DIE WELTWOCHE Zürich
Monte Cristo Falls among Financial
By Wolfram Knorr, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart
Der unschuldige Millionär
Novel, by Stephen Vizinczey
And then, at last, there are the passages which prompt the adventure-freaks
pulse beat faster and make his eyes fill with tears, in spite of
himself. Edmond Dantès, after fifteen years in prison for
a crime he did not commit, comes back to fashionable bourgeois society
and, as a remorseless god of vengeance, cleanses the Augean stables
of treachery, denunciations, corruption and ruthless greed.
Time passes, but The Count of Monte Cristo is still with
us. Alexandre Dumas novel, written in 1884-85, is the classic
of all adventure epics about love, magnanimity and pitiless retribution
in picturesque settings - on islands, on the sea, in fashionable
bankers clubs and in the salons of the aristocracy. It stands
alone no other adventure novel has such a great and faithful
following. For the special, extraordinary charm of Monte Cristo
lies in its historical setting: on the threshold of the industrial
age, the hero Dantès is no longer a figure from mediaeval
romance who distinguishes himself exclusively through aristocratic
and spiritual superiority, but the bourgeois type of liberal society.
He attains his superiority through pecuniary means.
The exultant feelings of power which Dumas gives above all to all
his young readers as they identify with his hero Edmond Dantès,
yield to gentle irony when one takes up the book again at a somewhat
riper age. How, one asks with a smile, did Dantès manage
to convert the fabulous treasure of Monte Cristo into hard cash
without incurring financial losses? How could he possibly preserve
his anonymity during this processing of such a huge treasure, and
how was he able to concentrate singly and solely upon his great
revenge, without bothering about the details of the financial transactions?
The Monte Cristo fan naturally knows every filming of the material
and understands very well that this very side of the story
because it is presumably the driest and most boring part
will be elegantly omitted. Edmond Dantès, the helmsman, who
returns to Marseille after a long sea voyage to marry his beloved
Mercédès at last, has a biography shaped like an insect.
The middle part of his career is paper-thin like a wasps.
Between the long years of humiliating imprisonment and the joyful
revenge there is nothing but the finding of the treasure.
But Dumas demonstrates that even an ordinary bourgeois could grow
into an outstanding aristocratic personality if only he has the
will, the strength and assertiveness to do it. At that time, at
the beginning of industrialisation and bold advances in thought,
that was entirely legitimate. But what would happen to an Edmond
A soul-brother of this hero is young Mark Niven, American by birth
and the son of an actor. From earliest childhood Mark has lived
in cheap hotel rooms and pensioni; he has known poverty, hunger
and quarrels between his parents, and therefore he has quickly learned
what you need to be able to lead a happy, well-balanced and unfettered
life in this world: wealth, money.
Already at the age of 14 he is writing these two sentences in
his diary: Men are not brothers but strangers, and no one
is interested in anybodys story. People just do not give a
damn about each other. Mark knows whereof he speaks with such
precocious bitterness. He is the witness of numerous humiliations
that confront his father in the hunt for engagements, whether in
the film or the theatre business.
The family is always on the move: in Spain, Italy, France, England.
They struggle through life and suffer privations until one day Marks
mother leaves them, and marries a prosperous Dutchman. The father,
following scarce acting parts, goes to and fro in Europe with his
son in toe, forever changing apartments and schools for Mark. The
boy becomes embittered, cuts himself off and burns inside, desperate
for his fathers success.
Mark escapes into an emotional dream-world
One day while reading an old book Mark learns about a 14-ton brig
crammed with gold and treasure which sank off the Bahamas in the
early 19th century and has never been found; there has never even
been a search for it. For the adolescent Mark this becomes an idée
fixe: he will raise the Flora and become a millionaire by selling
While in the US and Europe students are taking to the streets to
protest against the Vietnam War, Mark succeeds in getting a post
as an interpreter in a luxury hotel on the Bahamian millionaires
island of Santa Catalina. There he buys himself a boat and searches
relentlessly for the sunken ship until one day he finds it.
People warn him about the sharks, with which he has in fact an unpleasant
encounter, but no one informs him that once he has raised the treasure
he will have to deal with real sharks in human shape who will tear
him to pieces according to all the rules of bloody gluttony
and greed of our wonderful civilisation.
Der unschuldige Millionär is the title of this contemporary
and bitterly angry adventure novel by an author unknown in this
country up to now: StephenVizinczey. Born in 1933 in Hungary, he
was accepted at the age of 16 by Georg Lukács as a member
of his Institute of Aesthetic Studies. As a student in the Academy
of Theatre and Film arts he wrote stage plays, three of which were
banned by the communist regime, and later fought in the streets
of Budapest in the revolution of 1956, after which he fled to the
West. He settled first in Canada, where he learned English while
working on film scripts, and in 1966 he published his own novel,
In Praise of Older Women, which became a success but also
brought its author some trouble: he had to wage a seven-year lawsuit
to gain back his rights to In Praise of Older Women in the New York
This new experience in the West was what inspired his second novel,
An Innocent Millionaire, a social-psychological and economic
tour de force about the world of free enterprise. Its underlings,
functionaries, bigwigs and profiteers are the ones who bring Mark
down and cut him up like cannibals. At all events Vizinczeys
sarcastic descriptions of New York attorneys and the administration
of justice in New York City reflect the authors own experiences.
