person by the protagonist, it consists primarily of his thoughts and descriptions and the dialogue between him and his fellow passenger. To the extent that the story can claim a plot, in the sense of a series of connected events rising to a climax, the plot is skeletal. It consists entirely of a few key actions and gestures: the cannibal’s opening of his black bag to reveal its contents, his wielding of the mallet, the protagonist’s last-second tug on the emergency cord, and the appearance of other travelers as the cannibal escapes. Lind has reduced the setting and time of his story to the barest minimum. Such drastic reduction places the burden of artistic success on the persuasiveness of the psychological conflict that unfolds between the two characters within a single hour and a space whose sole attribute is its seemingly inescapable confinement.
It is a tribute to Lind’s artistry that he has rendered believable a situation so utterly bizarre as the one around which his story is constructed. In large part this results from the subtly disquieting atmosphere that he creates at the very outset. The eerie bluish light of the train compartment, the view into a darkness relieved only by a few scattered lights of unclear origin, the nocturnal hour between half wakefulness and deep sleep, and the unidentified hovering voice of the first lines dissolve reality and allow the presence of a cannibal to become plausible. What remains problematic, however, is the narrator’s quick acceptance of his doom. Rather than motivating this submission through a genuine contest of wits between the two characters, with its own clear and compelling logic, Lind relies for narrative effect on the grotesque humor of the dialogue and what soon appears to be savagery for its own sake. As a result, the message of the story becomes muddy. The reader is left unsure of the significance inherent in the narrator’s finally awakened will to live, while—despite momentary defeat—the murderous immorality of the cannibal appears to triumph.