ONRAD FELDT, AN ASTHMATIC who is addicted to reading, is a civil servant who works in Vienna’s National Library. This would appear to be the career of a lifetime for him since it requires little physical exertion and allows him to spend hours upon hours with his beloved books. Indeed, Feldt is exactly where he has always planned to be. And while he has chosen this career path and has been fortunate to be where he is, his is still a mundane existence. The only adventures Feldt experiences are those he reads about in his precious books—that is, until his supervisor hands him an envelope and commits suicide right in front of him. Inside the envelope, Feldt discovers a stolen Mozart autograph and the name of a Japanese art dealer who has agreed to pay vast sums for this artifact. Seeing a chance to escape the humdrum life of a civil servant, Feldt contacts the dealer. This initiates what will be a very Kafkaesque experience, as Feldt travels to Japan and encounters a culture and language completely foreign to him.
Unlike his protagonist, author Gerhard Roth is very familiar with the country and culture of Japan, having visited the island country and studied it intensely to gain insights and details for his writing. In contrast to other writers who first try to find the familiar in the foreign, Roth came to Japan with the desire “to go anyplace that seemed quintessentially Japanese” (Hanlin 240-241). The translator of Roth's novel, Todd C. Hanlin, notes that Roth wanted to be involved with the country, but more than this, he also wanted to take something of it home with him. Roth accomplishes this and conveys his Japan to readers through his descriptions of the places, landscapes, cultural icons, and Japanese terms that are woven throughout the text. Roth depicts not only numerous gardens and Buddhist temples but also the rituals, the clothing, and the language itself. One learns of the onsen, the communal thermal baths; that one must first undress and then don a yukata and slippers in preparation; and that one must lather up and scrub under a hot shower and then rinse under a cold shower twice before entering the baths. The Japanese terminology and accompanying explanations are not presented in a didactic manner that overtly intends to teach the reader. Instead, cultural references are artfully woven throughout the story. At one point, Feldt is booked into a ryokan, a small inn whose floors are covered with tatami, the small straw mats found in traditional Japanese homes. Later, he is taken to a Kabuki theater, and after that, to visit Kumamoto-jo, the samurai castle, excursions that afford the reader vicarious explorations of Japan.
In addition to numerous portrayals of cultural icons, Roth also offers an enormous amount of seemingly irrelevant details in a type of stream-of-consciousness that might more precisely be described as a stream of visual impressions that either trigger memories or evoke strange correlations. Upon his arrival in Japan, Feldt disembarks from the plane and enters a restroom: “The lavatory tiles were blue, the water swooshed, and Feldt was reminded of the fish in his favorite bar that were awaiting their demise in a narrow aquarium gurgling with oxygen bubbles." Disembarking later from a train in Tokyo, Feldt notices construction all about him: "Seeing the network of electronic wires, the thick black cables, the pillars wrapped with nylon sheathing where young people squatted with piles of colorful plastic backpacks and paper bags, Feldt was reminded of the dissection of a giant mummy." In retrospect, one might argue that such depictions are a foreshadowing of things to come, but an initial reading of these does not make this clear. Instead, these odd descriptions leave one feeling very disjointed. Indeed, the sense of incoherence that Roth elicits is reminiscent of the moods evoked by Kafka’s works. Like Feldt, the reader is left feeling disconnected, confused, even anxious.
In addition to the seemingly irrelevant descriptions that contribute to this sense of oddness and danger are the strange, bizarre characters that appear throughout the story. Feldt travels to Japan to meet the art dealer, Dr. Hayashi, yet time after time, Hayashi does not show up for appointments despite the fact that he is willing to pay a million dollars for the rare Mozart signature. When they converse on the phone, Feldt receives rude responses, no responses, or sudden hang-ups. In one of the early meetings where Hayashi is a no-show, there appears instead the threatening presence of a thug-like stranger who follows Feldt surreptitiously from place to place. This person neither introduces himself nor indicates that he is an associate of Hayashi’s. There is also the volcanologist, Professor Kitamura, who travels incognito as Dr. Negishi and takes Feldt to an active volcano on the verge of erupting, then wanders off, leaving Feldt to find his own way out. And there is Mrs. Sato, the assistant professor who has been engaged to show Feldt the sights. She is initially portrayed as so reserved that she barely offers Feldt commentary on the various temples, castles, and gardens they visit. Yet on one outing, their hands accidentally touch, which leads to a sudden and furtive embrace and then Feldt discovering her in his bed upon returning to his hotel room that evening. Adding to the strangeness is the fact that whenever Feldt needs a ride, no matter where he is, he is invariably picked up by the same taxi driver, whose seemingly ubiquitous nature serves to accentuate Feldt’s already growing anxiety that he is being followed.
As Feldt navigates this maze of entanglements, obfuscations, and misdirections, he is reminded of an LSD trip he took during his university days. The strange experiences he has in Japan, the bizarre characters he encounters, the indecipherable kanji and kana, the foreign language—all of these induce a sense of altered existence similar to the one once triggered by the psychedelic drug. The bewilderment Feldt suffers is underscored further as he attempts to interpret what he believes are omens: Are the buzzards that continually circle above him the harbingers of doom they are believed to be in the West? Do they perhaps convey something positive in the East? Is, as Hanlin asks, the sudden absence of his habitual asthma attacks a prognostication that his life is changing for the better? What about the fortune teller who reads danger in his palm, or the fortune that Dr. Hayashi has purchased for him which declares that Feldt has sho-kichi, modest luck, but not kichi or dai-kichi, good or very good luck? Do the poster of the movie M and the mural of a blindfolded Struwelpeter portend anything?
Feldt makes appointments with individuals who mean him harm. He follows maps and instructions that place him in danger. He carries Dante’s Divine Comedy with him as a sort of talisman but does not see the irony in this. Nor does he seem to be aware of the fact that he who has always planned out his life to the smallest detail now has others planning his life, his conferences, his tours, his “chance” encounters. The calm, controlled equilibrium of his existence has been completely disrupted and destabilized, his life’s plan thrown off course.
Hanlin is correct to draw a correlation between Roth’s work and Kleist’s Earthquake in Chile, which is also set in a foreign country and has at its center a life-changing upheaval that occurs both in the real world and in the psyche of the main character. Stronger than this connection, however, is the one Feldt shares with Kafka’s protagonists. He, like they, finds himself in bizarre, enigmatic circumstances, finding himself wandering down dark, confusing corridors, or in places that are not what they seem to be, like the ryokan that is in reality a brothel. In Kafkaesque fashion, Feldt is consigned to a prison-like room in the feces-smelling basement of a Goethe Institute that has no other guests and a multitude of luxurious rooms, all unreserved, on the upper floors. He can find no rhyme nor reason for the figures he encounters, the events that take place, or the course his life now takes. Most telling of all, he is acted upon by ominous forces that are determined to thrust him into the same fate Kafka’s characters endure, as Feldt is propelled toward a future he did not plan and could not foresee.
The Plan By Gerhard Roth Translated by Todd C. Hanlin Ariadne Press, 2012