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Perutz, Leo

Entry updated 16 January 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1882-1957) Austrian playwright and author, active from around 1905, in active service during most of World War One, being wounded more than once but continuing to write; he emigrated to Palestine [now Israel] in 1938 after the Anschluss. Most of his novels are baroque phantasmagorias, irradiated by parodic transformations of popular genres, including sf. His work, much of which has now been translated into English, has been compared by German critics to that of E T A Hoffmann, and his fellow German-speaking Czech Jew, his almost exact contemporary, Franz Kafka; and certainly his early work is as nightmarish as Gustav Meyrink's. Over and above other similarities of tone and witting (or unwitting) transgressiveness against the norms of literature, Perutz's work resembles its companions in the sense it conveys – and sometimes mocks through over-exaggerated plotting – that every story is a curse its protagonist must obey. His first novel, Die dritte Kugel ["The Third Bullet"] (1915), is an historical fantasy set mostly in sixteenth century Mexico, where an exiled German mercenary takes the side of the Aztecs against the Spanish (see Imperialism), but is not much helped by a Pact with the Devil; in Das Mangobaumwunder: Eine Unglaubwuerdige Geschichte ["'The Mango Tree Miracle: An Implausible Story"] (1916; trans anon March-May 1933 Argosy as "The Miracle of the Mango") with Paul Frank, a comatose wizard must be awoken to free his employer from ageing alongside a magical but short-lived mango tree; and Zwischen Neun und Neun (1918; trans Lily Lore as From Nine to Nine 1926) is an elaborately nightmarish Posthumous Fantasy [for this term and Pacts with the Devil above see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] whose protagonist cannot escape the handcuffs that mark his death. Further non-sf examples of Fantastika include Der Marques de Bolibar (1920; trans Graham Rawson as The Marquis de Bolibar 1926; new trans John Brownjohn, vt The Marquis of Bolibar 1989), in which the Wandering Jew and the spirit of the eponymous marquis defeat a German regiment fighting for Napoleon, and Die Geburt des Antichrist ["The Birth of the Antichrist"] (1921). Later works of interest include Der schwedische Reiter (1936; trans John Brownjohn as The Swedish Cavalier 1992), a tale of Identity Exchange hovering at the edge of the fantastic; Nachts unter der steinemen Brücke: Ein Roman aus dem alten Prag (coll of linked stories 1953; trans Eric Mosbacher as By Night Under the Stone Bridge 1989), in which Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (1512-1609) (see Golem), attempting to save his people from persecution, inadvertently brings down a curse upon the Jews of Prague; and Der Judas des Leonardo (1959; trans Erich Mosbacher as Leonardo's Judas 1989), in which Leonardo da Vinci uncannily chooses to depict as Judas, in The Last Supper, a contemporary whose treachery was unknown to him.

Of more direct sf interest are Der Meister des Jüngsten Tages (1923; trans Hedwig Singer as The Master of the Day of Judgment 1929; with added intro 1930), where it is suggested that an ancient hallucinogenic Drug is in fact a Basilisk that, when breathed by men of ambition, will so terrifyingly expose their true nature that they will commit Suicide; and St Petri-Schnee (1933; trans E B G Stamper and F M Hodson as The Virgin's Brand 1934; new trans Eric Mosbacher as Saint Peter's Snow 1990), which similarly depends upon a sense that human civilization is a fragile contrivance. The eponymous wheat fungus at the centre of this tale has been, from time immemorial, responsible for periodically spreading a virus which induces faith in humans (see Biology; Religion). In 1932, after long dormancy, the virus has been deliberately reinjected into European wheat strains in order to revitalize Christianity, but the religious impulse in humans turns always to what feeds the addiction, and the deity waiting to be invoked by this Pandemic turns out not to be God but Moloch. So forthright a fable for the times (see Horror in SF) could not have gone without notice by the Nazi regime, and the novel, which had been published in Germany, was immediately suppressed; fortunately Perutz himself, having escaped to Palestine (via Venice) in 1938, could not be rounded up and murdered. His opposition to the expulsion of Arabs from the new state of Israel at the end of the 1940s deepened the isolation of his final years. [JC]

see also: Austria; Gods and Demons.

Leopold Perutz

born Prague, Austro-Hungarian Empire [now Czech Republic]: 2 November 1882

died Bad Ischl, Austria: 25 August 1957



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