The Persians Are Coming is a short novel set in Italy and on the French Riviera–something of an allegory about the death of liberalism and humanism and the rise of fascism. It starts with a German liberal politician taking leave of his favorite holiday spot in Italy–a place of classical beauty now being taken over by the blackshirts. Expecting to return to Germany and take a high office in a new government, he stops along the Riviera to meet a like-minded French politician, and the two have a dialogue about the possibility of redemption through the simple goodness of ordinary folk (c.f. 1984: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles”).
In Marseilles on his way to Berlin, however, he finds his world unravelling with increasing speed. He sees newspapers announcing the collapse of his government and thinks he hears his name being whispered all around him. As the sun sets and the streets darken, his walk takes him from the modern streets into a nightmarish quarter full of Arabs, thieves, addicts and prostitutes. He leaves the light of the Marseilles founded by the ancient Greeks and descends into an Eastern world of sex, drugs and violence–violence that ultimately claims him. This final passage has more than a few reminders of Mann’s Death in Venice and the child sacrifice scene in The Magic Mountain.
Translated, coincidentally, by Mann’s regular English translator, the ham-fisted H. T. Lowe-Porter. But despite that, there is some elegance in the prose, and the story is profoundly sad, aside from the lurid ending. What’s interesting is that it was published in 1928, when Nazism was still just one of a number of competing ideologies, and yet Frank seems already to have conceded the defeat of liberal democracy.