The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Describing himself as a “lucid super-seer,” the narrator implies by this term that the artist as visionary can provide a deeper insight into reality through the vehicle of fiction than would be possible in a merely historical account. Although he too has been condemned as a traitor and faces a possible death sentence should he be caught, Ferdinand, as protagonist and narrator of Céline’s novels, maintains a degree of lucidity that sets him apart from those around him who entertain fantasies about their return to power and privilege. The vacationers at Baden-Baden and, particularly, the occupants of the chateau in Sigmaringen exemplify this attitude of self-delusion (to which Céline usually applies the term “delirium”) in their persistent belief that somehow Germany will win the war. There is a price to be paid for refusing such facile escapism—the suffering concomitant with confronting the harsh realities of a world turned upside down by the war’s devastation and the danger inherent in differing with those in positions of authority. It is ironic that a group of retarded children will provide the cover that will permit the super-seer to succeed in finally reaching Denmark.

Given his powerlessness and ambiguous status, Ferdinand is usually less an active participant in events than an observer of what takes place around him. One conspicuous exception to this attitude is the selflessness of his medical activities in Sigmaringen. Despite his past failures to sustain a viable medical practice, largely because of a deeply pessimistic view of society—a view sustained by humankind’s penchant for war and self-destruction—and a disinclination to demand payment for his services, Ferdinand demonstrates a surprising devotion to his patients in Sigmaringen. He even goes so far as to purchase medicines for them out of his own limited funds. Ferdinand also excels, despite his mordant humor and trenchant language, at avoiding confrontations that might compromise his limited security.


(The entire section is 819 words.)