On Charges (The Supplicants) by Elfriede Jelinek

— Camilla Wills

Holding in check the emotion which rises within him to be released as indignation or tender-heartedness, rejecting the masks of denunciation and sentiment, this third spectator confronts the truth and looks it in the face. What he sees is the horror […] he dares to cast his eyes on the unfortunate without immediately turning away towards imaginary benefactors and persecutors.

—Luc Boltanski, Distant Suffering, Morality, Media and Politics[1]

Elfriede Jelinek’s new book Charges (The Supplicants) is an analysis and lament of the global plight of migrants and refugees. It is a portrait of the xenophobia, denial, political corruption, and favoritism that premise asylum policy when displaced people from elsewhere challenge European comfort and profits. At its core is an eighty-page multi-voice “performance text” called Charges that was written for a specific occasion, theater director Nicolas Stemann’s Commune of Truth, Reality Machine at the Vienna Festival in 2013. The text was typed impatiently by Jelinek in two or three weeks, triggered by particular (media) events in 2012: the occupation of Vienna’s Votiv church by a group of Afghani and Pakistani refugees “while politicians scrambled and attacked each other trying to finesse a way out of the embarrassing situation,”[2] the ensuing transfer of the refugees out of the public eye into the impermanent holding facility of a monastery, and the simultaneous bestowment of citizenship upon privileged cultural figures (including Boris Yeltsin’s daughter) by the populist Austrian government. Jelinek compresses her sensibility for canonical literature with trivia from media and social media; she selectively uses Heidegger, Freud, Bible stories, Greek myth, and Nietzsche to compose rhythm for her output rather than any grand philosophical framework. Though they collaborated later, the piece was at first rejected by Stemann for the intended festival, on the grounds that, according to Jelinek, “Nicolas only worked with original soundtracks and direct quotes, news and such things, and mine was a literary text and that didn’t work.” This meant the imperative towards active intervention on which certain moral questions of her text hinge was not carried through. It seems her intention was to feedback in a loop so violently accelerated and vacant as to match the quick denial of a right (issued daily by EU governments), confronting theater-goers with a replica bill of “actors” while real-life events played on in the city as backdrop.

Later in 2015, two “sequels,” Appendix and Coda (self-aware and shallowly literary by name), were written by Jelinek and compulsively tagged to the end of Charges. These continuations of the play—or as Jelinek describes them, “dialectical juxtapositions”—make a bid for the dramaturgy to track the developing crisis of forced migration and sustain the intense topicality, knowing how freely it expires. In the book these add-ons are separated from the central text by a small insert, “Scenes of Translation” by Gitta Honegger, and it is perhaps Honegger’s commitment as translator that invents an architecture for the publication. Her commitment or scrutiny maintains it as a formidable, awkward book in and of itself, and permits the content to trespass back into life and use. This English translation was delayed by almost a year; it has the conscious flow of futility and breathlessness. The futility stands for Jelinek’s absurd attempt to fix by print the viral, plus the insurmountable distinction between those who have lived trauma and the conceit of an  author searching for the right words and terms. Furthermore, the book’s awkwardness attests to the complicated hostility of the passage taken by those in flight.

The plural first person “we” is manipulated like a template to narrate the performance texts. “We” relocates from Jelinek speaking on behalf of refugees to an aggregate of “I’s,” the opinions of local people, from a body of water to a leak dripping from a freezer truck. The pronoun shifts from humanitarian rhetoric to a fragile parodic “we” that is something like refugees imitating abusive local opinion, perceptions that are then absorbed and rearticulated as their own. The template avows the persecution (of misrecognition) in assuming categories; due to the blanket absence of rights in some zones, and the mode in which rights are granted in others, it’s likely more beneficial to pass without being coded as “refugee.” By default “God” is volatile too and the means of atonement ludicrously regional, the designation hovers between a Christian version within the Votiv church, Allah, a lady chancellor, the millionaire endowed with citizenship, the viewer: “No one looks down with mercy at our train, but everyone looks down on us […] civility dictates us to devoutly greet all the high powers in these pictures […] Lord among many, for many want to lord it over us and have us taken away, they want to show us who is in charge, we never saw him, we are not allowed to see him.” The GPS is a shepherd, but the availability and use of information are not democratic. From clips and descriptions it seems the impoverishment of Jelinek’s material is channelled by the collaboration of Stemann and his theater company. They are licensed by Jelinek to make severe edits, cutting up to 90 percent of the text and involving a speech chorus of refugees and asylum seekers to disturb the motif of proximity. Since its first publication in 2013 the text has been performed extensively in German municipal theaters. Perhaps this answers a fundamental question raised by French sociologist Luc Boltanski: What form can the commitment to act possibly take for an individual affected by the media spectacle of suffering, an individual who is not directly exposed to the trauma of that specific suffering?

