GEORG LETHAM: Physician and Murderer

Ernst Weiss
translated by Joel Rotenberg
Archipelago ($17)

by Micaela Morrissette

The perversity of Ernst Weiss's staggering novel Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer takes some time to reveal itself. It is not a tawdry perversity of titillating little wickednesses but a deep and thoroughgoing moral deviation, a brute injury to conscience. The degree of corruption cannot emerge, in fact, until the narrator is at last possessed by his conscience, mangled between violent oppositions of good and evil. What begins as a bourgeois, selfish little murder curdled by a petty, injured madness becomes a fathomless descent into the moral self, where murder is martyrdom, love death, and sin repentance.

Humiliated by his wife's hold on his purse strings, revolted by and helpless before her cringing masochistic advances, experimental bacteriologist and practicing surgeon and gynecologist Dr. Georg Letham murders the woman with an injection of his own invention, Toxin Y. This opening space of the book is narrated in an insistently rational manner, tinged with a nerve-wracking self-obsession. Despite intense passages of self-revelation, and morbidly detailed analyses of each occurrence and emotion, the tone is chilly, rigid:

She doubled over in pain, her enameled mask twitched like a fish, but suddenly a sentimental, sensual smile came to her lips, she threw herself at my feet, and when I pushed her away, disliking such theatrical scenes, she crawled after me, she began to giggle coyly, and the more brutally I kicked her, the more blissful she became.

And the ghastliest thing of all was that her arousal was transmitted to me, that she overpowered me sexually. Ugly, aging, with gold-rimmed porcelain teeth . . . —what is the point of enumerating all her physical imperfections, down to the singed smell of her body—she was stronger than I. I, who had wanted finally to break with her, was possessed by her in the midst of my cruelties. . . .

My father had taught me how to do away with a living creature and do it coldly. It came back to me now, the thing he had stirred up in me when I was young, perhaps thirteen. Pleasurable sensations, disgusting animals, and death had parts to play. This is not the time to go into it. But why was I thinking of him now, now of all times? Was I not “making love” to my wife? Or was it that I hated her, was I clinging, still, more than ever, to him? My wife—but why speak of it?

Her little dog was howling.

There's a strong, very nearly deranged anxiety to this passage, but also an aggressive self-analysis that has Letham insisting on his essential sanity, his detached ability to look back at this incident with contempt, to explain and dissect it even as he gives a dizzying sense of its lurid irreality. His obsession with analyzing his crime initially appears to be an act of hubris, of ownership; in fact, it will turn out to be the first stirring of a bludgeoning sense of conscience that, while it cannot quite be said to triumph absolutely, will wrestle the doctor until it nearly kills him.

Not for some time, though. Weiss won't be able to move irrevocably into his nightmarish moral enquiry until Letham is incarcerated at the prison camp on the wretched tropical penal colony C, engaged in a fight against the malevolent yellow fever ("Y.F.") that is gorging itself on human lives there. On C, Letham's central conflict of conscience—being scientist, doctor, and killer; pledged to knowledge, shackled by mercy, and drenched in blood—will ravage him and those who fall in thrall to him. But before that can fully occur, Weiss—who almost never toys with time, but sternly drags his story along each grasping, clinging detail of each day—must bring Letham through prison, his trial and conviction, and his passage to C on the ship Mimosa.

On the Mimosa two lunacies are warring. In long flashbacks that relate Letham's rat-plagued childhood, there's the lunacy already hinted at during the period of the murder—the frightened, damaged, sniveling madness inflicted on Letham by his father:

Now and then an animal was caught in a wire-mesh trap. I remember one such event. My father, looking down from his window with his eagle eyes, spotted something moving in a trap at the foot of the plane tree in the courtyard. It must have been late in the evening. He took me down with him. He gave me his silk-lined smoking jacket to protect me from the cool and damp of the night. I was still so small that it came down to my knees. . . .

Grappling with its claws, the animal had let itself down onto the floor of the trap. It was not running now. It sat with its annulated, naked, ugly, very long tail coiled around it, swiveling its head about with great urgency and unease. . . .

"Now show what you can do, George Letham," my father said, with cool but tender mockery.

Childhood anxieties like these float in and out of another long, gorgeous, narration, of Letham’s father's failed Arctic expedition, and are mingled with fragments of the opiate-dream biography of "the faithful March," a beautiful young convict who falls tenderly and slavishly in love with Lethem; and are fragmented by punishing episodes from the hellish ocean voyage to C. Those episodes foreshadow the second, true lunacy that will come to fruition in the latter part of the book, the grimly heroic madness of the damned. In Weiss's hands, it's a madness that, while bleakly solitary, consumes love with the same focused need that a man dying of a cut throat may bring to drinking cool water.

Until the convict ship docks at the penal colony, the novel has a boundless immensity in which the reader gropes about fearfully. Once Letham and March, along with the doctors Carolus and Walter, arrive at C and are assigned together to the hospital to fight the Y.F. epidemic, a dangerous, urgent sense of purpose begins to knife its way through the rest of the book. There is almost no more talk of Letham's father, almost no more talk of Letham's wife. There's only the disease and the unremitting war that the murderer makes against death.

