Auto da Fe was published in 1935, at a turbulent time when Canetti was living in Vienna. In 1927 he was caught up in a mob which burned down the Palace of Justice and he has written of how he felt himself swept along as part of it. As a result, the psychology of the masses came to interest him. Auto da Fe, however, does not deal with mass psychosis but rather seeks to understand the masses through a depiction of a complete outsider. The novel deals powerfully with disconnection, reflecting a rupture in society which at the time was profound. Its protagonist, Peter Kien, is an otherworldly figure, quite unable to comprehend or seek compromise with the modern world. He is a sinologist, devoted to his books and to the establishment of his own private library. He lives an ascetic life, poring over his books, buying new ones, seeking through study an understanding of society that is completely beyond his misanthropic nature.
He is duped by his housekeeper, Therese, who feigns an interest in his books and inveigles her way into his, if not affection, then at least comprehension. They marry and after a series of farcical interludes she robs him of his fortune. She is a seedy character, obsessed with sex and money, and she is drawn by Canetti in grotesque detail. Kien’s next acquaintance, a dwarf called Fischerle, is equally obsessed, this time with becoming a great chess champion. Thus, the novel begins to depict how the self-centredness of society leads to its breakdown. Each character, in want of his or her own gratification, sees others as merely tools, or stepping stones over which to cross in pursuit of a greater goal. This is how society disintegrates. It is easy to understand why the Nazis chose to ban Auto da Fe when it was first published.
Indeed, the novel’s most grotesque character, Benedikt Pfaff, the ex-police officer who is concierge of Kien’s block of apartments, is a hideous portrayal of the sort of small-minded, malevolent spirits who flocked to Hitler’s brand of grandiose mythologising. He is one of the most repulsive characters in literature, a man whose mistreatment of his wife precipitates her death and who, after this event, turns his daughter into his personal slave. In the following passage he forces his daughter to recite a perverse catechism which portrays starkly how she has become his “prisoner”:
“A father has the right to...” “...the love of his child.” Loud and toneless, as though she were at school, she completed his sentences, but she felt very low.
“For getting married my daughter...” – he held out his arm – “... has no time.”
“She gets her keep from...” “... her good father.”
“Other men do do not want...” “... to have her.”
“What could a man do with...” “... the silly child.”
“Now her father’s going to...” “... arrest her.”
“On father’s knee sits...” “... his obedient daughter.”
“A man gets tired in the...” “... police.”
“If my daughter isn’t obedient she gets...” “... thrashed.”
“Her father knows why he...” “... thrashes her.”
“My daughter isn’t ever...” “... hurt.”
“She’s got to learn what she...” “... owes to her father.”
He had gripped her and pulled her on to his knee; with his right hand he pinched her neck, because she was under arrest, with his left he eased the belchings out of his throat. Both sensations pleased him. She summoned her small intelligence to conclude his sentences rightly and took care not to cry. For hours he fondled her. He instructed her in the special holds he had invented himself, pushed her this way and that, and showed her how every criminal could be overpowered by a juicy blow in the stomach, because who wouldn’t feel ill after that?
This astounding passage works on two levels. Firstly, the depiction of the personal abuse of a child by someone in a position of familial authority is horrifying. That alone would make this a fine piece of writing, but Canetti elevates it above the merely personal by using it to parody the Nazi regime, its abuse of power, the insidious way it justified senseless violence by attesting that it is “good” for the individual, because it “cures” their criminal behaviour. Thus Canetti does begin to explore the mass neurosis that overcame Nazi Germany in that dark period of our history, and by personalising it in this way he makes the horror all the more real. It is a wonderful piece of writing.
Surrounded by such a cast of cheats and demons, the naive Kien has no chance and the novel spirals towards an inevitable climax. Kien’s brother, George, a psychiatrist who is practically the only sympathetic character in the book, appears and attempts to save him, but it is to no avail, and Kien and his library perish in a conflagration which mirrors the book burnings of the Nazi regime.
Auto da Fe is most certainly not an easy read. It is very long and, to our modern tastes, rather dense. There is humour, but it is particularly black, and the surreal horror it depicts is largely unleavened. The sort of Hobbesian society that Canetti conjures up is unappealing, but part of that lack of appeal may lie in the uncomfortable mirror it may be holding towards us.