How Zurich invented the modern world

A distinguished Mexican novelist reflects on Thomas Mann, Zurich and the imagination of Europe.

Published September 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in 1950 I was 21 years old and arrived for the first time in Switzerland to follow studies both at the University of Geneva and at the Institut Universitaire de Hautes Etudes Internationales. I was employed at the Mexican Mission to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and served as secretary to the Mexican Member of the International Law Commission. All of this gave my arrival in Switzerland a very formal tone. Geneva was, as always, an international city. I made friends with foreign students, foreign diplomats and foreign journalists. I met a beautiful young Swiss student and fell in love with her, but our clandestine meetings were interrupted (A) by my expulsion from the very strict pension where I was staying on the rue Emile Young, and (B) by her parents' commandment that their daughter should not consort with a young man from a country of dark, uncivilized people, who probably ate human flesh.

I consoled myself, the day that my girlfriend told me it was all over, by going to a cinema on the place du Molard to see Carol Reed's famous film "The Third Man," which was then the greatest movie attraction in the world. It starred one of the most beautiful women ever seen on the screen, Alida Valli, a perfect mask of icy sensuality and flaming, vengeful, diamond-clear eyes.

But most importantly, it was acted by Orson Welles, whose "Citizen Kane" I had seen as a child in New York and which impressed me forever -- to this very day -- as the greatest sound film Hollywood has ever made. Its formal beauty, the audacity of the lighting, camera angles and illumination of significant detail, all converged in the telling of the great American story: money, how to make it and how to keep it; happiness, how to search for it and never find it; power, how to attain it and how to lose it. Kane was both the American dream and its reverse, the American nightmare. Now, at the Molard cinema, Welles appeared in the shadows of the Vienna sewers as the cynical dealer in crime, Harry Lime, a little Caesar, a pygmy Kane of the postwar underworld, who justified his criminal activities with a phrase that became universally famous and that directly affected Switzerland.

Italy, said Harry Lime-Orson Welles, has had the Medicis, assassinations, corruption and produced Michelangelo. Switzerland has had peace, order, lots of cows and produced the cuckoo clock.

i do not recall how this line was taken by the audience in the Geneva movie house. I know that I moved from the strictly watched pension to a bohemian garret on the place du Bourg-de-Four and, with a Dutch fellow student, began exploring the underside of cuckoo land, the night life of Geneva. It was, indeed, full of sub-Harry Limes in seamy cabarets, prostitutes with bleached hair and little dogs sitting in eternal attendance at the Canonica coffeehouse and a couple of beautiful dancers my Dutch friend and I promptly made friends with. I was quite happy until, on demanding a Saturday evening with my dancer, she gave me the following reply: "Non, pas samedi. C'est le jour de mon mari." Oh, the ghost of Calvin; where even seductive dancers are no more than animated, Puritan cuckoo clocks. Was Harry Lime right after all?

I had read Joseph Conrad's "Under Western Eyes" before coming to Geneva, and clearly envisioned that city as a center of political intrigue, swarming with Russian exiles and fearful anarchists. Yet even in the tragic, hothouse atmosphere described by Conrad, there was a resemblance to cuckoo land in the words Sophia Antonovna addresses to the protagonist, Razumov, "Remember, Razumov, that women, children and revolutionaries hate irony." Could she have added, "and so do the Swiss"? As a Mexican, I hated generalizations about my country or any other. All I could do, re-reading Conrad in Geneva, was to repeat with him, "There are phantoms of the living as well as of the dead."

Then, in the summer of 1950, I was invited by some old and dear German-Mexican friends to visit them in Zurich. I had never seen the city and had a preconceived idea that it was the very crown of that Swiss prosperity that so harshly contrasted with the other Europe I had been witnessing in the spring of the same year: London still on ration coupons for basic necessities, Vienna occupied by the four powers, bombed-out Cologne, Italy without heating, third-class carriages bursting with shabbily dressed people carrying suitcases tied together with string, children picking up cigarette butts on the streets of Genoa, Naples, Milan ...

It was a beautiful city, this Zurich. The balmy June days held a whiff of dying spring and nascent summer and it was difficult to separate the lake from the sky, as if the waters had become pure air, and the firmament another mirror of the lake. It was impossible to resist the sense of tranquillity, dignity and reserve that set off the physical beauty of the surroundings, and one wondered: Where are all the gnomes? Where is the gold hidden? Is this the city where the Nibelungen become visible, wearing top hats and frock coats, as in a George Grosz caricature?