A stench for which there is no name, so nauseating and intolerable that the demonic imagination of a Dante could not have conceived it, assaulted us from the small, electrically lighted, relatively cool underground room. . . . Lying in its perfume was a blond corpse, quince yellow, poison yellow, wearing white gloves and a shirtfront, a once white but now very unsightly dress shirt, on its concave chest. In its gloved, graceful, long hands a silver crucifix.

In this place, at that moment, I was encountering Y.F. in nature for the first time in my life, and I silently paid it due reverence.

To say that the book relentlessly and even savagely interrogates moral questions is not to put it within a conventional religious framework with regard to morality. There is no dependable knowledge of good and evil on the penal colony C. But Letham does undergo what must be described as a religious transformation when he attends the deathbed of a child martyr stricken with Y.F.

The first sound I heard from the child was a low, brief cry of pain. . . . All there was on her fingertips was a little blood, at which she gazed in wonderment with her large, still quite childlike, yet already womanly eyes. A mosquito, no doubt one of the young ones from my matchbox, had bitten her . . .

I couldn't take my eyes off her, and she returned my gaze. Or was she only looking at her new doctor with childlike curiosity? I have said that I had the gift of being able to awaken trust, and what could be more important for such a young creature, one who is seriously ill, than to find a doctor who inspires trust at first sight? . . .

But the first vomiting bringing up only water had already begun. The child was astonished. . . . She was unwilling to vomit . . . she fought, she was ashamed, well-bred as she was . . . She had hardly a minute of rest. . . . Before long thin filaments of blood appeared in the vomitus, soon mixed with black granules, and in a very short time I saw that she was already vomiting almost exclusively blood. . . .

At that moment I thought of my wife. I saw before me the vial of the toxin that I had used to murder the poor woman, I saw the finely made old syringe that I had used in my crime . . . "All things repeat themselves in this short life"—this thought flashed upon my mind. Flashed like a light, and I saw.

For a second I hesitated. I understood my fervent wish that this dreadful sobbing, this mindless animal suffering of a totally doomed being simply cease. Whatever the cost. Why not fill the syringe again, give this wasted yellow arm a jab . . .

But I did not make this split-second movement, and will that also be understood? That I, Georg Letham the younger, let fate take its course?

It took many hours for the Y.F. poison to break the little Portuguese girl's body and spirit. I sat and watched her. I stifled my wish to act, to do something. I put my hands in my lap. Not on the dying girl's brow, not on her morbidly bloated, bright yellow body. . . .

Murder is for nature the merciless, or for God.

Letham's decision not to put the child out of her suffering is morally enigmatic, but deeply worshipful. In due course, he will repeat her suffering in a second devotional act, when he and his colleagues inject themselves with blood from Y.F. patients to demonstrate the transmission of the pathogen by way of mosquito. He emerges from that ordeal morally transformed again: he will now come to believe he's willing to endure the punishment for any sin if that sin could mean the eradication of Y.F. on C.

For all the terrifying confusion of the book's moral terrain, Weiss is fundamentally interested in good and evil, life and death, fear and compassion, cleanliness and corruption. For example, he invokes with stark symbolic simplicity the cleanliness of Letham's hands. Long before his wife's murder, Letham unrelentingly practices "the imperative of antisepsis" as he moves between his contaminating research into the scarlet fever pathogen and his intimate surgical work with patients. He is unassailably hygienic. Yet two patients die, he fears, from the toxic stains his scientific research has left on his hands. Much later, on C, at the shattering crux of the novel, Letham again holds death in his hands:

It would not have been responsible to appear unwashed at the bedside of a woman in labor. All the laws of morality may not always have been holy to me. But the laws of asepsis were. . . . The conservative school of obstetrics . . . had always recommended as the first recourse that the baby's body be shifted with the greatest care . . . bringing the head away from the side and downward, if possible without surgical intervention. I, an experimental bacteriologist, attempted this now. I would work only on the outside, on the abdominal wall . . . if at all possible, my hand would not even touch the exposed internal organs. . . . Then the mother would not be infected by my bacteriologist's hands; but only then.

Although Letham in fact contaminates the mother spectacularly, she is not infected. A miracle? That would read like a kind of moral reward from Weiss to Letham. And Letham, while he has endured tremendous punishment and has been scoured by conscience, is hardly a saint. True, there's a fanatical purity to his conviction that he at last holds a knife to death's throat. But the woman for whose life he fights so desperately is the same woman he has recently allowed to be bitten, without her consent, by a Y.F.-infected mosquito, in order to continue his experiments. Yet against all odds neither mother nor baby contract Y.F or succumb to bacterial infection.

Letham's sins are nearly impossible to judge, but Weiss's account of Letham's long struggle to save his victim’s life is pummeling and magnificent. The doctor is simultaneously martyr, murderer, and worker of miracles. Doubly penetrated by passion and compassion, Letham is splayed out helpless and eviscerated by Weiss, driven to the extreme of self-knowledge.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010