Seen from a certain distance, “The Incinerator of Corpses”[Spalovač mrtvol] by Ladislav Fuks, just as the movie by Juraj Herz of the same title, is a bizarre study upon the gradual distortion befalling a man’s thought under the influence of the so-called circumstances. The distortion is the more apparent for being almost imperceptible in single takes, a gradual metamorphosis of the aesthetic purité into an incomprehensible brutality – brutality, which after all constitutes only a different, if somewhat surprising incarnation of this primary knowledge of purity. On the symbolic level, however, this is a comprehensible affair: Karel Kopfrkingl, an employee of a crematorium to the outside world, in his inner world is a high priest of the purifying fire, a master of ceremonies who performs the ritual of burning away the world’s impurities, and of setting the souls free. The final metamorphosis of Kopfrkingl’s vocation into a mission is also logical. That is the line, which weaves through episode after episode with relentless necessity, and therefore the plot as such does not contain any adventures in the proper sense of the word, but rather it contains one adventure only – that of the metamorphosis itself, which moreover leads not to change, but to completion, however we might construe it (as passing to the management of a crematorium of a different kind, or as madness).
That is the view from too far a distance. If we take a closer look, though, we shall not miss certain deceptive signals, ostensibly belonging to the horror genre, such as the metal rod fittingly left lying around the floor in the crematorium (in the film version), the banal mysticism interweaving sweetness and death, the crooked mirror reflecting the idea of an ordered family (which Kopfrkingl carries within himself), the bathroom as another form of a crematorium, and so forth. And if Karel Kopfrkingl, the romantic who insists on people calling him Roman, resolves to kill his loved ones in order to liberate them from the future suffering, there is also some logic in this, even if at the end of that reasoning there is nothing but madness…
An unavoidable question persists: is it possible for logic to lead to distortion, even if that logic is perfectly irrefutable? Death is liberation from pain and suffering, never mind if we arrive at that conclusion through the Tibetan teachings of casting away the earthly, carnal desires, or through the melancholy, which is the dark side of each individual human existence. Because each human life is subjected to some “timetable of death,” which only differs from the one decorating Kopfrkingl’s cubist crematorium in that it is less precise and not as clear.
A simple answer might be as follows: a sequence of logical conclusions becomes distorted when the premises are faulty. For instance, when we talk about the meaning of pain and suffering in life and for life. And yet, regardless of the truthfulness of assumptions, logical conclusion-drawing is always sure as death: it is not down to logic to question the truth of its own assumptions. The distortion of conclusion is therefore something which the logic not only cannot recognise, but it is not ever called upon to recognise.
Fuks’s “Incinerator of Corpses” must be more complicated after all.
We have a plot which, generally speaking, is rather clear, even in the instances where various cultural symbols are used; since in this prose they function more as the material than the form. Oddity or playfulness (for lack of a better word, let us temporarily settle on the term) derive from something other than that: from a strange field which bends everything indiscriminately – be it characters, or episodes, not sparing also the logics of the plot. Because the plot and its narrative logic are not everything; they both develop in their own context, which could be envisioned as a morphogenetic field, like the one described in the books by Rupert Sheldrake, for instance. Sheldrake’s hypothesis, originating from the field of biology (even among biologists it is considered highly controversial), is a polemic against the perception of life (understood as the evolution of a living organism), which reduces development to processes that can be explained using the principles of physics and chemistry. The concept of morphogenetic field stresses the essential role played by the shape: the form, which, by existing in previous systems, influences the morphogenesis of other similar systems. “Influenced by the morphic resonance, the form of the system […] is embodied in the future systems”; “spatial and temporal blueprint of the primary form, writes itself into, copies itself within the future form.” (R. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Morphic Resonance, London 1981). Let us try to apply that in the sphere of literature: possibly a thing like special characteristics of central-European culture really exists. Although they are not easy to pinpoint and define, this does not mean that these characteristics do not in some way reveal themselves in the products of this culture. For instance if we were to examine geography, as it is presented in the works by Joseph Roth or Jaroslav Hašek or Franz Kafka, we would immediately gather that everything which is central here is played out in the periphery (for instance in Galicia, in America, in China, in a modest tenement house at the outskirts of the city), and what is marginal here, is of a great and indispensable value (a dog dealer, whose name is the same as that of a monarch, and so forth). The spirit of geometry either fails spectacularly here, or it leads us astray (see the “Parallel Action” in Musil’s work). This results precisely from the influence of a certain field, within which all these actions are taking place. Although we are not able to follow its impact everywhere and in every detail, we do see the results of its consistent and unfailing deforming effect, which is a sign of relatedness, proximity, or interdependency of all things taking shape within that field. Clearly the morphic resonance appears wherever there is a certain logic at stake – and not only so that the logic gets a little distorted, but so that logic and the spirit of geometry are altogether revealed here as a distortion.
And therefore Kopfrkingl’s maxim, that suffering is evil, which should be removed through systematic purification, finds an answer in Hrabal’s warning: there are stains, which cannot be removed without destroying the material they tinged.
And with death, it is somewhat similar, in a way.
Translated from Polish by Dorota Wąsik