Homo Faber

Homo Faber Summary and Analysis of "Mexico City" to "Venezuela"

In Mexico City, Walter makes an impulsive decision to delay his business trip and accompany Herbert to Guatemala to see Joachim. After an extremely strenuous journey, during which Walter regrets his decision several times, Walter and Herbert reach the town nearest to the plantation. They are still several days' drive from the plantation, but they discover that it seems absolutely impossible to acquire a jeep in order to get there. For several days Walter and Herbert seem completely overcome by this obstacle. They do nothing but lie in hammocks, drink beer, sweat, and take showers. They finally acquire a vehicle after explaining their dilemma to Marcel, a musician from Boston, who is exploring the Mayan ruins on his vacation. Marcel wants to see the ruins in Guatemala, and he arranges to borrow the town's only jeep, a land rover owned by their inn-keeper, for an astronomical rate.

The narrative abruptly transitions to prewar Switzerland, when Hanna and Walter were having a relationship. Walter remembers an incident where he almost had to marry Hanna in order to allow her to stay in the country. He remembers being relieved that it turned out to be unnecessary, but he also remembers deciding that if Hanna were ever going to have to leave the country, he would certainly marry her. Then, Walter was offered a tremendously good job in Baghdad, and at almost the same time, Hanna discovered she was pregnant. While Walter acknowledges that he was not enthusiastic about the news, he believes it was Hanna's decision that they should not get married.

The narrative returns to Walter, Herbert and Marcel. The drive of seventy miles from Palenque to the plantation is extremely difficult due to the complete lack of any road. Zopilotes, carrion birds, hover around them, a constant reminder of the possibility of death. Walter and Marcel argue about whether technology is a positive force in third-world countries. Marcel argues that it destroys the Indian soul; Walter privately thinks that the Mayan ruins are vaguely pathetic, impressive only in their demonstration of the futility of a society without "technology." Finally, Walter accuses Marcel of being a communist, but Marcel denies it. Just as they are about to turn back, having run out of water, they discover the tracks of another vehicle.

When they reach the tobacco plantation, they immediately learn that Joachim is dead. Weeks before, he locked himself in his hut and hanged himself with a wire. The Indians have not disturbed the body. Walter photographs the body; they take him down and bury him. Later, Walter realizes that they should have burned his body, for in the jungle, nothing stays buried. Herbert insists on staying and taking over Joachim's position. Walter and Marcel try to change his mind, but he is obstinate. Before they leave, Walter overhauls Joachim's jeep, so that Herbert will at least have the means of leaving someday.

From a future time, Walter speculates about why Hanna and Joachim married and why Hanna never told Walter she had borne him a child. When Walter had left for Baghdad, he believed that Hanna was going to Joachim to have an abortion.


This section continues exploring the idea of technological omnipotence. Walter suffers both physically and mentally from the lack of contemporary technology on their travels. When the train leaves them in Palenque, Walter feels "as though at the end of the world, or at least the end of civilization. While exploring the Mayan ruins, Walter cannot see the beauty in their hieroglyphs or the wonder of their achievements. He is amused by the fact that Marcel gives up his vacations to examine the relics of a dead civilization. Walter entirely believes that because "they never evolved a technology . . . [they] were there condemned to decline and disappear." Marcel in turn argues that "the technologist was the final guise of the white missionary, industrialization was the last gospel of a dying race and living standards a substitute for a purpose in living."

Frisch is challenging the idea of technological omnipotence, by demonstrating that Walter, who is dependent on technology, is the weakest member of the group when modern technology is removed. Frisch is beginning to suggest that Walter's technology, rather than improving one's experiences of the world, is actually a tool for hiding from experience and for separating oneself from the world. When forced to engage in unmediated experience, Walter is completely overcome.

In Palenque, Walter and Herbert seem suspended in time; they cannot remember why they have come, and when they do, they cannot see any way to overcome the obstacles to action. There are obvious parallels between Walter's and Herbert's stay in Palenque and the Lotus-Eaters episode in Homer's Odyssey. Walter narrates:

For five days we were suspended in Palenque. We were suspended in hammocks, with beer within reach all the time, sweating as though sweating was our purpose in life, incapable of coming to any decision, quite contented actually.... We lay suspended in our hammocks, and drank, so that we could sweat better, and I could think what we really wanted.

Similarly, after Odysseus's crew had partaken of the lotus flowers, they were unable to remember their homes or why they wanted to leave. They thought only of the lotus flowers and of ceasing to strive for anything. Just as Odysseus was able to avoid the lotus flowers and work to return to his homeland, Herbert is able to overcome their ennui and search for his brother. Though Herbert finds it difficult and almost hopeless, if Herbert were in the same state as Walter, Marcel would never have discovered their problem and found a solution for them.

Marcel is Walter's opposite. He admires the Mayans because they saw their life as totally separate from technological achievements--every two hundred fifty years they burned everything they possessed and started over. Sometimes they would abandon their cities, move fifty or a hundred miles, and begin again, solely for religious reasons. It is clearly ironic that Marcel, who is hardly at all dependent on technology, is the only one who is able to acquire the necessary technology for them to continue their journey.

Ancient civilizations including the Mayans and the Greeks are mentioned throughout the novel. Frisch emphasizes the frequent belief in fate and the gods and the reliance on religion to improve people's lives. Walter will be exposed to these ideas repeatedly throughout the novel. Marcel studies art to understand a civilization through his human reaction to that art, while Walter focuses on a different kind of universality, believing (along with UNESCO) that the spread of technology and other forms of concrete knowledge is what will lead to greater understanding.

Though it is not emphasized in this section, this section continues to explore the idea of choice versus fate. Several times Walter determines that he will turn back from the journey. Each time he continues anyway, uncertain of why he is doing so. More and more it seems as if Walter is getting caught up in a path that he cannot escape.

This section also introduces the ideas of guilt and innocence, not in legal terms but in terms of personal morality. Whenever Walter thinks about a possible error in his life, he carefully presents the case, weighs the evidence, and tries to determine whether or not he has done something wrong. In this case, Walter considers whether he had somehow wronged Hanna by not marrying her and staying to be father of her child. Here Frisch once again emphasizes that this narrative is not an objective truth but is rather Walter's account of events. In presenting the facts of his past, Walter has already ruled himself innocent of many negative acts. Though he does seem to wish to reexamine them, without any other perspectives or any new evidence Walter has no choice but to come to the same conclusions at which he originally arrived--notably, he did not marry Hanna, because she did not want to marry him. In his recollection, Hanna must have had an abortion because they both had recognized that it was the best thing to do.