Todd C. Hanlin – Terra incognita: Gerhard Roth’s Tokyo

Nr. 18    Juni 2011 TRANS: Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften

Section | Sektion: Cities in Austrian Literature

Terra incognita: Gerhard Roth’s Tokyo

Todd Hanlin (University of Arkansas, USA) [BIO]

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 Konferenzdokumentation |  Conference publication



Introduction: Roth and Kleist

When experiencing cities through literature, an unfamiliar city may prove attractive or repellent to the reader, depending on the perspective of the particular author, narrator, or main character acting as our guide. In Gerhard Roth’s 1998 novel, Der Plan,(1) the reader accompanies his protagonist, Konrad Feldt, an educated, middle-aged, middle-class European intellectual, on an epic journey to one of the world’s megacities. Feldt, an inveterate reader and librarian in Vienna’s Nationalbibliothek, is unexpectedly presented with a life-changing opportunity: his supervisor in the library privately hands him a rare Mozart autograph, along with the name of an art dealer prepared to purchase it; the supervisor then unexpectedly commits suicide in Feldt’s presence. To this point, Feldt had lived his solitary life through the books he so loved, encumbered with an asthmatic condition that had handicapped him since childhood. He takes the autograph, travels around the world to Japan,(2) in hopes of exchanging the invaluable autograph for a million dollars and a new life, only to die during an earthquake; while he survives the quake itself, he is shot by police as a suspected looter in the resulting confusion.

Like Heinrich von Kleist’s well-known “Erdbeben in Chile,” this novel features a foreign city, an earthquake, and its unexpected consequences. Not coincidentally, Kleist is mentioned conspicuously by the obsessive reader, Feldt. In the course of telling his “story,” the librarian predictably mentions many writers and literary works—and specifically Kleist.  Feldt’s admiration for Kleist rests on the author’s reputation as a brilliant Eröffnungskünstler, a writer who focuses on his introductions:

Er [Feldt] war immer neugierig darauf, ein Buch aufzuschlagen und den ersten Satz zu lesen. Manche Anfänge hatten ihn so elektrisiert, daß er die Lektüre unterbrochen hatte, um den Genuß der Inspiration auszudehnen, bevor er weiterlas und kurz darauf wieder eine Pause machte: bei… den Erzählungen von Borges, Kleist und Kafka—grandiose (unkonventionellen Schachspielern ähnliche) Eröffnungskünstler, die in ihrer zeitungshaften Lakonik und epischen Kürze einen besonderern Reiz auf ihn ausübten (63).

Indeed, one of Kleist’s most memorable introductions can be found in his “Erdbeben in Chile”:

In St. Jago, der Hauptstadt des Königreichs Chili, stand gerade in dem Augenblicke der großen Erderschütterung vom Jahre 1647, bei welcher viele tausend Menschen ihren Untergang fanden, ein junger, auf ein Verbrechen angeklagter Spanier, namens Jeronimo Rugera, an einem Pfeiler des Gefängnisses, in welches man ihn eingesperrt hatte, und wollte sich erhenken.(3)

Feldt’s own story begins with an even more succinct introduction regarding passion and criminality: “Auf eine komplizierte Weise hing Feldts Verbrechen mit seiner Leidenschaft für das Lesen zusammen, das ihm zur Sucht geworden war” (7).

Kleist-like introductions by a so-called Eröffnungskünstler often produce an analytical drama, where the singular event or “crime” is stated at the outset; and now the consequences must be uncovered, with the reader as detective, unraveling a mystery, thus reproducing either the main character’s or the author’s “plan.” In Kleist’s novella, for example, the unexpected event is the earthquake and its impact on Jeronimo Rugera’s fate. At the heart of Feldt’s story is the factual disappearance of a piece of the manuscript for Mozart’s Requiem, purportedly the last thing the composer wrote before his untimely death. The reader learns about the autograph’s disappearance, its theft, and how it practically falls into Feldt’s hands, undeserved and unbidden, without his foreknowledge or anticipation.

Neither Kleist nor most of his 19th-century German-speaking readers had ever set foot in Chile, let alone experienced an earthquake. But Kleist minimized any cultural differences between the New World and the Old to focus on the love story at its core. He actually offered few details about the city, the landscape, any “foreign” customs, etc., providing only the characters’ names, thereby making the reader comfortable by not drawing attention to the milieu. Kleist’s readers would have felt familiar with his St. Iago, with its traditional cathedral and convent, its nobility and social hierarchy, its familiar (if exaggerated) systems of morality and justice.

