The Grey Man
On second thought, it is not just the atmosphere of terror in the ship that makes Jahnn’s book so interesting – it is also George Lauffer. He is what Jahnn fabulously calls “the supercargo” alongside his sealed coffin-shaped secret cargo of many crates, which the seamen imagine may be filled with living or dead female flesh.
In all the existential/metaphysical readings of the book -and I can entirely see why the book would be seen as an existential parable- I haven’t seen anyone refer to what makes Lauffer by far the most interesting figure in the book (perhaps to me because of my peculiar fascination with bureaucracies): he is the ultimate archetypal government agent, the kind of bureaucrat that Max Weber was so good at writing about, but so much more. He is authoritative and sometimes authoritarian. He knows what goes on in the ship because he has microphones everywhere (the Panoptican!). He surveilles, monitors, eavesdrops. He tries to control the captain, the ship, the stowaway, the seamen, through a politics of fear and suspicion. He is “the grey man” who is at once everywhere and nowhere.
And yet, what makes him so interesting is that he is sometimes vulnerable, terrified, powerless, desperate to please, desperate for love and respect, full of loneliness and rage. He is indecisive sometimes; weepy sometimes. As mysterious and strange as he is, as terrifying a figure of authority, he is also strangely compelling, in ways that the green and arrogant Gustave isn’t, can’t be.