From a Swiss writer, a parable of stoic resolve; Man in the Holocene, by Max Frisch. Translated by Geoffrey Skelton. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich. $7.95.

It's raining in a mountain valley of the Swiss Alps. The rain goes on day after day, closing down roads and cutting off the village, above which Herr Geiser lives, a widower, retired and alone. There's fear that the rain may cause one of the monumental landslides that have buried other villages in this region in times past.

In enforced isolation, Geiser begins to read, selecting books about the geological history of the region.

He starts copying excerpts from the scientific tracts and encyclopedia entries so as to remember them better. He tacks these bits of paper, this factual miscellany, on the walls of his living room, until the surfaces are completely covered.

Encompassed by facts about the Ice Age, glacial movement, the evolution of dinosaurs and their inexplicable disappearance, Geiser feels safe: It's still raining, but he's not so concerned about the possibility of landslide. "Knowledge is reassuring," he thinks.

Slowly, however, cracks begin to appear in his walls of knowledge. Geiser recognizes the impossibility of systematizing all this information. Where are yesterday's facts? What were yesterday's facts? Geiser doesn't remember. What's more, he's been scissoring entries directly from the books, adn now he stops to consider the backs of those pages; what information has he lost there?

More profound questions occur to him: What does he really want to know? What does he hope to gain from all this knowledge? Geiser has discovered transience in human existence; he's decided that mankind, like the dinosaurs, may be a phenomenon of one discrete age -- the Holocene -- rather than the universe's reason for being.

Concluding all these things rationally, but unable to accept their bearing on his own particular fate, he does his best to deny, forestall, or escape from the decline, death, and reintegration that he suspects are the natural order of things. He tries to flee across the mountains to the world of cities, industry, the youth he's left behind.

In the end, having accomplished the crossing, with Basel in reach, Geiser sits down and considers his left-behind valley. Realizing he has no wish to leave, he goes back to face what the future may hold.

After rejecting human knowledge as a means to salvation, Geiser joins the Greek tragedians in deaths as their inevitable end before they can begin to live with awareness, purpose, and meaning.

"Man in the Holocene" addresses, without either romanticism or despair, the problem of the point of view. Profound, courageous, and stoic in its response, this book will no doubt he considered a masterpiece.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.