I must admit that my potential irony, well-founded on the shores of Lake Léman, came apart one evening when my friends invited me to dinner at the Baur au Lac hotel on the lakeside. The summer restaurant was a floating terrace on the water. You reached it by a gangplank, and it was lighted by paper lanterns and flickering candles. As I unfolded my stiff white napkin amid the soothing tinkle of silver and glass, I raised my eyes and saw the group dining at the next table.

Three ladies sat there with a man in his 70s. This man was as stiff and elegant as the napkins and tablecloths, dressed in double-breasted white serge and immaculate shirt and tie. His long, delicate fingers sliced a cold pheasant, almost with daintiness. Yet even in eating he seemed to me unbending, with a ramrod-back, military bearing. His aged face showed "a growing fatigue," but the pride with which his lips and jaws were set sought desperately to hide the fact. His eyes twinkled with "the fiery play of fancy."

As the carnival lights of that summer's night in Zurich played with a fire of their own on the feature I now recognized, Thomas Mann's face was a theater of implicit quiet emotions. He ate and let the ladies do the talking; he was, in my fascinated eyes, the creator of times and spaces where solitude gives birth to "beauty unfamiliar and perilous," but also to the perverse and the illicit.

How right I was. I could not have imagined that evening of my youthful, distanced encounter with a writer who had, literally, shaped the minds of my generation. From "Buddenbrooks" to the great novellas to "The Magic Mountain," Thomas Mann had been the securest post of our Latin American literary attachment to Europe. Because if Joyce was Ireland and the English language, and Proust, France and the French language, Mann was more than Germany and the German language. As young readers of Musil, Broch, Schnitzler, Kafka, Joseph Roth or Lernet-Holenia, we knew that "the German language" was more than Germany; it was the language of Berlin and Vienna and Prague and Zurich, and even Venice, as well. Yet it was Mann who brought them all together as a European language because it was founded on the imagination of Europe, something more than its component parts. Mann was already, in our young Latin American eyes, what Jacques Derrida would one day call "the Europe which is what has been promised in the name of Europe." Seeing Mann that night, and seeing him dining on the lake in Zurich, instantly fused in my mind the two spiritual spaces, Europe and Zurich. Thanks to that meeting-without-a-meeting, which was nevertheless a meeting-within-a-meeting, I crowned Zurich as the capital of Europe that very night.

I was curious, I was impertinent. Dare I approach Thomas Mann -- I, a 21-year-old Mexican student with a lot of reading behind me, true, but with all the gaucherie of one still ignorant of social and intellectual sophistication? Susan Sontag, in a memorable piece, has recalled how she, even younger than I, entered the inner sanctum of Thomas Mann's house in Los Angeles in the 1940s, and found precious little to say, but much to observe. I had nothing to say but, like Sontag, a lot to observe.

There he was the next morning, at the Dolder where he was staying, dressed all in white, dignified and even a bit rigid, but with the eyes more alert and wide-ranging than the night before. Several young men were playing tennis on the court but he was watching only one of them, as if this young man had been the Elected, the Apollo of the courts. He was, indeed, a beautiful youth, no more than 20, perhaps 21, my own age. Mann could not take his eyes off him and I could not take my eyes off Mann. This was incredible. I was watching a scene from "Death in Venice," only 38 years later, when Mann was no longer 37 (his age on writing the masterful novella of homosexual desire) but 75, much older than the smitten Aschenbach pining over young Tadzio on the Lido.

Yet the situation was astoundingly, famously, painfully, the same. The dignified man of letters, the Nobel Prize author, the septuagenarian Mann could not hide, from me or anyone else, the passionate yearning for the 20-year-old boy playing tennis on the courts of the Dolder Hotel that fine June morning of 1950 in Zurich. His daughter Erika -- as I later learned -- came along, seemed to chide him, forced him to abandon his passionate outpost and go back with her to the humdrum life, not only of the hotel, but of the immensely disciplined man whose Dionysian urges were forever controlled by the Apollonian dictate to enjoy life only if you can give form to it. For Mann, I saw that morning, artistic form came before forbidden flesh, true beauty was in art, not in the aging, formless, eventually rotting carcass of passing pleasures. It was a dramatic, unforgettable moment, a true commentary on the life and work of Thomas Mann, this arrival of his daughter Erika obviously chiding him for his erotic weaknesses, gently pulling him back, not to the order of the cuckoo land, but to the order of the spirit, of literature, of artistic form, where Thomas Mann could have his cake and eat it too -- where he could be the master, not the toy, of his emotions.

