Like her contemporary Thomas Bernhard, Elfriede Jelinek is both revered and hated in almost equal measure in her homeland Austria. She is a Nobel Prize winning author, a beautiful writer and unafraid to experiment and tackle challenging themes, but she is also a sharp critic of the hypocrisy in Austrian society, its xenophobia and its unquestioning acceptance of Catholic authoritarianism. So an inconvenient thorn in the side of the establishment and the reputation of Austrian ‘Gemütlichkeit’ (warm, friendly, cheery mood). As recent election results show, her critique is entirely justified and the dark side of the Austrian soul is never too far from its more hospitable and charming surface.
In her volume consisting of three plays In den Alpen (In the Alps), Jelinek digs out the mountain of bones and darkness upon which resides that idyllic Alpine landscape her home country prides itself on. Not for nothing do the Austrians regularly refer to their country as the Alpenrepublik (a term which could apply to Switzerland too, but the Swiss like to think of themselves as a confederation).
Kaprun dam and mountain railway are part of the famous Salzkammergut tourist region in Austria. The first play entitled In the Alps looks at Kaprun as the scene of one of the greatest mountain disasters ever in Austria – in Nov 2000 155 people lost their lives in the railway tunnel when it caught fire, most of the victims being skiers and tourists going to visit the glacier. This play shows the contrast and eternal fight between technology and the environment, mass tourism and a healthy respect for the dangers inherent in nature. (See recent articles about not being able to see the lonesome beauty of Iceland or Peru because of the crowds of tourists). On the other hand, Jelinek also refers to the fact that Jews were excluded from the mountain-tourism associations in the early 20th century – as if they would taint the purity of the clean crisp mountain air. There is also the unspoken contrast between the pure Heimat (homeland) of the Alps, contrasting with the decadence of Vienna (full of Jews), a dichotomy which clearly influenced young Hitler as he was growing up.
The other longer play Das Werk (The Work) is about building the huge dam and power station, started in the 1920s and finished in the late 1950s with Marshall Plan funding. Before that, it had a bit of an inglorious past, with internment camp labour under the Nazis and later Russian POWs, many of whom died in avalanches and because of negligence in safety procedures. These two plays examine egos, ambition, exclusion and exploitation, natural and man-made catastrophes and the small, patient work of rebuilding. They are perhaps easier to read rather than to see performed: there is little action or dialogue – rather, it is more like a collection of long oratorios or tirades against industrial, political and military powers.
The plays have been performed in German (the first was premiered at the Munich Kammerspiele, the second at the Burgtheater in Vienna) but have not been translated into English. I found the volume by accident on the open shelves in the German studies reading room at the Senate House library (and read it there during my lunch breaks). An unplanned but lucky German literature month find!