Conversely, Gerhard Roth had actually visited Japan before writing Der Plan, had been the beneficiary of guided tours, had even taken photographs of interesting sights to be used as his own visual stimuli and as literary embellishment (as documented in the volume on his novel cycle, both are entitled Orkus).(4) Roth’s host for his 1996 three-week visit to Japan, Walter Ruprechter, remarked that the writer was especially interested in seeing original sights, not the familiar tourist images:

Im Unterschied zu vielen anderen Schriftstellern kam Roth gut vorbereitet und mit der festen Absicht nach Japan, sich nicht nur auf das Land einzulassen, wie man sagt, sondern vom Land auch etwas mitzunehmen…. Es gibt Schriftsteller, die zuerst das Vertraute wiedererkennen wollen und sich nicht genug darüber wundern, dass man in Tokyo Telefone, U-Bahnen und Getränkeautomaten ebenso bedienen kann wie in Europa. Bei Roth schien mir, dass er zunächst allem misstrauen wollte, um sich dem Fremden so weit wie möglich zu öffnen…. Auch wollte er Tokyo nicht zu Wien machen, indem er an jeder Ecke ein Kaffeehaus vermisste oder nach einem Italiener Ausschau hielt.—Im Gegenteil: Roth wollte sofort überall hin, wo es urjapanisch zuzugehen versprach.(5)  

Unlike Kleist, Roth dwells on these cultural differences, so much so that these unique experiences comprise the majority of the novel. The result is that his main character Konrad Feldt—and thus his reader—perceive Japan and its environs as alien, mysterious, exotic, and, yes, inscrutable. Although some of Roth’s readers may have experienced Japan first-hand, or at least been familiar with the country, its customs or history thanks to modern communications and educational opportunities, his protagonist finds the country completely “foreign,” failing to recognize cultural similarities while unable to decipher uniquely Japanese language and script, traditions, artifacts, and distinctly native peculiarities.  Ruprechter attributed Roth’s curiosity to his instincts and nature as an ethnologic Forscher, overlooking the possibility that Roth may have been purposely seeking experiences and sights that would prove perplexing to his main character, as well as to most well-read or well-traveled Europeans.

A comparison reveals that Roth’s homage to Kleist goes beyond a simple mention of the latter’s name: he imitates Kleist’s style and language, his choice of a foreign milieu, and his preoccupation with unfulfilled expectations to show how easily we can be fooled by our perceptions of a complex reality. As both Kleist’s and Roth’s literary works are set in exotic foreign lands, their readers must share the respective protagonists’ disorientation. In Roth’s work, Feldt’s confusion, anxiety, and bewilderment ultimately emulate Kleist’s preoccupation with appearance as opposed to reality, (Schein oder Sein) to determine how much anyone—even an intelligent, educated (Western) reader—can “know” about an unfamiliar reality. Therefore a major similarity between the situations of Roth’s readers and Kleist’s is that they both are made to share the confusion, anxiety, and bewilderment of Jeronimo Rugera and Konrad Feldt respectively. Roth’s reader thus experiences first-hand his protagonist’s seemingly rational plan to acquire wealth and thus a new life, and, like him, will eventually be frustrated as Feldt confuses his false perceptions with existing reality, and his plans are dashed.


Signs and Omens

From the beginning, Feldt adopts his supervisor’s plan, naive though it may have been, to simply exchange the autograph for a large sum of money. When Feldt first comes into possession of the autograph and the contact information for the reputed buyer in Japan, he considers: “Er sah einen Plan und ein Ziel vor seinen Augen, so klar, wie es von Anfang an sein Entschluß gewesen war, eine Stelle in der Nationalbibliothek zu erhalten” (14). Nevertheless, it takes Feldt an entire year of deliberation before he formulates a plan and undertakes the sale of the Mozart autograph: “Fast ein Jahr benötigte Feldt, um den Inhalt des Briefes—das winzige Autograph, die Adresse des japanischen Kunsthändlers Dr. [Daisuke] Hayashi und das Geständnis des Oberaufsehers—so zu verbinden, daß er sich auf die Reise begeben konnte” (16). 

