Dog Bite Degustation: Ungar's "The Maimed"

on Sunday, May 23, 2010
What is it with Czech writers and their hapless bank clerk anti-heroes? Just when I thought no menial cog ever have had it tougher than poor Joseph K from The Trial, along comes Franz Polzer, slave and sacrificial offering, trapped on a gothic hell-ride into sexual depravity and bodily decrepitude. The Maimed must be experienced to be believed. It offers a world-view so bleak, so discomforting that I quite literally had to stop from time to time to catch my breath and swallow down the bile that had crept up my gullet. I swear, there must really have been something in Prague's water supply back in the 1920's to produce both Kafka and Hermann Ungar. I don't really get why one has been rocketed into the literary stratosphere while the other has faded from view altogether. Fickle finger of fate, I suppose.

I remember loving The Maimed the first time I read it. It was, for me, the only piece of writing ever worthy of that much-bandied about appellation 'Kafkaesque' (I didn't realise at the time that the two authors moved in the same circles). But whereas Kafka shies away from sex - the dalliances in The Trial and The Castle are laughably awkward - Ungar virtually immerses himself in it. Sex is the central, defining feature of all the relationships in The Maimed but it is the animal act, devoid of emotion with which he is most concerned. Forget romance. This makes De Sade look like Mills & Boon.

Franz Polzer is a classic paranoid obsessive, his entire life centred on his need for order. He is perfectly suited to his lowly job at the bank, so much so that he rejects a promotion lest it disrupt his carefully controlled existence. When he takes up lodgings with the widow Klara Porges, all seems as it should be, until the widow begins to make advances. Polzer is at a loss. Klara repulses him. It isn't hard to sympathise. Ungar's descriptions will have your stomach churning as he objectifies every obscene pore on her body. The advances become more aggressive, and when Polzer finally relents he soon becomes the widow's sex slave.

In desperation Polzer turns to his childhood friend, Karl Fanta, who has been left a crippled stump in a bed, but even this avenue of escape merely serves to thrust him back into Porges's clutches. Fanta soon moves in with Polzer and Porges, but they cannot properly care for him and, after much fighting, convince Fanta's long-suffering wife to allow them to take on a nurse. Herr Sonntag, once a murderous butcher, is the kind of unhinged zealot that would give Rasputin a run for his money. Indeed, in a quagmire of freaks, he may well be the most disturbed one of the lot. They all fall under his clutches as he seeks penance for sins by reliving them - a passion play with disastrous consequences. These are damaged people packed together in a cramped apartment. There can be no happy ending.

Whilst the crippled Fanta is the most obviously maimed character in the book (his limbs are successively amputated as the story goes on), everyone caught up in Polzer's world is damaged in some grotesque way. Fanta's wife Dora, their son Franz, Polzer's bank colleagues, even the most minor characters - they are all crippled, whether emotionally, morally or physically. Ungar's world is one of decay from which any sensible mind ought to reel. Every page of The Maimed exudes the stench of gangrene, like your nose has been thrust into Fanta's festering wounds. And yet this book is a revelation. I can't say I've ever read anything quite like it.


Post a Comment