Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Die Umwandlung...

[For those of you with some German savvy, you might not only know this word means "commutation" or "transmutation", but also realize it is a play on Kafka's famous story, "Die Verwandlung" (The Metamorphosis).]

A man wakes to find himself in silk sheets, staring up at a fine wood ceiling. He looks around him. His surroundings are immaculate and chic. "What incredible luck," he says to himself, to no one in particular, which might just amount to the same thing. "What unbelievably good fortune," he murmurs, rolling on his side to look at his night table. A silver Rolex lies curled next to his alarm clock as the golden pendulum rotates back and forth under its glass bulb. He tosses his blanket and sheet off him and sits up to look around. He can hardly believe he's here. How long has it been? It all seems so new, and yet so obviously lived in. He walks over to the closet, slowly flips jackets, shirts, slacks from to side, his grin not sure whether to widen or just perch there like a cat burglar poised midstep while a guard passes in the hallway. Suddenly, without thinking about it, he sniffs the air. Leans into the closet and sniffs as deeply as he can. Is that what he smells like? Funny to think about his own smell. Like hearing your voice on a recording for the first time. How odd to meet himself with his nose, he muses. Who knows--whose nose?


This story is about a man who wakes one day to find himself in another man's life. It's not that he is inhabiting his body, so much as everyone he meets reacts to him as if he were. He can see his own hands and feet, hear his own voice, but he is constantly catching up to who he is. For example, whoever it is, apparently, had a slight but noticeable slouch; our man does not. His acquaintances comment on this--sore back? New year's resolution?--so he finds himself constantly bobbing between faking a hunch and just standing erect. He immediately finds he is wealthy, connected, and successful. He has a beautiful fiancee and a stellar apartment. He would try to extricate himself from whatever life he's entered, but at the same time, he realizes, extricating himself from himself would be just as easy. Everything he does, he does as this man. For a time he stifles the cognitive dissonance, but gradually he is morally troubled to be leading (or misleading) another man's life. How did this happen? What happened to the original man? Who is he?

Over the weeks he amasses more and more clues as to his origin (photos, notes, vague memories, etc.), and eventually finds his former neighborhood. It is a much dingier, humbler place than his new life. Unfortunately, however, no one there recognizes him. He is as much a stranger to them as he is to himself. So he goes about asking about himself, looking for his past among people who are inclined to acknowledge that someone by that once lived among them, but can offer only diffident recollections and mildly baffled suggestions. After some time he discovers the woman that was his lover in his past, or at least passed, life. When he confronts her, however, she seems oblivious to who he really is. After enough encounters, however, he begins to sense she is feigning ignorance, and eventually she admits to being the only person who recognizes him.

Meanwhile, of course, he is living his other posh life. He comes to see that while, from the outside, it is a superior, even "great," life; but he can't live such a lie. This "existential schizophrenia" leads to much turmoil in his posh life: business failures, turmoil with his fiancee, mental anguish, etc. He is caught: the more damage he causes in his new life, the more damage he causes the man he is being taken for; and yet the more damage he causes, the more leverage he has for breaking away back into his old life. Finally, he ruins most of what he has and flees back to his "home life"--only to find of course that there is no place for him. His beloved has a new lover, someone chillingly reminiscent of himself, and he is only taken for a madman by others there. Having two lives amounts to having no life; dwelling in two worlds robs him of any dwelling in either. Once more, from the outside, he longs to enjoy the fruit of his new life; he fully recognizes how fortunate he is, and yet he can never find his place there.


This is a sort of allegory, about how decisions look to us from an objective perspective versus how they feel as the very fabric of our lives. It also examines the damage we can do to others by living too much in our past, or based too much on who we thought we should have been, or, indeed. Just as much, it explores the damage we can do to ourselves by trying to live up to a false pattern for ourselves. The story is driven by the anguish a man feels when he steps back from his own life, consults with friends, reflects on human life in general, sizes his lot up in comparison, and recognizes that "such a man" would be a lucky man--and yet is agonzied that he cannot bring himself to be that lucky man. It is a surrealistic combination drawing, in various ways, upon Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, Christopher Nolan's Memento, Kafka's Die Verwandlung, Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (à la Philip K. Dick), Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (à la Philip K. Dick), the Wachowskis' Matrix, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, Alex Proyas's Dark City, and Peter Jackson's The Truman Show, among other influences.

I still am not sure how to account for this man's "Umwandlung" into another man's life. I believe it will involve a dark conspiracy to rub out his surrogate, who was perhaps an important economic or political figure--in which case the protagonist himself will be killed once 'his' enemies realize he is still alive. Or perhaps it is just an elaborate prince-and-pauper set-up for some other purpose. I think it might even be better that the protagonist ultimately finds his surrogate, now inhabiting his former world, and kills him in order to occupy that man's new place in what was once the protagonist's own world. (His surrogate is just as unable to return to his life as the protagonist is; he is taken for someone else entirely.) Thus, the protagonist can at least live his own anonymous life, unknown by others, but known to himself.

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