Paris Confidential: On Ariel Dorfman’s “Konfidenz”

Dorfman, Ariel (2003), Konfidenz, Dalkey Archive
ISBN 1-56478-293-X
[Original Publication: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995]

Konfidenz. The title sounds German, the author’s name vaguely German as well, yet neither novel nor writer are. Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean writer living and teaching in the US. He is most famous for the play “Death and the Maiden” which was turned into a movie by no less a genius than Roman Polanski. Konfidenz is his 4th novel, published in 1995, written in English. And it’s strange, strange. I have read it once all the way through (well, it’s a short novel) and reread several portions of it, and I still fell unable to decide whether it’s a great or horrible novel. The writing is usually a good sign, but not here. I’ll return to why this is the case.

At the center of the novel is a telephone conversation between a woman in a Paris hotel room and an unknown man who watches her from across the street, unbeknownst to her. It starts off as a thriller, along the lines of a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game. The reader is never apprised of the solution to what appears to be a riddle. During the conversation details are revealed, by and by. We learn who the woman is and get told who the man is and whence he knows her. Apparently he is a forger, lending his services to a clandestine organization, writing fake letters, constructing alibies, like these new agencies constructing an alibis for cheaters. The last person’s alibi he constructed and buttressed by forged letters was the unknown woman’s husband’s. This means he knows all sorts of details, enough to warrant saying that he knows her.

This may sound pretty straightforward with a plot we’re used to from many other genre texts. It’s written in a plain language, unadorned to the point of becoming repetitive. These are not rhythmical repetitions or anything, they rather read like repetitions borne from a severely limited vocabulary. The language is functional, not the least musical and, as I said, very repetitive. The novel is ‘saved’ by several intriguing inserts, reminiscent of Paul Auster (who is a similarly ungifted stylist), with two men watching each other, One of them is the one having the telephone conversation, the other one is just spying on him. Clearly he knows his subject well. Is he from the resistance movement, too? Has he been at this long? He never undertakes action, and later, when his actions are required, he recuses himself from that responsibility.

Still, even with these inserts, the first half of the novel appears to be pretty simple, promising genre appropriate surprises or something along these lines. The reader is kept guessing. Who watches whom, what’s up with the woman and is something wrong with her husband? And then the novel just implodes. The french police breaks up the conversation, and grueling police questionings ensue. In a way this accelerates the process of revelation as explanations follow upon explanations. Now, however, the crux: they are contradicting each other. The conversation itself was already replete with non-sequiturs, and odd ideas and coincidents. Now we are up against completely different versions of the truth and we, the reader come to agree with a character who says:

You know – I couldn’t care less if you’re telling the truth or of this is all just a gigantic tall tale.

Or several tall tales. And the further the story progresses the more the reader seconds another character’s thought:

It’s useless … there’s nothing you can do. Nothing you can do, that is, but ask why.

Why all these stories? Why the confusion? The why is not to be found in the stories themselves. This is not a detective novel – remember McHale’s explication of the modern/postmodern divide? – the genre elements are a red herring. The key is found in the settings, 1930s France and a concentration camp. The Shoah is not an easy tale to tell, as we have known for quite a while. It’s not just Felman’s “crises of witnessing”, I’d say Dorfman’s novel takes its consequences from Levi’s “here there is no why” and what McHale correctly analyzed as a shift in literary sensibilities.

The detective caper and traditional narrative logic is at odds with what needs to be told. A synonym of the title is ‘trust’ and Konfidenz‘s suggestion is that maybe we should not put our trust in the usual, conventional stories. The forger protagonist, after all, constructed fake stories intended to fool close relatives, people who are hard to fool. The success of his forgery depended, yes, on his skill as an imitator of a person’s handwriting and writing style, but at least to an equal extent on the fact that people do not mistrust letters written by their husbands and wives. Letters as genres are allotted a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. There are things you do not expect from letters from people you know. Same goes for detective stories. The title just emphasizes the distrust towards conventional stories Dorfman says is needed.

Needed not just because of a general linguistic fraudulence we are beset by as a culture and as members of a society, but because the Shoah clearly showed us the limits of our old ways to tell a story. Writers like Semprun demonstrated how fragile ‘truth’ in this context can be, and that you may be well advised to approach this truth from several ‘untruths’ first. Truth may turn out to be the dark hole in the middle of the web of storytelling. Telling the truth in a straightforward manner may distort it, hide it behind the intricate folds of convention or fancy language (hence, maybe, the bare-bones language in the novel). Konfidenz is another novel that shows how to circumvent this, how to repair storytelling, how to restore its power. A power that’s needed in order to learn from the past so that what happened once will never, never happen again.