Although not that well known in this country Elfriede Jelinek is popular in German speaking countries, and since being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 better known throughout continental Europe. But one thing you have to bear in mind is that Jelinek’s writing can cause violent reactions, either in that you love or enjoy her work, or that you absolutely loathe it, thus she is always controversial to a degree.
If you do decide to purchase this book one thing you will notice straight away is that there are no chapter numbering or headings, and that there are no speech marks, as Jelinek is a rather avant-garde writer. This book is set in the late Fifties in Austria and centres on four youths, brother and sister Rainer and Anna, who are twins, along with Hans and Sophie. Rainer and Anna are lower middle class, Sophie is upper class, and Hans is working class. From the start then you see that this small group is disparate as regards class, but they have certain links that hold them together in other ways.
As this opens the group are mugging and beating up a man, but although they steal his wallet they see their actions as not ones of theft but a much higher socio-political act that borders on the philosophical. Being born in the midst of the Second World War these delinquents have seen a lot of change in their country and its fortunes and this comes through quite clearly, and this book can in some ways read as an allegory of a country that would rather forget what has recently happened, than face and realise the tragedy and thus carry on anew. We can see this with Rainer and Anna’s father who was in the SS but is now crippled and working as a night porter. From his past position of power over others he is now just an underling, but his past still comes through with his treatment of his family and his hobby of pornographic photography.
As we read this book we see that the main characters are all dysfunctional to varying degrees and we follow them through their loves and hates as they use violence against others and then sit around discussing Camus and Sartre. At times you feel like a voyeur as you read some of this, especially it’s more darker and violent moments, but Jelinek is great at playing with your expectations of each character and does inject some humour in places so that you don’t feel that you are reading something that is just doom and gloom.
As I have already mentioned this whole story can be seen as an allegory, but it also works without that, as you can feel and see the uncertainties of youth as it adapts to a more adult world with decisions such as work and careers along with further education. With what this group discuss and how they feel about the world and others you can also see how such things as young people being attracted to violence, Islamic terrorism and Neo-Nazi organisations comes about. This is a dark and disturbing read but at the end of the day don’t go by what other people say or think of this book, it is after all a Marmite book and only you can decide whether you love or hate it.
This is a book that has at its core three main ingredients - violence, teenage hormones and student philosophy. Whilst these are tired and easily clichéd subject matters Jelinek does a pretty good job of avoiding the pitfalls that beset so many others in the genre. It is extremely difficult to like any of the four main protagonists as they flounce, whine and bump their way through the novel - but despite this, Jelinek manages somehow to make us really like her and her novel. I found myself comparing it favourably to "Catcher in the Rye"; I found Caulfield such a nauseating brat that I would have crossed the street to punch him in the face, whereas I always viewed Rainer with a sense of joy, knowing that he would inevitably realize that he wasn't as great as he thought he was. The key to this is the distance that Jelinek creates between herself and her creations. She always views them with arch contempt and an omnipotence that shows that she is on the joke with the reader, that her four "heroes" are nothing more than poor aimless puppets. As an example, she uses Camus as the springboard for all of Rainer's "philosophy" and self-defence mechanisms. Rather than allowing Rainer to come across as an expert, he comes across as a shallow student who has read nothing but Camus and is therefore a walking irony.
The violence isn't particularly shocking - however the finale is somehow both incredibly gripping whilst at the same time entirely predictable. Indeed, there could ever only have been one outcome. It's an interesting novel that brings a fresh perspective to the challenges of being a thoroughly unlikeable teenager and all that that entails. Recommended.