The book opens with Fortunas Hauberrisser entering a shop to escape the crowds. The sign on the shop says ‘Chidher Green’s Hall of Riddles’. The shop sells a mixture of practical jokes, occult material and pornographic material. Hauberrisser is followed into the shop by a Zulu carrying a spear and who is known by the staff. Both the Zulu and Hauberrisser are allowed to enter the back of the shop where there are other customers and staff. One of the staff members appears to be an old Jewish man who is making entries into a ledger—his face is in shadows. Hauberrisser makes himself comfortable and after a while starts to nod off. He awakes to see the Jewish man before him:
…the face before him was like nothing he had ever seen before. It was smooth, with a black strip of cloth tied over its forehead, and yet it was deeply furrowed, like the sea, that can have tall waves but not a wrinkle on the surface. The eyes were like dark chasms and yet they were the eyes of a human being and not empty sockets. The skin was a greenish olive colour and looked as if it were made of bronze…
The man speaks cryptically which confuses Hauberrisser. A salesgirl takes advantage of his confusion to sell him a papier mache skull that tells fortunes. Before leaving he glances round at the Jewish man to see he is seated as he was when he entered.
We are subsequently faced with a whole number of strange characters with strange names; such as Baron Pfeill, Professor Arpád Zitter (a.k.a Count Ciechonski), Anselm Klinkherbogk the cobbler, Eva van Druysen, Dr Sephardi, Lazarus Egyolk, Usibepu the Zulu, Jan Swammerdam and more. After conversing with his friend, Baron Pfeil, Hauberrisser finds out that the ‘Wandering Jew’ is also known as Chidher Green, ‘the Green One’. When Hauberrisser returns home and goes to bed some previously concealed documents fall on to him. When he looks at these documents he keeps seeing the name ‘Chidher Green’. When he returns to the shop to see if he can find the Jewish man he finds that no-one knows him and that the shop is called ‘Arpád Zitter’s Hall of Riddles’. Intrigued with Hauberrisser’s experiences with the Green Face Baron Pfeill enquires with Dr Sephardi about the connection between the Wandering Jew and Chidher Green. When he had been talking to Hauberrisser he had recalled seeing a painting of this Chidher Green but now, in conversation with Sepahardi he is unsure whether it was a painting, a dream or a vision. They then end up going to a ‘spiritual circle’ headed by the elderly Jan Swammerdam where things begin to get increasingly bizarre. The group are invited, by Klinkherbogk’s granddaughter Kaatje, to attend Klinkherbogk’s ‘second birth’ in the room above. He believes that he is Abraham reborn and as the evening progresses ends up in a trance. In this state Klinkherbogk sees the green-gold face of a man take up the whole sky. When he regains consciousness all the others have left and he discovers that he has stabbed his granddaughter in the heart. If that’s not enough, when Klinkherbogk turns towards the window, still half-ecstatic from his vision, he sees the Zulu Usibepu who comes in, kills Klinkherbogk and leaves with his money.
Trying to make sense of this crazy novel is probably a waste of time; instead I think the reader should just enjoy the general weirdness of it all. It’s like trying to follow one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s more madcap stories where any attempt to work out what’s happening just ties oneself in knots. This novel is populated by people seeking all sorts of spiritual help from wherever they can find it. That most of these attempts end in failure and death probably says something about the time in which it was written.
One of my favourite scenes from this novel is in chapter eight when Eva, Hauberrisser’s beloved, is walking through the city at night, and as she walks there are fewer people about and the sense of malevolence begins to grow:
The very earth gave off a dark malevolence which was directed against her; the icy, pitiless fury of nature towards any man who tries to cast off the bonds of his servitude.
She comes across the Zulu in a sort of trance. She ‘felt that it was from him that the demonic power emanated’. The Zulu comes around and tries to abduct Eva. Eva screams and they are chased by a crowd from a local tavern. As some of the attackers are in reach of the Zulu, Eva manages to get clear. They’re in a churchyard and she’s watching the Zulu protect himself against his assailants:
Then, for a sudden moment, she thought she must have gone mad, for there, in the middle of the garden, with a calm smile on her face, stood her own double.
The negro must have seen it as well; he halted in astonishment and then went over to it. She thought she could hear him talking to the apparition; she could not understand what was said, but his voice suddenly changed to that of a man paralysed by horror and hardly able to stammer a few words.
Still, he regains his composure as the image fades, and makes his escape. Eva goes missing and events get even stranger from here on.
This novel has a suitably surreal, cataclysmic ending. I’ve re-read parts of it since and realised that there were so many bits that I missed on my first reading that I may have to schedule in a second reading soon. I think I’ve concentrated on some of the more horrific episodes but there is also a lot of humour in this book. Have you read anything by Meyrink? The Golem perhaps?