Vizinczey has written a kind of Count of Monte Cristo in
reverse. What interests him is the wasp waist which
Dumas leaves out and what follows when the hero, as anything but
an all-powerful rich man, ends up with his gold treasure in the
mincer of the business machine. With his Mark Niven, Vizinczey has
stood Edmond Dantès on his head. He demonstrates that the
self-denying, stubborn work of a self-made man is anything but respected
by modern society. Dantès great revenge proves to be
noise and delusion, the omnipotence of the inexperienced, frustrated
Mark Niven is confronted with the reality of this dream. Even before
he has raised his treasure, the financial sharks are swimming over
him in search of the loot. The Bahamian government levies a monstrously
excessive tax on the treasures; attorneys foist their help on him
without being asked; bankers want their profit; but the real wolf
in sheeps clothing is a New York art dealer who with his shit-friendly
bonhomie manages to win the trust of this otherwise so mistrustful
young man, takes the treasures to New York and cold-bloodedly keeps
Mark turns into a Michael Kohlhaas who fights for his dream, his
years of work, his personal, solitary achievement, before the bar
of the American courts. Of course without success: in the jungle
of the law, crooked lawyers have the last word. Niven returns to
the Bahamas a broken man.
The passages about the legal battle are the high point of this
fascinating, moving and brilliant novel. There are as many
laws, says Marks lawyer (who in the end cleans him out)
as there are judges. The law is what the judge says is the
law, and that judge could be anybody. Anybody. You should think
of this town as Chicago during Prohibition. That was before your
time, it was even before my time, but you can read about it. Did
you know that justices of the Illinois courts used to act as pallbearers
at gangsters funerals? Of course today no judge would carry
a gangsters coffin because he would be seen on TV, and the
money to buy immunity comes from drugs not liquor, but the rest
is the same.
In Der unschuldige Millionär no ego is inspected,
no navel is gazed upon, no precious-complicated soul demands our
sympathy; instead, what is at stake is money, debit and credit
in the end, the heros ability to pay. The story is not storytelling,
which in the German sphere is oh-so questionable, but the quick
and clever undoing of a young man who has been taken in by the siren
calls of liberalism and the success ethic of capitalist competition
and even now believes in its pious maxims.
However, Vizinczey is to good a storyteller to forget the emotional
dimension of the struggle for profit: Like Edmond Dantès
with Mercédès, Mark Niven has a great, only half-fulfilled
love: the wife of a chemical manufacturer who unscrupulously teams
up with the mafia to get easy permanent storage for
his toxic wastes. This vain peacock, who is heartily bored with
his wife, suffers impotence anxiety when he learns of her love affair
with the romantic treasure hunter. He wants to have him liquidated,
which in the end after Mark finally gets back his treasures
with the help of his influential beloved he marvellously
succeeds in doing.
The bitterly angry narrator steps outside the story time and again
as he heand leads the reader through the Sartrean hell of our civilisation,
but the fiendishly clever thing about Vizinczey is that the bitter
angry comments are fused with a calmly detached but realistic view
of things: in spite of melodramatic turns, there are no real villains,
no black-and-white portrayals.
All the characters are gentlemen, extremely likeable; they preserve
the form, the outward appearances, the little matter-of-course details
of know-how and savoir-vivre. A few Marks father, a
girlfriend even mean well and push him deeper and deeper
into trouble with their bits of advice. Advice, chance meetings,
coincidences generate only devastating misunderstandings. Lawyers
have costly carpets and paintings in their offices not only to signal
their good taste, seriousness and education, but also to intimidate:
after all, nobody is compelled to be their client. When the lawyer
works out with the legal representative of the other party an underhand
solution that is favourable to them both, the client will just have
to submit to it and pay.
The author presents extravagantly satirical details by the way;
his language is terse, precise and often of a compelling imaginative
power which you might almost call cinematic. In his subversive elegance
Vizinczey is altogether comparable to Balzac. An old-fashioned storyteller?
Not in the least. Rather, one who is not afraid to turn the adventure
novel to social criticism, to give new life to the old virtues of
storytelling. I believe in invisible writing, he confesses.
You only write really well when people dont notice it.
A saying that reminds one also of the old Hollywood pros such as
Howard Hawks, who said once that the camera has to be at eye-level:
people should not feel its presence. This novel cries out for such
In the end there is one. Marks father, having climbed the
success ladder more calmly and patiently than his son, who is obsessed
and thereby condemned to failure, fulfils at the end an old dream
of Marks: he films The Count of Monte Cristo.
By Wolfram Knorr