Dark exploration of lust and exploitation

2009-02-11 00:00

Tangibly, very little happens in the 340 pages of Greed, the most recent work by Austrian writer and Nobel Laureate (2004), Elfriede Jelinek. In a slew of words — rambling, circulatory, parenthetical, digressive — Jelinek reveals the character of her protagonist, Kurt Janisch, a thoroughly unpleasant, unscrupulous, predatory individual whose greed for real estate drives him to ensnare and exploit vulnerable women. Janisch (54), a country policeman in a small town in southern Austria, is a married man with an almost invisible wife and a married son who has inherited his father’s propensity for lusting after property, to the extent that Jelinek refers to them as if they are a business, Housegrab and Son.

Although one is led to believe that Kurt Janisch’s manipulative treatment of needy women is a common practice, one is privy, in Greed, to only one such exercise, the victim of which is subjected to considerable (graphic) sexual and psychological abuse. Synchronously (at least for a time), Janisch is having an affair with an elusive 16-year-old who ends up in a green tarpaulin in the local man-made lake, itself notable for its corpse-like qualities (its temperature, disposition and failure to nurture fish).

While Jelinek is obviously concerned about the abuse and exploitation of women, she also raises issues about the exploited themselves, women (and girls) whose need for attention and adventure erodes their capacity for rational thought and action, and blinds them to the reality of the relationships they so recklessly and relentlessly pursue.

While her subject matter is dark and disturbing, her sentences sprawling, and her dense paragraphs lengthy (a single paragraph sometimes stretching over several pages), Jelinek’s tone is often shockingly comic. Commenting, for example, on three female victims who have been shot in their faces, she concludes, “but they didn’t need their faces after that anyway”. Characterised as it is by a fragmented, unchronological narrative with switches in stream-of-consciousness perspective and authorial asides, interjection and commentary, Greed is a challenging — though curiously mesmeric — novel and Jelinek’s work, though much lauded and awarded, is certainly an acquired taste.

Moira Lovell

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