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Imprisoned In A Mysterious Mistaken Identity

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
January 2, 2012

Alex Gilvarry is the author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant.

I was a college student in New York City when security checks became the norm. Being half-Filipino with a Scottish last name, I wasn’t easy to profile. And since I was always carrying a big backpack of textbooks in and out of the subways on my way to class, I came to expect that I would be stopped once or twice each week.

And the fear, which I felt each time I was asked to step aside, was that I would be mistaken for someone else — a suspect out to disrupt the city I’m from and love most of all. There is no book that encapsulates this fear better than I’m Not Stiller, by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, which begins just so.

While traveling through Zurich, our narrator is stopped by the authorities because he closely resembles one Anatol Ludwig Stiller, a somewhat unsuccessful sculptor, husband, lover and all around failure of a man, who disappeared six years earlier. One smack to an official’s ear later, Stiller (presumably) is detained in a very humane Swiss prison until he will admit that he is the missing man.

From the confines of his cell, Stiller reports on his life in detainment with invigorating rage, insisting that he is most definitely not Stiller, but an American named White: a cowboy who has traveled the Mexican desert and beyond, and who isn’t afraid to commit a murder or two when pressed.

As Stiller is confronted by his abandoned ballerina wife, his former mistress, an estranged brother, and a cast of bourgeois sophisticates, the novel intertwines a classic tale of mistaken identity with high comedy and postwar seriousness.

Is Stiller’s testimony of his life the “unvarnished truth” as he claims? Or is his version a last-ditch effort in deception — a denial of an identity he despises? We don’t know, and therein lies the beauty of experiencing I’m Not Stiller. For anyone who likes a narrator served unreliably, you must read this.

Frisch, who first achieved renown in Germany as a dramatist before the publication of Stiller in 1954, never ceases to entertain with his plain, direct style and entrancing digressions. Each scene is unveiled with airtight compression, each exchange spoken with cat-and-mouse-like dialog. And while he probes those daunting existential questions of identity, freedom and morality with sly dramatization, we find ourselves actively piecing together the mystery of a man’s identity with much more delight and humor than any of Frisch’s postwar compatriots like Sartre or Camus.

I first read I’m Not Stiller nearly 10 years ago, just as I was beginning to write my own stories, figuring out my own identity. The novel stuck with me all these years because of the way it resonates with our changed landscape of curtailed freedoms and paranoia. As we anticipate a new postwar era, perhaps reconciling with our own national identity, I can think of no better time to read Frisch’s version of a man trying to flee his own.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Sophie Adelman. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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