Friedrich Dürrenmatt


Welcome to the first installment of "Second Time Around," a new monthly addition to the "Arts Rodeo" focusing on great books from throughout the past century that we're hoping you've never heard of--so we can show how smart we are that we have.

We kick things off with a Swiss writer who made an enormous name for himself as a playwright in the 1950s and '60s. Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists (1962), about three physicists confined to a mental institution, and The Visit (1956), about the depths to which a town will sink for money, are some of the most powerful, resonant plays in contemporary theater. In fact, The Visit will receive a full-scale production this spring down in Ashland at the excellent Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But we're talking books here, not plays, and Dürrenmatt also wrote some intriguing novels. Two of his most successful books, The Pledge (1959) and Once A Greek (1965), lack the compulsive energy of his most successful plays, yet still exhibit his trademark discomforting visions of humanity. And both create a delightful feeling of dread that pays off in a surprising twist.

Film buffs will remember the screen adaptation of The Pledge that came out in 2001, starring Jack Nicholson, and directed by Sean Penn. Dürrenmatt's concise story follows a detective so captivated with the unsolved murder of a little girl, he befriends another little girl with the hopes of using her as a lure, hoping to catch the killer when he tries to strike again. Penn made the mistake of inventing a silly, impossible romance between the detective and the girl's mother and as a result, nullified the best part of the book--that the detective befriends the mother and daughter intending to carry out his twisted plan. The moral: Books are better than movies.

Fortunately, no one has yet tried to make a film of Once A Greek, though it actually has more cinematic elements than The Pledge. Where The Pledge is a gritty, often ugly contribution to the crime noir genre, Greek is an exuberant, often hilarious modern fairy tale. It tells the tale of a prudish, middle-aged bookkeeper who decides he wants a wife. When he places an ad in the local paper and has it answered by a gorgeous, devoted woman less than a week later, he finds his entire world turned upside down. Her presence fills his once dour existence with social and financial success, but of course, since this is Dürrenmatt, there is a nasty surprise lurking on the horizon. Greek works best during its delightful, exaggerated depictions of office drone life. Fans of films like Office Space and Brazil will definitely dig it. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS