Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#5: Switzerland

The Black Spider
Jeremias Gotthelf (Switzerland, 1842)
Translation by H. M. Waidson
★ ★ ½
"The sun rose over the hills, shone with clear majesty
down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to
joyful consciousness the beings who are created to enjoy the
sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush
burst forth in her morning song, while between sparkling
flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard
joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows
were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle
songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young."
It would seem I made a good call earlier this year, when drawing up the original list. I decided to include Palestine, in spite of its non-UN-recognised condition, and purely on the assumption that the Palestinian assertion of national identity must have produced some interesting literature. And now, of course, it's only gone and become a UN non-member observer state - one step closer to being internationally recognised. It'll be interesting to see how many of the countries on my list will still be countries (and how many I will have to add!) before I'm done.

To the matter at hand: Switzerland. A short review for a short and disappointing story. I'd heard a lot of good things about The Black Spider, in spite of its relative obscurity. Thomas Mann once said that he admired Gotthelf's most enduring story "almost more than anything else in world literature", which makes me wonder if I missed something crucial by reading it in translation. The opening passage quoted here suggests a rather elegant, mellifluous prose style, but in my edition this was not sustained.

The story - perhaps best described as a parable, although the moral is at least a little ambiguous - sees a handful of medieval Swiss peasants make a pact with the Devil, who agrees to help them meet their lord's impossible demands in exchange for an unbaptized child. Although the Devil holds up his end of the bargain, the villagers are understandably reluctant, and try to circumvent their agreement by baptizing the first newborn immediately. This, as even (or especially?) the medieval peasant could surely have foreseen, makes the Devil pissed. He unleashes a plague upon the villagers in the form of a black spider which kills everything it touches. The menace is only stopped when a woman gives her life to trap the spider beneath a window post.

There follows a short second narrative, which tells of how the spider is briefly released by a malicious and ignorant farmhand, but then imprisoned again in essentially the same way as before.

"But what power the spider has when men’s spirits change is known only to Him Who knows everything and allots His strength to each and all, to spiders and to mankind."
So, what is the moral? "Don't make pacts with the Devil"? Or, "If you must make pacts with the Devil, you should at least stick to them"? I actually found this question more interesting than the content of the story itself, which, in my opinion, was too hung up on detail and could have been much shorter without losing anything worthwhile. Clearly, given the nature of the story (and that of Gotthelf, as a pastor) pacts with the Devil are a definite no-no. But the Devil, as a character, appears wholly reasonable in his actions - indeed, his role in this cautionary tale is an amalgamation of God and the Serpent in a Garden analogy; he is both tempter and the arbiter. I almost felt that he regretted having to request an unbaptized child; he's the Devil, and that's how he rolls, but he doesn't have to like it (as with all stories featuring the Devil, he steals the show completely).

The second narrative is not entirely useless - it helps to reinforce the sense in which the villagers' plight is self-inflicted. The theme of human agency is prominent; the villagers, seemingly helpless victims of higher powers, forgo the punishment of their lord and choose instead to risk damnation. And it is only by their own sacrifice that they are able - twice - to stifle the evil that they themselves have unleashed, without appeasing the Devil. God is conspicuously silent in this story, and characters who at one moment seem to hold the moral high ground are easily brought low. Perhaps the ethical ambiguity was Gotthelf's intention.

There's probably much more depth to this novella than meets the eye, but it didn't make a stunning first impression. I expect if I went back to it again, I'd find additional layers of meaning, and if I didn't have 195 countries left to read, I might give it another try.

For now, Scotland awaits!

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