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 their doors and announced there were no vacancies, something that had not happened here since either the Florio wedding or World War I, depending on whom you talk to in the vegetable market.
The rumor that turned out to be true was that the Sultan of Oman, His Majesty Qaboos bin Said al-Said, was coming to town. “Palermo Ready for Sultan’s Visit” was the headline.
The sultan came with an entourage of a thousand, some of whom would make do with the 190 rooms and suites reserved for them in the hotels, while others, including the sultan himself and his national symphony orchestra—show me a man who leaves home without an orchestra, and I will show you a Western neurotic weakling—would lodge aboard two yachts docked in the harbor. His Majesty had flown in on his Boeing 747 and was transferred to the royal yacht, which at 155 meters “made the Armani boat,” gloated our editorialists, “look like a rubber ducky.” No flimflam artist this sultan of ours, in other words.
Alongside the royal yacht was moored a “support yacht” of 136 meters. “The Sultan’s party,” thrilled one newspaper, “have occupied an entire wharf, where two limousines and 24 bullet-proof Mercedes Benz cars are ready to shuttle Qaboos bin Said and his guests wherever they fancy.” The hotels had been instructed to remove alcohol from the minibars and to indicate the direction of Mecca on the ceilings. Women were not in the royal party, and our city fathers had been warned against attempts to insinuate them into official functions.
So the wives were as cheesed off as the publicans. Despite this little contretemps, a “prominent astrologer” by the name of Bonomi came forward to “predict a bright future for one of the richest men in the world.” The astrologer told the Adnkronos press agency that the sultan “was lucky not simply because he was born into a life of privilege. He would have succeeded even if he had been from a lower class.” I wondered if Bonomi ever worked for the CIA. His style of political analysis reminded me of something I’d seen in the Congressional Record.
The symphony orchestra turned out to be a canard, started because the sultan had brought them along on an earlier visit to Bari. Only the military band of the Royal Guard was actually on board, as was revealed later in the day when its 52 members mounted the steps of Teatro Massimo and let fly with Funiculì, funiculà. Palermo has no funicular, but it is just as used to panhandlers, cripples, buskers, and odd street scenes of every kind; so that gesture of good will was received by the local populace with forbearance. But the city fathers were beginning to feel uneasy.
In Bari, “the 68-year-old sultan showered local officials with numerous gold watches.” Logically enough, now that he was in Palermo, “local officials and businessman were hoping”—can anybody guess what they were hoping?—“that he would be interested in investing some of his country’s wealth in Sicily.” And then the news leaked that a paltry hundred-thousand euros had been spent at the local jewelers on watches. Now word went round that the gala dinner aboard the royal yacht—no women, no wine, no pasta—was “egregious crap.”
Gifts were distributed. The Bellini Conservatory got a million euros; 2.5 million went to a children’s hospital. “Kids? Fiddles?” wondered the city fathers. “Where do the people come into this?” As for the sultan himself, nobody ever got to meet him. He never once left his yacht, “comfortably watching videos of local attractions and historic sites,” according to news reports. “Bedda matri!” one city father was overheard exclaiming, “If I had that kind of money, at least I’d be watching porn!”
If you are out to corrupt the corrupt, a bribe here and a fiddle there just won’t cut the mustard. The Dürrenmatt scam looks good on paper, but I bet you that billionairess of his had to be really energetic to pull it off. As she probably was. Heck, she was German.