Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass

by Bruno Schulz
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783

Joseph arrives by train in a small, strangely dark town to visit his father, who is staying at a hotel called the Sanatorium. From the beginning, however, the reality of everything is in question. The physical world itself is shaky, shifting, and fluid. The Sanatorium is run by Dr. Gotard,...

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Joseph arrives by train in a small, strangely dark town to visit his father, who is staying at a hotel called the Sanatorium. From the beginning, however, the reality of everything is in question. The physical world itself is shaky, shifting, and fluid. The Sanatorium is run by Dr. Gotard, a difficult man to find. The only other visible member of the staff is a chambermaid, a hardly less elusive figure.

Joseph anxiously inquires whether his father is still alive. Dr. Gotard replies that from a certain perspective, his father is dead, and “This cannot be entirely remedied. That death throws a certain shadow on his existence here.” Nevertheless, in the Sanatorium, they have put back the clock. “Here your father’s death, the death that has already struck him in your country, has not occurred yet.”

Guests of the Sanatorium sleep most of the time. No one suggests to them that they are, so to speak, dead. Time itself is confused by the perpetual darkness, in which it is difficult to distinguish between night and day. Thus the guests are kept, in a certain sense, alive. Dr. Gotard invites Joseph to stay in Father’s room. There is only one bed in it, and Father is fast asleep, filling the room with “layers of snoring.” Joseph climbs in with him and falls asleep too. In the morning, he wakes to see Father sitting up, drinking tea, and making plans for the day.

Joseph’s father leaves briskly, telling Joseph to drop by later at a store that the old man has just opened in town. Left on his own, Joseph explores the town, struck by its remarkable resemblance to his own native city. He easily finds his father’s new dry-goods shop. Already, a parcel has been delivered to Joseph there (as his father informs him disapprovingly). Instead of the pornographic book that Joseph had expected, a folding telescope has been substituted. As Joseph gazes through the telescope, he has the sensation of sitting in a limousine. The slight touch of a lever causes the now-enormous black telescope-limousine, with Joseph seated in it, to roll out the door. Everyone watches disapprovingly.

Joseph stays in the Sanatorium, losing all sense of time. Mysteriously, his mother appears once but cannot speak and remains out of reach. Living conditions steadily deteriorate. The room is never cleaned. The other guests and the staff seem to have left. Food is to be had only in town.

The very landscape grows darker, and the country is overrun by packs of dogs. At the Sanatorium itself, one enormous, vicious dog is kept on a chain.

One day war breaks out, to universal consternation. “A war not preceded by diplomatic activity? A war amid blissful peace?” The enemy is greeted by discontented townspeople who now come out in the open to terrorize their neighbors. “We noticed, in fact, a group of these activists, in black civilian clothing with white straps across their breasts, advancing in silence, their guns at the ready.”

Joseph’s father resolves to push through the mob to reach his store. He orders Joseph back to the Sanatorium. Joseph obeys him, he says, from “cowardice.” When Joseph gets back to the Sanatorium, he must face the chained dog alone. He is terrified, but seeing the dog up close, he makes an astounding discovery.How great is the power of prejudice! How powerful the hold of fear! How blind had I been! It was not a dog, it was a man. A chained man, whom, by a simplifying metaphoric wholesale error, I had taken for a dog.

In fact, the creature actually is still a dog but in human shape. With his yellow, bony face and black beard, he might be taken for Dr. Gotard’s elder brother, but he is a fanatic, “a tub-thumper, a vocal party member,” and it was his passion and violence “that made him a hundred per cent dog.” However, Joseph pities the dog, unchains him, and takes him back to his room in the Sanatorium. Meanwhile, he notices the glare of a fire over the town. He guesses that Father is “somewhere in the thick of a revolution or in a burning shop.”

Joseph tricks the dog into staying locked in his room while he himself escapes. For a moment, he feels remorse at the danger that Father will face. Then he remembers: “Luckily, in fact, Father was no longer alive; he could not really be reached.”

Leaving the dark and menacing town, Joseph boards the same train on which he came. He never leaves the train again, but rides it forever, turning into a pathetic beggar in a torn black hat.

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