A poverty-stricken, teetotaling, vegetarian religious zealot living in an unnamed central European country—a man of Greek heritage who also happens, in middle age, to be a virgin—places a personals ad seeking a marriage partner. The woman who answers the ad falls in love with him (we can’t at first imagine why), as he with her (this we can easily imagine), and from that point on his fortunes abruptly and radically change for the better. Like all people who have suffered a lifetime of misfortune, Arnolph Archilochos distrusts his good luck, suspecting (correctly) that it’s not what it seems to be. When the truth of things is revealed, the shallow foundations of his life collapse, but that painful collapse reveals yet another, underlying reality—one he is free to embrace or reject. Here is the advice he receives, from his country’s president yet, when Archilochos confesses his feeling that life itself is a sham.
“A grace has been conferred upon you,” the old statesman [said to Archilochos]. “There are two possible reasons for this grace, and it depends upon you which of them is the valid one: love, if you believe in that love, or evil, if you do not believe in that love. Love is a miracle that is eternally possible; evil is a fact that is eternally present. Justice condemns evil, hope longs to reform it, and love overlooks it. Only love is capable of accepting grace as it is. There is nothing more difficult, I know. The world is terrible and meaningless. The hope of finding a meaning behind all the meaninglessness, behind all the terror, can be preserved only by those who nevertheless can love.”
The tone of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel, Once a Greek…, so reminiscent of Candide and the plays of Ionesco, is fundamentally funnier, more humane, and finally uplifting in an existentialist/absurdist way. I highly recommend it, if you’re lucky enough to find a copy!