I sat down to lunch with my German-Mexican friends at the Dolder. The young man who served us at table was the same one that Mann had been admiring that morning. He had not had time to bathe and smelt slightly of a healthy, sportive sweat. The maître d'hotel called him, "Franz!" and he rushed to another table.

So there was a mystery in Zurich, there was more than cuckoo clocks. There was irony. There was rebellion. There was the Café Voltaire and the birth of Dada, right in the middle of the bloodiest war ever fought on European soil. There was Tristan Tzara thumbing his nose at rationalism: "Thought comes from the mouth." There was Francis Picabia making art out of nuts and bolts. There was Zurich telling the blood-drenched, decaying, hypocritical world that sanctioned death in the trenches in the name of a higher rationality: "All that we see is false." From that simple premise, uttered at the Café Voltaire in Zurich by the monocled Tzara, sprang the whole revolution of sight and sound and dream and humor and skepticism that actually buried the smugness of 19th century Europe but could not avoid the barbarism to come. Was Europe not yet or could it ever be "what had been promised in the name of Europe?" Was it to be only Treblinka and Dachau? Yes, if we assume that all that came to Zurich and then flowed from Zurich -- Tzara and the Surrealists, Hans Richter and Luis Buñuel, Picasso and Ernst, Arp and Man Ray -- was not "what had been promised in the name of Europe." But it was. What was always promised in the name of Europe was the critique of Europe, the warning of Europe against herself, her own arrogance, complacency and surprised confusion when the blows finally fell. It was the warning of the Zurich artists in 1916. It should be the warning once more, as the phantoms of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, antiislamism, rear their heads anew and remind us of Conrad's words in "Under Western Eyes": "There are phantoms of the living as well as phantoms of the dead."

Who had seen these phantoms, painted them, given them corporeal horror? Was it not yet another citizen of Zurich, Fuseli, the greatest of the pre-Romantic painters, who had already embodied, since the 18th century, all the themes of the dark night of the romantic soul, as described by Mario Praz in his celebrated book on "The Romantic Agony": Fuseli and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Fuseli and the beauty of the Medusa, Fuseli and the Metamorphoses of Satan, Fuseli and André Gide's warning that not believing in the Devil means giving him all the advantages of surprising us? Does not the baptismal font of Romanticism -- the beauty of the horrible -- come from the Zuricher Fuseli? The gloom shattered by unattainable light; the joy of crime that became Harry Lime's anti-cuckoo trademark; the Fatal Man and the Fatal Woman who have entranced our impossible imagination from Salome to Greta Garbo and from Lord Byron to James Dean ...

Zurich as an urn of archetypes for the modern world? Why not, if we take this broad look? Did not James Joyce sing bawdy songs at the Café Terrasse that played on words with the annunciatory glees of the forthcoming "Ulysses"? Did not Lenin constantly attend the Café Odeon prior to his departure to Russia in the famous sealed car? Did the two ever meet, only in Tom Stoppard's play, or in Samuel Beckett's true recollection? Did not all of these ghosts walk on the waters of Lake Zurich?

And yet, for me, dazzling as the art of Fuseli and the pranks of Dada might be, tensely opposite -- and apposite -- as the Zurich life and work of James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin might be, it is always Mann, Thomas Mann, the good European, the true European, the contradictory European, the critical European, who always comes back to my mind and emotion as the figure that I most associate with Zurich.

How many times was he there? How can we separate Mann from Zurich? What a long life there, coming and going from his villa at Küsnacht to those in Erlenbach and Kilchberg, the places of work and repose and daily life. But then there are also the Zurich highlights in the life of Mann. The 1921 visit where he dares to raise his lecture fee to 1,000 marks. The 1926 reading to students from "Disorder and Early Sorrow." The joyous 1936 celebration of his 60 years, choosing Zurich not as a foreign place but as "a homeland for a German of my kind," "an ancient seat of German culture" "where the Germanic fuses into the European." The troubled visit of 1937, at the edge of the Nazi night and fog, preparing "Lotte in Weimar" as a desperate attempt at a new Aufklarung, shrugging off Gerhart Hauptmann's refusal to meet him with a philosophical attendance for "other times," struggling to keep his son Klaus off drugs, "a world where moral effort ... is a thankless business."