On the plane to Japan, Feldt has initial doubts as to this unaccustomed undertaking, its illegality, and his determination to see it through. He debates whether he shouldn’t simply abort his mission: “Feldt hatte das beschriebene Stückchen Papier in der Flugzeugtoilette schon einmal aus der Kunststoffhülle herausgenommen und in einem Anfall grimmiger Selbstquälerei überlegt, es [das Autograph] in der Klosettmuschel hinuterzuspülen. Er wäre damit sein Problem zwar mit einem Schlag losgeworden, aber die Vorstellung, zurückkehren zu müssen zu seinen alten Verhältnissen, hielt ihn davon ab” (8). A sudden asthma attack triggers first misgivings about his plan and the possibility of failure: “Er durfte jetzt nicht an Dr. Hayashi und an das demütigende, an den Nerven zerrende Warten denken. Er mußte sich sagen, daß er im schlimmsten Fall unverrichteter Dinge zurückfliegen würde—freilich hätte er sich dann vor sich selbst zum Versager gemacht” (36).

From the outset, his Japanese counterpart, the art dealer Hayashi, has the upper hand, controlling contacts, meetings, and negotiations: “Aber schon am nächsten Tag hatte er [Hayashi] sich gemeldet und weitere Verhandlungen unter der Bedingung angeboten, daß die Initiative ihm überlassen bliebe” (20).

To find some explanation for the events he now experiences in Japan, Feldt refers to his favorite books, art works, maps, music, etc., to help him decipher the spoken and written language, the sights and sounds, customs and traditions which prove unfamiliar and ultimately baffling. His only precedent for a journey such as this was a similarly mind-bending excursion he encountered as a university student: an LSD “trip” with its welter of colors and shapes, psychedelic experiences caused by surreal hallucinations and the resulting disorientation. In the midst of such uncertainty, Feldt must, from time to time, reassure himself of his original European reality by physically touching the autograph in his pocket—that, and his copy of the Divine Comedy (an ironic omen, actually considering Dante’s own journey– into Hell!).

Feldt, the avid reader, realizes the difficulty of correctly “reading” the new “signs.”(6) He inevitably grasps at straws to find encouraging indications that he is on the right track or, at least, not being duped; for example, he interprets the sudden absence of his habitual asthma attacks as an indication that his entire life has perhaps changed for the better: “Die Handschrift veränderte Feldts bisheriges Leben: Die Asthmaanfälle hörten zu seiner Überraschung auf…” (17).

The law of succinctness, also known as Occam’s razor, posits that the simplest explanation is often the correct one (the most accurate, truthful, or realistic one)—but Feldt gradually realizes the insufficiency of such a “law”:

Es war klar, daß es Milliarden von Zusammenhängen gab, und die unwahrscheinlichsten waren oft die richtigen, die logischen nicht selten die falschen” (177). Later he ponders in a similar vein: “Aber da war etwas anderes, das ihn mehr beschäftigte: es war der Rebuscharakter seiner Wahrnehmungen. Diese Landschaften vor dem Fenster, waren sie nicht auch Bilderrätsel (191)?

And the recurrence of such puzzling impressions continues to haunt him. Throughout his travels to various sites he notices swarms of black birds: crows, jackdaws, buzzards. Being black, are they “unlucky” as in Europe, or are they possibly (as Feldt hopes) Japanese harbingers of good fortune?

Als Feldt den Kopf hob, sah er einen Bussard hoch oben am blauen Himmel über dem Buddha kreisen. Er ahnte, daß es ein schlechtes Zeichen war. Zumeist überkam ihn eine Intuition schon beim Anblick von Einzelheiten. In der Zusammensetzung der Dinge, ihrer Anordnung und ihrer zufälligen Auswahl war eine geheime Schrift verborgen, die er—vorausgesetzt, daß er nicht betrunken war—hin und wieder lesen konnte. Der Bussard kreiste gelassen über der Statue und den Pilgern. Es war verrückt anzunehmen, irgend etwas geschehe seinetwegen, sagte sich Feldt, trotzdem spürte er, daß es Zusammenhänge gab, die er nicht beweisen konnte. Waren es nicht diese Zusammenhänge, die mehr Einfluß auf sein Handeln hatten, als alle logischen Überlegungen (154)? 

On another occasion he has similar thoughts:

Die Bussarde sind ein schlechtes Omen, dachte er… Vielleicht hatte es etwas zu bedeuten, daß es zwei Bussarde waren, vielleicht neutralisierte der zweite den ersten. Vermutlich war es ein Pärchen… Sein Instinkt sagte ihm, daß er vorsichtig sein mußte… Nachdem er seine Suppe verschlungen hatte, änderte er seinen Plan… (214).

