9 April,1987
Monte Cristo Falls among Financial Sharks
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-freak’s 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 wasp’s. 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 Dantes today?

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 anybody’s 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 Mark’s 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 father’s 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 the treasures.

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 courts.

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 Vizinczey’s sarcastic descriptions of New York attorneys and the administration of justice in New York City reflect the author’s 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 bourgeois.

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 sheep’s 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 them.

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 Mark’s 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 gangster’s 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 hero’s 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 – Mark’s 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 don’t 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 a filming.

In the end there is one. Mark’s 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 Mark’s: he films The Count of Monte Cristo.

By Wolfram Knorr