Michael Kruger’s The Man in the Tower reveals its European literary antecedents in almost every page. It is clearly in the tradition of the burnt-out artist or intellectual who, having come to a spiritual dead end, must strike out in new ways for meaning and direction. Dante Alighieri’s pilgrim in the Divina commedia (c. 1308-1321; Divine Comedy), which the protagonist is continually reading, is a major influence. More reflective of his personality and lifestyle, however, are such modern figures as Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and existentialist and absurdist antiheroes and “underground” men such as Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, the nameless protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913), Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roquetin and Albert Camus’ Meursault.
Kruger’s protagonist, then, is presumably on a spiritual quest in a contemporary wasteland. He is alienated from European society in general and contemporary
Germany in particular; like the earlier Germany satirized by Gunter Grass and Heinrich Boll, this Germany is characterized by corruption, philistinism, and banality, especially in the art world. So he has exiled himself to the outskirts of a village in the south of France. Kruger does not probe very deeply into the psychological causes for his protagonist’s state of mind, but the symptoms are evident enough. He is angry, hypercritical of himself and just about everyone else, and isolated (he lives in tower); he affects a hard-boiled, world-weary tone (which the translation sometimes renders with the echoes of Mickey Spillane), but his cynical front is not so much toughness as a defense, a mask behind which he suppresses such feelings as longing, fear, and vulnerability. Hence he is confronted increasingly with the problem of identity and frequently looks at his reflection in mirrors for a clue as to who he really is, particularly as he begins to question his role as an artist.
Success came too easily for him in the very art world that he criticizes for its hype, modishness, and aridity. Now his work also seems to him facile, lifeless, and devoid of feeling. So he has left the salon for the countryside, to commune in solitude with nature in the raw, which he hopes to transfer to his canvas with all its freshness and vitality intact. His only companion is the Divine Comedy by Dante-the archetypal pilgrim/artist withdrawing from the “world” to find his soul-which he intends to translate when he is not painting. Yet his painting strategy does not work. He observes nature lovingly and perceptively, but his attempts to recapture his impressions on the canvas are dismal failures. After repeated frustrations, he puts his paints aside entirely, determined to work “by doing nothing in order to achieve an inner disposition for waiting, the familiarity of stillness.”
What exactly he is waiting for is uncertain, but his waiting is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious woman. His two- day encounter with her sets in motion a strange chain of events that include his chance involvement with the unsavory Fat Peter, a German believed to have killed a French policeman, thus implicating him; the woman’s sudden disappearance; his pursuit of her to the back alleys of Florence, resulting in a re- encounter with Fat Peter and in other eerie, surreal adventures; and, finally, the return to his tower-or what remains of it, for it has been set afire, probably by one of his neighbors, doubtlessly outraged as much by the artist’s aloofness as by the thought of Germans killing a French policeman and getting away with it. Thus after weeks of passive immobility he has been propelled into action by a woman whom he knows for only two days and never sees again.
More significant is the profound psychological effect the woman has on him. She is nameless, hardly a beauty (her most distinctive feature is a prominent nose), and he knows almost nothing about her. Yet she manages to turn his psyche inside out. She immediately sees through his cynical mask and exposes the sensitive, vulnerable man behind it, revealing truths about him that he himself never knew. He falls in love with her to the point of obsession. Right after his brief encounter with her he is able to paint again; after she disappears he goes into a funk, drinking heavily, moping, crying, and rushing off to Florence when she summons him. Having dropped his guard for her, he
is at her mercy.
Her phantom elusiveness on the one hand and her power over him on the other can be understood only if the reader sees her as a symbol, a Jungian anima...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)