(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

During the night of December 24, an eccentric scientist named Konrad murdered his crippled wife at their residence, an abandoned decaying lime works in Upper Austria. He used a carbine that she kept strapped to her wheelchair. After dragging the body around, searching for a way to dispose of it, he propped her up in her wheelchair again and left the house. A few days later, the police found him cowering half-frozen under the rotting planks of the lime works’s manure pit, his shoes “bloated with liquid manure”; he was arrested and brought to the Wels district prison to await his trial.

The greater part of the novel, of which 230 pages are written in one continuous paragraph, tries to shed light on the circumstances of the monstrous crime and the bizarre personal lives of the Konrads. A faceless narrator, an insurance salesman who frequents the local taverns to peddle his policies, gathers information in order to piece together the Konrads’ story. Since the narrator’s “evidence,” however, consists of little more than a mass of hearsay and gossip gathered at the taverns, the reader is presented with conflicting versions. It is second-and third-hand information at best, gained principally from two estate managers, Fro and Wieser, who frequently report statements attributed to Konrad himself.

The picture that emerges is one of a man on the brink of madness. He is totally obsessed with his life’s work, The Sense of Hearing, which is to become a definitive study. After decades of unremitting brain work, he claims to have the entire book in his head but is unable to commit it to paper. He has awaited the auspicious moment when everything would come together just once so that he could write it in one continuous flow. At propitious moments, however, he is invariably disturbed by something, as though everything and everyone were in conspiracy against his writing.

After years of continuous and torturous worldwide travels with his crippled wife, he became convinced that the abandoned lime works, which had been in the family for centuries, was the only place where he could possibly live and do his scientific work. Hence, he moved heaven and earth to possess it, paying an exorbitant price to his nephew, who for decades had taken a sadistic delight in Konrad’s desperate efforts to acquire the property.

It was accessible only from the east. To the north, it was...

(The entire section is 989 words.)