The main library of the University of Birmingham is a place where you can still get lost among the shelves of books. You can take a silent walk among them and hear nothing but this slight, distinct buzz of halogen lamps. Lamps that produce only a dim light if you pull a string attached. Or at least, it still was like that, some years back. It was there, then, when I have stumbled across a copy of an English translation of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, a novel originally published in German in 1957.
[…] the notes clearly said one thing: There was a purpose once that made these make sense. I was shocked by the consistency with which the penciled words kept reappearing, page after page. Fascinated with the thought that through their presence they bear witness to the absence of their purpose.
Homo Faber has been one of my favourite books ever since I had first read it and it is a book I return to regularly. So I reached for the book I was already acquainted with, out of sentiment, as if to greet an old friend and see how he or she is doing. Frisch’s novel is an extremely rich, loaded text, and a vehicle for voicing a number of interwoven themes and issues, but it remains above all a very humane and direct account of the most universal of things: of human tragedy. Simple and pure. Depicted with incredible skill, through language so alive it’s hard to resist, structurally the novel reconstructs the story of Oedipus, setting the dramatic struggle in the last century in various places around the globe and (literally) between the continents. It does contain all this multilayered scope and complexity, and yet the story itself is never overshadowed by the book’s dense content. The story is always there, the kernel, the most important, the gripping, the in-its-own-right.
It would have been a perfectly unremarkable copy, the one I had in my hands in the semi-darkens of the labyrinth-like premises, if not for the content of its margins. As I was leafing through its pages I realised that some previous reader, displaying an incredible consistency, took the effort to note brief keywords on the book as it developed. The exact rationale that produced his or her choices (what to note down vs. what to omit?) was impossible to tell exactly. But the notes clearly said one thing: There was a purpose once that made these make sense. I was shocked by the consistency with which the penciled words kept reappearing, page after page. Fascinated with the thought that through their presence they bear witness to the absence of their purpose.
I thought: now, if I put the book back on the shelf then this whole thing will end here. The notes will remain what they are, just notes, most probably taken by a literature student working on a paper to pass a course. But then, I thought, why not take what offers itself and preserve it? What if the margin notes were to be transposed, put together, taken out of the book, and what if by putting them together I can retell the story they already retell? Will it be ‘the same’ story Homo Faber tells or will it be a different one? What will it be? Will the purpose lost announce itself? Will I be able to find it? After all those years I am still not sure, leaning to towards the negative answer: the text remains void of purpose, in a redoubled way (I have neither recreated the lost one nor gave it my own). So it has no reason to exist. But it does. And it is not nothing, it is something. And here is the story it tells: