Mr. Theodore Mundstock (Pan Theodor Mundstock)
MR. THEODORE MUNDSTOCK (Pan Theodor Mundstock)
Novel by Ladislav Fuks, 1963
In a world that offers little hope but much fear, Ladislav Fuks blends comedy and tragedy in his novel Mr. Theodore Mundstock, published in Czech as Pan Theodor Mundstock in 1963 and in English translation in 1968. Mundstock is a man who, until he reads the letters of his friends and neighbors, has given very little thought to the fact that the transport of Jews is taking place. Like everyone else, he follows the orders he is given, and, being a man who is alone except for a pet pidgeon and his own shadow to talk to, he has never communicated any clear opinion on the transports. It is not until he visits his friends the Sterns and in a night vision observes the struggles of his friend Mr. Vorfahren while being transported that he comes up with an idea that is so unbelievable it just might work. From the Sterns, Mundstock learns that people are hiding property and giving valuables to friends for safekeeping. Hope has existed in the Stern family that the war may be over in the spring, but as the spring passes, their hopes begin to fizzle, and resignation to a terrible fate begins to drive them crazy. When Mr. Vorfahren is called to be transported, it is the last straw for Mundstock. He begins to formulate his "road to salvation," and he thus creates a master plan, a "ME-THOD" of survival. It is "the way out of the Jewish history of suffering. The secret of salvation. It was the happiest day of his life."
In his vision he sees the troubles Mr. Vorfahren has heaving a suitcase that is too unwieldy and from having to sleep on a bed that is much too hard. The road to salvation, Mundstock concludes, rests upon one's preparation for the hardships of life in a concentration camp. A person must prepare for his fate and get used to things that are very different from current existence. One must also harden oneself to the fact that mistreatment and starvation will be part of the process. But these situations can be overcome, he believes. It is at this moment that intense happiness envelops Mundstock, for the formulation of his plan has not only given him hope for survival, but it also keeps his mind on the preparation instead of the transport to the concentration camps.
Although one might think that there is nothing comical about preparation for transport, Fuks has developed a character who is gifted with incredible foresight and keen powers of observation as well as a creative imagination. Mundstock begins to practice carrying a heavy suitcase, even counting the number of steps he must take before he changes hands. He uses an ironing board as a plank bed to get used to concentration camp life. He even envisions getting beaten by a Nazi and losing his teeth so that the soldier will feel that the beating has produced a result and cease. Mundstock surmises that this situation must also be practiced, for he has had little experience with anger and violent behavior. While he is at a kindly butcher's shop, he antagonizes the butcher and calculates the precise time at which he must spit out his false teeth.
Several letters appear throughout the novel and propel the story forward. The reader learns of the misery and the fear within the minds of Mundstock's friend Ruth Kraus and his friends the Sterns. "We have been flung into a terrible Hell," Kraus writes. In addition, the reader is privy to Mundstock's thoughts and actions throughout the novel. "What was so bad about being born under the Star of David?" he wonders. This thought indeed drives him to perfect his plan. In fact, Mundstock's preparation, as comical as it appears to be, develops a real purpose, and the reader finds himself cheering Mundstock on when he concocts another ME-THOD of overcoming the fate the Nazis have in store for him. His efforts are certainly valiant. In her last letter Mrs. Stern announces that the entire family, except for Simon, the young son, will be transported. It is his love for this young boy that will drive Mundstock to his death, for when they are both summoned for transport, Mundstock spots Simon on the platform and calls his name. Although Mundstock has meticulously prepared himself and Simon for transport and for survival in the camps, he neglects to take care in the street and is struck dead by a military transport.
One cannot help but feel psychologically drained by the entire endeavor undertaken by Mundstock. His comically detailed preparation and his fervent hope for salvation are undermined by fate, not in the form of his prediction of the hardships of the concentration camps but in the very unpredictable nature of life itself.
—Cynthia A. Klíma