Boltanski’s term “meta-describer” matches Jelinek’s approach to not only catch but prolong the unpalatable, using chains of mutating words while repressing reactions of tender-heartedness (selfish enjoyment unaware of itself) and indignation (pleasure in veiled persecution). There is a rare interview between Jelinek and Honegger printed at the end of Charges that is given the subtitle “I am a Bird of Prey.” It references the way the author uses her sources, tearing meaning alive from another text, hacking out word roots and puns to mock Heidegger for his ugly nativism. But as the word concedes, “prey” can be lifted and placed onto the unfortunate people she watches—a scene of migrants trying to read a “coexistence” brochure published by the Austrian Interior Ministry Integration Centre. Jelinek seems to be saying, understand the game ascribed to your body (prey) because the fascism of administrative language is clearly fixed.

“An image is made to stay. People however, are not made and they don’t stay where they were made to stay.” Then soon after, one of the most striking passages of the dramaturgy deconstructs footage of soft toys on coffins, “We drown them and on top of each coffin we put a little teddy bear. Five coffins, five teddies! That’ll do. They probably never had those before.” The coffins would clearly belong to children given their smaller size, the toys that never belonged to the children within indicate a form of minus life by the promise of their worn, individuated personalities. In a deliberate act, the only image printed in Charges is of a cluster of teddy bears on a hollow, transparent swing chair in Jelinek’s elegant apartment. The silhouette of the author lingers in a distant room. Linking to the coffins, she succeeds to charge and care for her devices sheltered in a domestic realm, but does not deny her failure towards the uncontained bodies cojoined in realtime. The inclusion of that image is harsh, almost tasteless, but rips through self-sacrificial yearnings, or a self-absorption in pity. Since she avoided receiving her Nobel prize in person, it is well-known that Jelinek suffers from agoraphobia (in her own words, “I’m provincial”), which lends an edge when she writes about enforced homelessness and the conditions of holding facilities. Apparently, the simulation of her Nobel acceptance speech, projected grotesquely large and contingent on her theme of watching reality from “off-side,” gave it an oracular power difficult to command in person.[3] However, in the interview with Honegger she flatly refuses the easy sentiment to format an interface between her illness and her subject. This simply implies she does not claim license to a voice through co-suffering, and more widely in emancipatory politics the rights of people cannot be favors granted only after a display of suffering.

Jelinek severely twists words, references, and literary structures to act against their will and below their pretension, while preserving their assurance of enlarged meaning. In the interview, there is one instance where her rigor seems to have slipped: “Translating […] is crossing by boat.” It’s a careless analogy in this context, establishing equivalence between two different categories of activity and ultimately mitigating the death toll of the Mediterranean. Elsewhere, she misdirects psychoanalysis to unburden her obsession with shit and force it upon the reader. Honegger describes this risk as “Jelinek’s anal humor.” Countries such as Hungary and Serbia calculated to remove access to sanitary facilities for refugees, Jelinek writes: “They should be happy it’s not worse. Here you won’t find a portable Dixi potty […] since WCs have not yet been invented.” The inevitable visibility of waste is used by governments to induce fear in the public mind, where it has lodged and matured into paranoia. For example, last month in the area of La Chapelle in Paris—where rocks were placed under a railway bridge during wet weather to prevent migrants sheltering—an “SOS” women’s group made a puritanical petition demanding increased law enforcement to “clean up” the area. The petition was disoriented, it cited sexual assault, false documents, the sound of foreign languages, and an overpowering smell of urine in the same paragraph. Bluntly it would seem more a question of wanting to wipe out groups of people not recognized as legitimate from La Chapelle.

Charges is like the incoherence and pain that escalates around a vortex of denial. This could just as well be a description of Theresa May’s political methodology, fixed in footage of her deferred visit to the scene of the Grenfell Tower fire in London last June. She walks without looking, a protester comments on her noncommittal presence: “It doesn’t mean anything.” Brutally, this inhumane capacity to shut out earned her a reputation as someone who will “get the job done.” It was May as Home Secretary in 2014 who called for the prompt withdrawal of official Italian-led search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, set up after the Lampedusa tragedies in which five-hundred migrants died in October 2013, and saving an estimated 150,000 lives in twelve months of operation. May’s formula: deny public appeals for precautions to save lives, then avoid accountability for the impact (a certain loss of life) this policy will have. It is macabre that she remains in power after the Grenfell fire.

Jelinek’s route to pass on spectacle, by permitting herself to be taken over by the detail of the media coverage she scrutinizes without turning away or dissolving into oblivion, alerts us to the heritage of those who will not look, those who build themselves an illusion of justification and become accomplices.[4]

Teddy Bears in Elfriede Jelinek’s living room.

Teddy Bears in Elfriede Jelinek’s living room.

  1. [1] Luc Bolanski, Distant Suffering, Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 116.
  2. [2] Gitta Honegger, Charges: The Supplicants (Seagull Books: Kolkata, 2017), p. vii.
  3. [3] See Nicholas Spice, “Up from the Cellar,” London Review of Books, vol. 20, no.7.
  4. [4] Thanks to Calogero Giametta for his comments and discussion.