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A mirror to the dark side of the world

Last updated on: October 07, 2004 21:11 IST

It's amazing what a Nobel Prize can do.

Until this morning, not many non-Germans knew that a woman called Elfriede Jelinek existed. This state of unknowing underwent a dramatic change with an oracular announcement: The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2004 has been awarded to Elfriede Jelinek for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power.

I can now picture the Germans nodding silently, unsurprised. For many of them, Jelinek is one of the most influential contemporary writers around. She is, apparently, highly acclaimed abroad, and much abused at home in Austria, thanks to her critical views and a body of work that has often generated controversy.

The Nobel Prize comes after 58 years of a fairly colourful life. Born in the Austrian province of Styria to a Czech-Jewish chemist and his wife on October 20, 1946, Jelinek was trained in the piano and organ at an early age, and studied composition at the famed Vienna Conservatory. While continuing music, she also studied art history and theatre at the University of Vienna. All of which may explain where her 'musical flow of voices' and the dramatic power of her playwriting comes from.

This isn't the writer's first major award either. She has taken home a truckload in the past, ranging from The Young Austrian Culture Week Poetry and Prose Prize in 1969 to the Austrian State Literature Stipendium (1972), The West German Interior Ministry Prize for Film Writing (1979), the Berlin Theatre Prize (2002), the Lessing Critics' Prize, and The Blind War Veterans' Radio Theatre Prize, Berlin (2004).

Jelinek began writing poetry at a young age, debuting with Lisas Schatten in 1967. Fiction came next, in the form of highly successful novels like Die Liebhaberinnen, Die Ausgesperrten, and the autobiographical Die Klavierspielerin. Apart from her impressive body of work in German and French, the English-speaking world recognises her primarily on account of The Piano Teacher, a novel translated from Die Klavierspielerin by Joachim Neugroschel. It was made into an acclaimed movie by Austrian director Michael Haneke, and starred Isabelle Huppert in the role of the repressed pianist. Three other novels – Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Lust, and Women as Lovers – have also been translated so far.

Interestingly, Jelinek has done a fair bit of translation herself, with the work of writers like Thomas Pynchon and Christopher Marlowe. She has also written film scripts and an opera libretto, apart from dramatic works for radio and the stage.

When it comes to defining her work, critics have often found the task challenging, given the many shifts between prose and poetry, and the sudden introduction of theatrical scenes and film sequences in her writing. In some of her work for radio, for instance, she abandoned traditional dialogue and opted for polyphonic monologues instead. A recurring theme, especially in her later writing, has been the inability of women to come to life fully, with Jelinek drawing attention to a world that paints the female form using stereotypical images.

Which brings me to a question. Why does Elfriede Jelinek deserve a Nobel Prize?

The answer to that may lie in the role played by 'the author' in our world. Post-modernists like Roland Barthes may have argued that, as an entity, the author is dead. Writers in our literary canon have, however, long seen themselves as seers; prophets acting as the voices of a generation, hauling up the foibles of their fellowmen for all to see, while recreating worlds anew. In this context, Jelinek has long managed to hold a mirror to the dark side of the world we inhabit. She has been referred to as a "dauntless polemicist" in the past, using her Website to comment on issues that demand her attention. An easily accessible insight into her work, for non-Germans, comes from The Piano Teacher.

The story follows the life of Erika Kohut, the 38 year-old piano teacher who has been the victim of an extremely overbearing mother. The latter wants her child to do all she couldn't, even though it's obvious that this is an uphill task. The reader never knows whether Erika is without talent, or whether she insists on sabotaging her career simply to spite her mother.

Underlining much of Jelinek's writing is the sense of a world without pity, where big entities smother humanity, desensitising individuals to the injustices of class and rampant oppression against women. Female sexuality is a highly prevalent topic, and the war of the sexes often crops up, in some form or another. She is also capable of tremendous wit. Her satirical 1970 novel wir sind lockvögel baby! (we are decoy, baby), for example, successfully took aim at popular culture's idea of 'the good life'.

In a telling comment on her power as an author, Bob Corbett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Webster University, writes: "Jelinek has the ability to make human love seem more hopeless and more disgusting than any other author I have ever read."

Curiosity takes me to Jelinek's home page. It boasts just three essays in English. They lie hidden in a welter of German words that take in everything from memories of school and her love of Austria to Franz Schubert and the British renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe. It is a daunting mix. The 'extraordinary linguistic zeal' may be present, but it's hard to track in another language.

And then, I find the sole pieces in English. There is an essay on the nature of theatre, another on art, a third on why the German playwright Bertolt Brecht is out of fashion. Yet another, titled, Bambiland, stands apart, alone. I click: "We always want to be understood benevolently, or nobody would say anything into the many cameras and microphones," writes Jelinek. "We hide from what is foreign to us. We only say about ourselves what we want others to think about us, we don't say what we think."

Whether she deserves a Nobel or not is something that ought to be argued by others more qualified to do so. I simply read what she has written, quietly. It is a long piece of prose. And it moves me. That ability alone ought to constitute some kind of art.

Lindsay Pereira