Hoping to gain a footing on this new soil, this terra infirma, he trusts that native interpreters might be better able to provide insight into the meaning of the “signs”: When first meeting the art dealer Dr. Hayashi, the two men purchase fortunes; as Hayashi explains: “Sie haben sho-kichi, mittelmäßiges Glück, aber nicht kichi oder dai-kichi, großes oder sehr großes Glück”…  “Alles liegt im Nebel, im Ungewissen…” (59). Still later, Feldt stumbles on a palmreader: “…[sie] fragte ihn zuletzt, ob er Amerikaner sei… Als Feldt bejahte,…knipste [sie] die Taschenlampe aus und sagte: ‘Danger.’ Dann versank sie in Schweigen”(207). In the face of such uncertainty regarding the various “signs” and omens, one is prompted to pose the question: Can Feldt successfully “plan” when he fails to understand the reality of a given situation? Unspoken doubts now become obvious. Faced with the prospect of failure, it becomes increasingly difficult to formulate any coherent plan: “Feldt überlegte: Das Autograph konnte er, ohne etwas dafür zu bekommen, nicht übergeben. Andererseits hatte er mit Dr. Hayashi nie ausführlich über den Preis gesprochen, aus Angst vor Entdeckung” (47). The best he can do is to delay making a decision: “Er überlegte, ob er Hayashi das Autograph zur Überprüfung vorlegen sollte. Außerdem hatten sie noch keinen Preis vereinbart… Vor allem mußte er herausbekommen, wieviel Dr. Hayashi das Autograph wert war. Er war entschlossen, sich Zeit zu lassen” (55).

Once it becomes apparent that Feldt cannot comprehend the language, the culture or the people of Japan, and that he has little control over the negotiations with an enigmatic counterpart, he basically is left with no viable plan. After an intense drinking bout, when Feldt almost passes out, Hayashi goes through his pockets to find the autograph… and Feldt offers no resistance—his passivity thus also compromises any effective plan. He abruptly fabricates a story for his own protection, insisting he has given a letter to his lawyer in Vienna, to be opened in the event anything happens to him: “’Ich habe bei meinem Rechtsanwalt in Wien einen Brief hinterlegt. Er wird geöffnet, sobald ich als vermißt oder tot gemeldet werde,’ sagte Feldt” (134). This assertion is an impromptu fabrication, not an actual, planned undertaking.

But even this flimsy ploy is rendered useless when Hayashi is murdered by an unknown assailant. With Hayashi’s unexpected demise, Feldt has no buyer for the autograph; his provisional plan at that point must still admit the possibility of returning to Europe (and to his previous existence as a librarian) as a failure:

Die Entscheidung über das Geschäft mit dem Autograph fiel in den nächsten zwei Tagen, und es gab keine Alternative, als zu warten, was geschehen würde. Anschließend mußte er sich davonmachen oder nach Wien zurückkehren—je nachdem, wie die Angelegenheit ausging (242-243).

Here fate—and the earthquake—intervene, providing a conclusion that Feldt could neither have imagined nor planned.

Roth’s ingenious plot places a well-educated European in an unfamiliar environment—the inscrutable language and culture of Japan—where his “plan” for wealth and a new life are challenged: his naive perceptions are totally inadequate to the situation, despite the temptation of liberating wealth and a new way of life. Roth thus mocks the typical cliché about “The best-laid plans of mice and men…,” showing how thin the layer of rational perception is on which we base our hopes and often our lives. To underscore the superficiality of appearances, Roth’s protagonist Feldt is ultimately shot and killed by police due to their mistaken perception that he is a looter; they realize their mistake only after the fact, though they also assume, again falsely, that he was most likely a legitimate businessman. 

Furthermore, Roth creates an Epilogue—ascribed to Feldt’s host, Michael Wallner of the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo—an official report to clarify Feldt’s unexplained demise: “Der Tod und die anschließende Verstümmelung des Beamten der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek Dr. Konrad Feldt geben nach wie vor Rätsel auf” (291). Wallner’s superficial description of Feldt and of Feldt’s mysterious death is far from the detailed events the reader has witnessed first-hand and differs greatly from the reality of his actual intent and experiences; Wallner himself, in spite of living within the Japanese culture, can only report Feldt’s “appearance,” and not the actual experiences Feldt encountered. Thus Wallner’s report is completely inaccurate in attempting to capture the truth of Feldt’s experiences in Japan.



