In Dürrenmatt’s The Visit, an aging billionairess returns to the provincial town where she was born and announces to the townsfolk that she will leave them all her money, on one condition. They must kill the man, himself now aging, who deceived her years ago. The townsfolk noisily reject the lady’s proposition as immoral, but it is clear that their lives will never be the same again.
Alongside utopian nightmares like Zamyatin’s or Orwell’s, Dürrenmatt’s tragicomedy belongs to the genre that authoritarians cannot ignore. When they don’t spike it, they turn it round, figuring that so potent a weapon aimed at them will be just as potent when trained on their adversaries. So Orwell, supposedly more frightened of the BBC than he was of the NKVD, has been reclaimed for socialism. So every Russian of my generation remembers the film based on Dürrenmatt’s play, set in a provincial German town.
Yet appealing to people’s basest instincts may not be as simple a proposition as clever Dürrenmatt supposed. I was recently privileged to observe a sequence of tragicomic events straight out of The Visit, and my impression is that it’s quite a difficult job.
One summer morning, Palermo’s three finest hotels—Palme, where Wagner used to stay; Villa Igiea, on the seafront; and the commodious Excelsior—shut...