The unacted crimes on our conscience might not be subject to prosecution or trial, but we cannot so quickly dismiss them (and they never quit the territory of our nightmares). At many junctures of our life we will face a moral question that may be interpreted as envy but is better understood as learned ambition. We see what others have – a home, a career, wealth, a spouse, children, fame – and we wish the same for ourselves. The worst among us simultaneously desire their own gain and concomitant loss for the envied, and it should not surprise us that these are the sort of people whose unacted villainy often devolves into the stuff of police blotters and true crime bestsellers. Yet there is a third category of observer, he whose crimes are far more attenuated and remote. He did not pull the trigger as much as find the coin that slipped under the floor mat of a car at a toll that drove to a house where a bullet was found on a carpet next to a body whose fist was still clutching a list of names of people working at the toll. If this sounds a bit like a famous nursery rhyme, we should consider all the unacted deeds that nursery rhymes tend to enumerate. We should also consider this well-known tale.
The hero, so to speak, is a certain Alfredo Traps, a traveling textile salesman and a well-off citizen of notoriously well-off Switzerland, his choice of travel in his landlocked native land being a fancy car, more specifically a red Studebaker. My profound ignorance of cars, Studebakers and all others, prevents me from offering an opinion of any value on the object in question; but Traps will later confirm that its acquisition, a year ago now, fulfilled a long-time dream (Traps is the type of person who does not have cheap long-time dreams, unless you count his floozier extramarital episodes). As sole account manager of the Hephaestus plastic product, he assures us as all well-trained salesmen must that it is the "king of plastics, untearable, transparent ... as good for industrial use as for fashion, for war and for peace." From this diatribe we get the feeling that Traps is not only talking about Hephaestus – but anyway. Traps is somewhere on the way back from his habitual "four-hundred-kilometer" business day when his beloved Studebaker endures a breakdown, our story's ostensible namesake, and the towing authorities inform him that repairs will keep the car garaged overnight. As he contemplates the nearest village, we get a brief but telling glimpse into our traveler:
There was also a little factory nearby and numerous bars and inns which Traps had heard much about, but the rooms were full, a meeting of small livestock breeders having claimed all the beds, and the textile salesman was directed to a villa where people were sometimes put up for the night. Traps hesitated. It was still possible for him to head home by train, but he was tempted by the hope of having a little fun, as there were often girls in these villages – as there had been in Großbiestringen recently – who appreciated textile salesmen.
There remains little doubt as to the mores of our Traps, whom relativists would immediately exonerate for being a child of Catholic oppressiveness that does not allow for divorce – but relativists can go relativize elsewhere. No, we are dealing with someone of loose virtues who remains on constant vigil for advantage, be that advantage material or maidenly, a trait swiftly detected by the four grizzled widowers at that famous villa.
Villa or not, an evening with four old widowers certainly does not sound like what Traps had in mind. Yet his destiny has already been chosen when the condition of a free room for the night entails keeping four old men company for dinner. Traps being, despite a later claim, unalterably bourgeois as well as someone of "adequate manners," accepts the offer and sits down to a decadent meal the likes of which he has never had. His commensals are: Pilet, the sommelier and manager; his nameless moustached host who occupies, in apparent creeping senility, a footstool; Kummer, a red-faced salami of a man in a rocking chair; and the monocled Zorn, a "long and haggard" fellow with a hooked nose and unmatched socks whose "vest is incorrectly buttoned." German speakers will know that Kummer means "worry" or "concern" and Zorn "wrath," which will make sense given their former professions. And our aged quartet are also all members of the Schlaraffia, an organization I think I will leave to the curious to investigate through the intergalactic weapon known as Google; suffice it to say that "the land of milk and honey" can be translated into German as Schlaraffenland (we add that pilet is French for a pintail, a duck with a knife-like appendage). What were these former professions? The salami was once a defense attorney, the monocled icicle a prosecutor, and the budding dementia case – a very long time ago, it seems – a judge. Pilet was involved in the field of law enforcement, but his exact role is discussed towards the middle of our tale and does not need to be mentioned here. That said, careful artists pay close attention to the exact center of their works (Dürrenmatt is generally a careful artist), and at the center of Die Panne we find the following:
'Bad luck, I'm afraid, Mr. Prosecutor,' yelled Traps boisterously, 'terribly bad luck. Gygax died of a heart attack, and it wasn't even his first. Years ago he had been victim to one, and was told that he would have to be careful. He tried to keep up the appearance of a healthy man, but every time he got anxious or worked up, one feared a relapse. I know this for a fact.'
'Ah, and from whom, then, do you know it?'
'From his wife, Mr. Prosecutor.'
'From his wife?'
'Be careful, for Heaven's sake,' whispered the defense attorney.
Who is Gygax? Traps's former boss. When did Gygax die? Oh, about a year ago. And why is Gygax's sad lot a subject of discussion? Because Gygax's timely decease allowed Traps to take his job, which he celebrated with the purchase of a certain red Studebaker, a car he needed since his last car suffered a breakdown also about a year ago, and we have said more than enough.
Die Panne has been hailed as one of the finest German-language prose works of the twentieth century, and its accolades are not unmerited. Had it been originally composed for the screen, we could imagine another fate for Mr. Traps (oddly, the book, play, and film all feature somewhat different dénouements), one that bespoke his remorse in all its devastating hues. But Traps has been living in that oblivion unique to the bourgeois everyday: a land of milk and honey and Studebakers. The other oddity about the book must be its introduction, a regrettably topical rant about how almost every tale has already been told (providing the novella's subtitle, "A still-possible story"), considering that a mock trial is one of fiction's oldest conceits and the backhanded modesty of exhausted storytelling even older. Still, we read on with more than amusement and enthusiasm: we actually begin to wonder about Traps, about what he may or may not have done, about why he is so willing to go along with such geriatric nostalgia and throw himself headlong into the theatrical aspect of this extraordinary 'dinner theater.' One also gets the distinct impression that a little slap-and-tickle with the local barmaid would never have been as fulfilling.