And then the return after the war, the innocent activity, as though age and fatigue were of no consequence, the hotel room at the Baur au Lac constantly invaded by mail, requests for interviews, the tiny pebbles of glory in the boots of the great man, amounting, finally, to an insufferable burden. And the repose of beauty in a yearned-for youth, the awaiting for "a single word from the boy and the knowledge that nothing, nothing can empower old age to love again ..." And when, on Aug. 15, 1955, "the throne became vacant," I looked back on that distant, chance encounter in the Zurich summer of 1950 and wrote:

"Thomas Mann had managed, out of his solitude, to find the affinity he sought between the personal destiny of the author and that of his contemporaries in general." Through him, I had imagined that the products of his solitude and this affinity were named art (created by one) and civilization (created by all). He looks so sure, in "Death in Venice," of the tasks imposed upon him by his own ego and the European soul that, as I, paralyzed with admiration, saw him there that night in Zurich, I dared not conceive of such an affinity in our own Latin American culture, where the extreme demands of a ravaged, often voiceless continent often kill the voice of the self and make a hollow political monster of the voice of the society, or kill it, giving birth to a pitiful, sentimental dwarf.

"Yet, as I recalled my passionate reading of everything he wrote, from 'The Blood of the Walsungs' to 'Dr. Faustus,' I could not help but feel that, in spite of the vast difference between his culture and ours, in both of them -- Europe, Latin America; Zurich, Mexico City -- literature in the end asserted itself through a relationship between the visible and the invisible worlds of a narrative; nation and narration. A novel, said Mann, should gather up the threads of many human destinies in the warp of a single idea; the I, the You, and the We were only separate and dried up because of a lack of imagination."

And then, as the 1950s wandered into the 1960s, we became aware of another Zuricher, Max Frisch and "I'm Not Stiller"; we became aware of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and "The Visit"; we even realized that Jean-Luc Godard was Swiss, and that the proverbial cuckoo was as dead as the equally proverbial duck; Harry Lime left the sewers and became fat and complacent, announcing wine before its time. But even he, Welles, had suffered the fate of Kane: self-indulgent but tragic, perhaps he left shreds of his immense talent in the hands of the hard, tragic, merciless Swiss writers such as Frisch and Dürrenmatt, those that Harry Lime had thought no more than clock-makers.

I have two endings for my tale of Zurich. One is closer to my own age and culture. It is the image of the Spanish writer Jorge Semprún, a Republican and Communist sent at age 15 to the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, who, on being released by Allied troops in 1945, fails to recognize himself in the emaciated youth rescued from death and will not speak of his ordeal until his face tells him he can talk again. What Semprún does in his notable book, "L'écriture ou la vie," is to wait patiently until a full life is restored to him, even if it takes decades (which it does), before speaking of the horror of the camp. Then, one day in Zurich, he dares to enter a bookshop for the first time since his liberation several years before, and catches his own glance in the bookshop window. Zurich has given him back his face. He has no need to recount the horror. Recovering his face has told us all there is to know. The life of Zurich surrounds him.

But the other ending is closer to my own memory. It happened that night in 1950 when, unbeknownst to him, I left Thomas Mann sipping his demitasse as midnight approached and the floating restaurant at the Baur au Lac bobbed slightly and the Chinese lanterns quietly flickered out.

I shall always thank that night in Zurich for silently teaching me that, in literature, you know only what you imagine.

By Carlos Fuentes

Carlos Fuentes, Mexico's leading novelist, was born in 1928. He is the author of more than 10 novels, including "The Death of Artemio Cruz," "The Old Gringo," "Diana" and "Terra Nostra," which won the prestigious Romulo Gallegos Prize in Venezuela. In 1987, Fuentes was awarded the Cervantes Prize, the highest honor given to a Spanish-language writer. His new book is "The Crystal Frontier: A Novel in Nine Stories," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In addition to his novels, he has written essays, screenplays and political journalism and commentary, and has been his country's ambassador to France. Fuentes now lives in Mexico City and London.

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