Feldt’s adult life initially corresponded to his own personal “plan,” (to get a degree, to be employed by the Nationalbibliothek, etc.), his behavior prescribed by the literature he consumed. But, as symptomized by his asthma, this intellectual existence was suffocating him; with his 30th birthday five years before, he saw the end of his youth, and now yearns for adventure:

Warum hatte er den Diebstahl begangen? Nicht allein das in Aussicht stehende Geld war es gewesen, sondern mehr noch das zu erwartende Abenteuer, der Fehdehandschuh an die Bücherwelt. Das Leben selbst, sagte er sich, hatte ihn mit einem ungewöhnlichen, einem genialen Schachzug herausgefordert, und nun war er an der Reihe, wenn er sich nicht eines Tages vorwerfen wollte, eine große Chance versäumt zu haben (18).        

In these new and foreign surroundings, Feldt attempts to deal with the disorientation by using his past to interpret the present: books he has read, works of art and music that have impressed him, even experiences such as his LSD trip. But his comparisons are clearly inadequate: he cannot tell whether an even or an odd number of buzzards could be a positive or negative omen in this foreign culture… or whether it is an omen at all! Since he has no feasible plans for the future, he is forced to experience life in the moment, in the sequential present (7) — a new life that he can neither predict nor plan, that he can at best anticipate. Perhaps this is the life he has secretly longed for?          

Indeed, by the end, Feldt is no longer planning, but improvising, as evidenced by his affairs with his interpreter Frau Sato and subsequently with the geisha girl Haru, the fictitious letter to his lawyer in Vienna, and his drunken deal with a Japanese racketeer, culminating in Feldt’s escape with the money and the coveted autograph:

Nicht nur, was er sich vorgenommen hatte, hatte er ausgeführt, er hatte sogar einen kriminellen Geschäftsmann hineingelegt, das machte ihn stolz….” “Was er jetzt dabei war zu tun, hatte er sich nicht vorgenommen, und er gestand es sich auch nicht ein: das Geld und das Autograph mitzunehmen (282).

Feldt’s previous existence as a law-abiding citizen in his native country offered few parallels with his new, impromptu life as a criminal within an incomprehensible foreign culture. The resultant lifestyle is impervious to planning, is at the mercy of others, and is, of necessity, unstructured and spontaneous. It is thus new, his longed-for adventure, and he lives deeply for the first time without suffocation—literally from his asthma, and figuratively from an unlivable existence. He discovers, however, that such a life is precarious, it is not safe, and an untimely death may be the result—something Feldt could not and did not avoid, since it is an intrinsic part of an unplanned, spontaneous, and thus authentic life.



1 Gerhard Roth, Der Plan: Roman (Frankfurt/M.: S. Fischer Verlag, 1998); all subsequent page references within the text are to this edition. 2 Although subsequent adventures occur in nearby locales, Tokyo is Feldt’s first encounter with this new culture, and thus could be considered representative. 3 Heinrich von Kleist, Erzählungen, “Das Erdbeben in Chili” (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964), p. 131. 4 Two additional features of this volume, Gerhard Roth—Orkus: Im Schattenreich der Zeichen, edited by Daniela Barten and Gerhard Melzer,(Wien: Springer-Verlag, 2003), that may be of interest to the reader are: Roth’s preliminary outlines of his Orkus cycle, highlighting characters, locales, symbols, etc., pp. 20-25; and a list of Japanese names (family names and first names) and their meanings, sent to Roth by Tsuneo Sunaga, pp. 130-131. 5 Walter Ruprechter, “Gerhard Roths ‘Feldt’-Forschungen in Japan,” in Barten/Melzer, Gerhard Roth—Orkus: Im Schattenreich der Zeichen, p. 112. 6 For an extensive investigation of the “signs,” see Gerhard Fuchs, “Planspiele der Auflösung: Zu Gerhard Roths Roman Der Plan,” in Barten/Melzer, Gerhard Roth—Orkus: Im Schattenreich der Zeichen, pp. 116-126. 7 Fuchs writes of “einen unstrukturierten, ent- und verrückten Zustand ohne Vergangenheit und Zukunft,” p. 120.


 Inhalt | Table of Contents Nr. 18

For quotation purposes:
Todd C. Hanlin: Terra incognita: Gerhard Roth’s Tokyo –
In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 18/2011.

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