Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Elfriede Jelinek's novel Greed (2006) is a crime thriller but instead of merely a 'cast' of characters, Jelinek has added to the genre's regular mix a distinct 'complex' of narrative voices that are bound sometimes painfully together by her particular style of worldly pessimism. The country policeman is, from an early point, our villain. We are in no doubt about it. But it doesn't matter who did it.

It's not important who did it because Jelinek's mysterious method deftly introduces a totalising set of narratives that 'speak' to us about the murder of a young girl and the heartbreaking demise of the 'other woman'. We are not just faced with the voices of people. We see a grown buck spring in front of a moving car. We hear the story of the dead lake. We are also invited to listen to the other woman's thinking about her lonely life.

There's no starting point and no end. And just as this resembles life, the twining of disparate narratives around a solid (for fictional purposes) stalk - the story of greed perpetrated by one, evil man - also resembles life. It resembles the way you 'talk to' yourself as you walk down the street. The way different voices emerge at different times of the day.

It's this rush of narrative forces that makes the story so engrossing. Sure, we've got a greedy murderer on our hands, but we'll never understand why the young girl had to die too. Maybe he let slip to her some of his plans for the other woman who, in the end, gives him her house. Satisfying his thirst for real estate. Giving him what he wanted, in her death, because he was never happy with her in her life.

And she mourned his lost affection. Poor, unfortunate soul. But what about the girl?

We sift through images and threads of narrative searching for answers. One thing that comes back to us strongly is the sheer indifference of the world, the absence of a redeeming God, mankind's futile yearning for transcendence despite all the plausible apparatuses of worldly existence that throw themselves before us as we make our way through life. Buy this thing, make sure you purchase that. You might need it one day.

The other woman, who gave everything for the sake of her man, maybe selflessly, emerges as a hero because she tried to believe in a relationship above everything else that exists. She tried to make her link to another human being more important than her own life. If she succeeded then all the credit for the transformation from corpse to benefactor, from fallen woman to angel, belongs to her.

A consummation devoutely to be wished for? But at what cost. I guess you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Jenlinek's novel was originally published in 2000, in German and in Austria. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. This translation came out in 2006: a reward for other, better known books? Regardless, this is an astonishing novel that tries to approximate, in its telling of a terrible story, the texture of life itself. A difficult goal, but one which the author comes as close as possible to achieving.

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