The Insanity Defense – In Matto’s Realm by Friedrich Glauser

Theme: International Thrillers

Friedrich Glauser~Austria

Matto: madman, translated from the Italian

A story has to take place somewhere.  Mine takes place in the Canton of Bern, in a lunatic asylum.  So what?  Presumably we’re still allowed to tell stories?

Psychiatric hospitals, opium, morphine, schizophrenia – these are best ingredients for a madness cocktail.  These are also the realities of a life, the life of Friedrich Glauser.  Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia and spending most of his life on a lazy susan of psych wards, it’s no doubt he is the epitome of the maxim ‘write what you know’.  Originally published in 1936, In Matto’s Realm garnered a large following.  So large, in fact, that Germany’s most prestigious crime fiction award is titled the Glauser Prize.  No surprise then that Glauser’s crime novel is strong, intricate, and different from most thrillers in the genre. 

True, it begins with an escaped child murderer and is followed by the discovery of a dead body as with many classic mystery thriller.  But that’s where the formulaic comparisons end.  Firstly, as one would imagine if the setting is an insane asylum, the characters are well-developed, odd and ambiguous unlike many thrillers filled with definitive ‘types’ of characters with a thinly veiled assignation of good or bad.  Sergeant Jakob Studer, an aging police detective with the Bern cantonal police department, is called upon by the police chief to investigate the escape of Pieterlen of the Randlingen Psychiatric Clinic.  Although he wonders why he is assigned to the case, he accepts.  It turns out that he was requested by Dr. Ernst Laduner, the psychiatrist of Randlingen.  Upon meeting Laduner, Studer has a fuzzy recollection of meeting him somewhere before.  As Laduner reminds him gradually of their involvement years ago, it becomes clear the Laduner was responsible for Studer’s demise.  Studer had been chief of police detectives, but demoted after Laduner’s involvement caused Studer to bungle an investigation.  Laduner is obviously a suspect in the current case and Studer is there to prove his innocence.  Even more unusual is that Laduner wants him to stay at his residence in an effort to sway Studer with his hospitality.  After Studer meets many of the nurses and patients, the lines between sanity and madness are difficult to discern.  This muddiness further deepens the tension and the reader’s belief in Studer as a protagonist because as the characters are introduced and unfolded, it is never clear whom he, and we, can trust:

Gilgen, the redhead.  The one person he had like from the very start.  What he felt for him was nothing at all like the somewhat tentative attraction he felt towards Dr Laduner.  It was more like one of those friendships between men that are so strong because they cannot be explained.  These things exits, it’s difficult to assess them objectively…Gilgen…Right, Gilgen was a trail he had to follow up.  But in that case he would have to start by clearing up Pieterlen’s escape, that was essential…Bohnenblust, the asthmatic nightwatchman with the wheezing lung was on dity now, a chat with him seemed advisable…

And then there was the fear in Dr. Laduner’s eyes.  In the morning it had been pretty clear to see, this evening it seemed to have vanished…But there was that lecture on Peiterlen…Suspicious…

Secondly,what separates In Matto’s Realm from the classic mystery/thriller is the plot.  Not your typical connect-the-dots plot, although there are dots to connect, it’s not linear nor seemingly connected to one character being responsible for all the deaths.  Glauser successful plotting hinges upon the ambiguity he presents of his characters.  All are flawed, but the flaws fall within a spectrum which Glauser makes the reader wonder what the parameters of the spectrum are.  There’s Borstli, the bacchanal Director of Randlingen known as a ‘randy old goat’, whose appetite for women and food lives on even after he is killed.  We know at this point that Laduner has a motive, but Studer is unsure of who Laduner really is yet he seems taken by Laduner’s hospitality.  As the story powers along, the only thing that becomes clear is that it could be any one of the characters. 

Thirdly, there’s Glauser’s tone: an eerie, oppressive, chilling mood blankets the story like an overcast sky.  Studer believes in the spirit of Matto and one wonders if he himself is going mad when he sees figures and phantoms running across the grounds in the middle of the night or hears strange music form the attic.  All this is explained in the end of the novel, but with Glauser’s descriptive skill and sinister setting, a macabre feeling permeates the narrative:

The scene in the awakening dormitory remained stuck in Studer’s mind for a long time: men crawling out of their beds, traipsing over to the wash-basins against the long wall, passing a damp cloth over their faces, yawning as they peered at the windows because they simply could not understand that here was another day, time they had to kill, when they could just as well have lived it…

Mike Mitchell’s translation is solid.  It seems true to Glauser’s voice and style.  Although Glauser’s style isn’t dense, there are moments where he uses description at the right moment to add color and enough detail to satisfy the reader, as he does in this passage which describes the character, Colonel Caplaun:

A white patriarchal beard, skin unhealthily pale and, right in the middle of his face, a nose like a red pepper with lots of lumps and bumps.  A mouth, hidden in the tangle of the beard…

Besides the concise nature of his prose and the complex nature of his characters and story, there is also the interesting historical context of psychiatry as a science.  Knowing now how primitive the methodology was in those days, a stay in a psych hospital seems like a crap shoot, with the use of sedatives and opiates to treat all different types of illness.  The problem may be muted but evolves into addiction which exacerbates the original condition.  This is what makes it even more amazing the people like Glauser and Robert Walser were able to publish anything at all, much less cogent, successful works of literature.   Luckily, the study of psychiatry has come a long way.  In Matto’s Realm serves as a good read and a mirror of a troubled man who turned to writing as a means of witness and salvation.

In Matto’s Realm

By Friedrich Glauser
Translated by Mike Mitchell
Bitter Lemon Press
Paperback, 334 pp.
ISBN: 9781904738060

Other works by Friedrich Glauser:

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