Monday, January 15, 2007

The Detective as a Purifying Force

I'm about halfway through this new-ish translation of Crime and Punishment I posted about a couple of days ago, and came to the bit in the middle where Porfiry, the investigator, shows up. I'd forgotten how surprising this scene is--Raskolnikov and his friend Razumikhin go to Porfiry's apartment in order for Raskolnikov to see if he can recover the items he pawned with the murdered pawnbroker (murdered, of course, by Raskolnikov himself). And after telling Raskolnikov that he can indeed recover the items, Porfiry says:

"Your things would not be lost in any event," he went on calmly and coldly, "because I've been sitting here a long time waiting for you."

And a few moments later, he adds, "You are the only one"--that is, of the pawners--"who has not been so good as to pay us a visit."

The overall impression, which both Raskolnikov and the reader takes away from this conversation, is that Porfiry already knows Raskolnikov is the killer, and thus that his role is not to investigate the crime, but to serve as confessor to the criminal. He is the vessel into which the truth is supposed to be poured.

In a sense, every great literary detective is like this. The detective exists to receive the truth, and to know its implications. The possibility that this is so seems to mesmerize Raskolnikov--indeed, he keeps thinking Porfiry is winking at him, but is never entirely sure if this impression is real. The scene recasts Raskolnikov's supposed madness as a kind of spiritual dissonance, a moral imbalance. One thinks of President Bush's deer-in-the-headlights stare during his speech the other night, the gaze of a lunatic being dragged from his bunker into the light of day.


Zoe said...

Today I bought Crime and Punishment and am feeling quite excited about reading it. I had never considered the impact of translation on a text before. Mostly because I read English language texts. Possibly, I shouldn't admit to that. Anyway, I can't wait to read Crime and Punishment, just as soon as I finish The Big Sleep...

Coralie said...

You write very well.