If you’ve read Thomas Bernhard’s letters you’ll know he was frequently upset about the way his plays were staged. Not so his fellow Austrian, writer Elfriede Jelinek. What she hands over to theatres is, on the page, a block of text. Fiery, complicated, no paragraphs or speakers, just one long monologue on topics like power, violence and sex. Theatres are free to use her texts as they like. And German theatres, notorious for taking enormous liberties on the stage, have taken this freedom and run with it. Recently, a Jelinek play had its premiere in Germany’s former capital, the sleepy city of Bonn. The play, titled Abraumhalde (written and first staged in 2009), takes current discussions about masculinity, violence and religion, and reads them in connection with Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s enlightenment classic Nathan the Wise and Austrian rapist Josef Fritzl.
Trojanow, Ilija (2011), EisTau, Hanser
[translated into English by Phillip Boehm as
Trojanow, Ilija (2016), The Lamentations of Zeno, Verso Books
A special subcategory of the writers who write great books and then leave their readers hanging (as discussed in my last review) are the writers who write one great novel and then just stop writing fiction altogether. Some, like Harper Lee, stay silent, some, like Arundhati Roy, continue writing prolifically, but just not fiction. That second category often contains activists, who, as they age, find that their time is better spent writing essays and speeches rather than novels and stories. Ilija Trojanow (sometimes inexplicably spelled “Iliya Troyanov“ in English) is a recent example of this. Between 1996 and 2006, he published several exquisite travelogues, as well as 3 novels. A debut about arriving in Germany or rather coming to terms with life as a migrant (1996), a second novel using the languages of Science Fiction (1997, see my review here) and finally, Der Weltensammler (2006), his breakthrough achievement that won him a multitude of prizes and sold a large amount of copies. You can not only read my review of it, you can even read it in English translation, as it has in fact been translated into English and many other languages. That last book, a monumental novel about Richard Burton combined his interests in cultural exchanges with his recurrent topics of migration and identity. Even his companion nonfiction volume about Burton sold well. Trojanow seemed to have arrived. And since then – nothing. Or rather: no new fiction. He has been publishing copiously on the surveillance state, on ecological issues, on racism; plus, he has edited a multitude of books. Trojanow, all in all, has to be considered one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. And yet, selfishly, I was upset that he did not write fiction. Until, that is, 2011, when a slim new novel came out. And what a good novel it is! Published in German as EisTau (~ice thaw), it is a short but dense novel about global warming and one man’s outrage and obsession. It does not contain long diatribes about the state of the world, but at the same time, it’s just as much polemic as it is a novel. If not for Trojanow’s prodigious literary talent, this novel could have sunk like a stone. Instead, we’re offered a complex and very literary book that is highly recommended and deserves to be read carefully. And 2 years after I wrote this review, it has finally been published in English translation by Verso Books as The Lamentations of Zeno.
The Lamentations of Zeno is the story of Zeno, a depressed geologist who has spent the last few years of his life so far offering lectures to tourists on a cruise into the Antarctica. The cruise apparently features experts from areas like geology and biology who help tourists to contextualize the events they see and learn about that cold part of the world. We learn about his life story from himself: most of the novel is framed as being entries in his notebook. Not only does he tell the story from his point of view, but the notebook as an object itself, as well as the writing process is references throughout. It’s not a diary. These are literary, reasoned accounts written by a man who is tired of being a human being, as he says near the end of the novel. They follow two timelines. One follows in strict chronological order the events on the ship in the present tense, the others are memories of his relatively recent past. About halfway through the novel we learn about the catastrophe in his life that leads him onto his current path: a glacier specialist at a university in Munich, he finds out one day that the glacier he’s been monitoring almost obsessively, is irrevocably dying. And subsequently, the same happens to his life because he stops caring. He drops out of the university, gets left by his wife, and finally signs up for this stint on the Antarctica cruise. He has been known to be cranky on the ship, but this time, something snaps and the trips slowly but surely steers into a disaster. I am not spoiling this book because we are apprised fairly early of events on the ship by another kind of chapter in the book. Alternating with Zeno’s notebook, we are given short two-page chapters that are a cauldron of voices. TV ads, snippets of songs, etc. But they are not just random cutups of cultural noise. They also contain snippets of conversations with former passengers as well as, at the bottom of each of these ‘noise’ chapters, a bolded “breaking news” section that tells us of the dramatic events onboard the ship.
The noise chapters have a function in the narrative by foreshadowing the events of the notebook, but they also have a different role: in their noisiness they contrast with the quiet of the ice, offering us a human counterpart to the serene elegance of nature. It reminded me of nothing so much as Jelinek’s mastery of voices and allusion, especially in Die Kinder der Toten. Jelinek blends this noise into her own prose, while Trojanow’s method seems close to montage. It would seem that these alternating chapters introduce the city-scape noises of Dos Passos’ trilogy or Döblin’s Berlin novels into a kind of pastoral novel, but I think we would be mistaken about Trojanow’s aims here. Jelinek is a critical writer, not of a specific issue, but of the hate-filled structures of Western societies, skewering targets from misogyny to racism and ecological catastrophe. In The Lamentations of Zeno, we get a similar sense of broad disappointment with the direction of mankind. Critics have dismissed Trojanow’s novel as an ecological screed that has no literary value, but this is a superficial reading. Even without defending its literary value (which I will in a moment), even its polemical intentions far exceed just ecology. In the very first chapter, in an aside, we meet Filippino workers; we learn, with the deployment of just a few sentences, how much the globalized economy is built on the exploitation of poor and third world workers, a topic that Trojanow comes back to. We also get a sense of how globalized narratives are built, how people travel, and how knowledge is dispersed. When Zeno expresses his unhappiness with being human, he doesn’t merely refer to humans as those who subjugate and destroy nature – he also refers to the way mankind treats its disadvantaged and oppressed members. His criticism is global and personal. It’s important to note that all the events are motivated by Zeno’s personal unhappiness, his personal obsession and disappointment. We are not supposed to read Zeno as a relatable everyman whose opinions we should emulate or admire. Zeno has lost all regards for the fate of the human race. In one of the most memorable passages, he describes himself rooting for avalanches in news reports that show the cascading ice and snow swallowing a village.
With this personal nature comes a narrative that is increasingly unreliable. After all, what we read is basically Zeno’s manifesto, a way to describe how he arrived at doing what he did. We are clearly supposed to read this book as being set in the tradition of Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno. Svevo’s book poses as the life story of Zeno, a middle aged Italian, one of modern’s literature’s most famous unreliable narrators, written by Zeno himself during/for psychoanalytic treatment. In his book we are offered accounts of his life, his marriage, his relationship to his father. Zeno’s ruminations on his life and his illness lead to the observation that his illness mirrors or corresponds to mankind’s sickness. This step from sentiments like Lowell’s “I myself am hell” to the idea that the narrator’s mind is not the only one that’s ‘not right’ is inherited from Svevo. Additionally, there’s a German-language (though mostly through Swiss writers) tradition following Svevo of novels which offer psychoanalytically prompted ‘autobiographies’, but this time the goal is to explain a crime or catastrophe that has happened. Of this tradition, Max Frisch is probably the writer most well known to non-German audiences. This referential pattern suggests that Trojanow’s Zeno, even though we only learn of his intent to do something out of the ordinary halfway through the story, must have intended something of the sort all along. There’s a second way in which the two Zenos, the one from Bavaria and his Italian predecessor, are connected, and that’s their relationship to women. Anyone who’s read Svevo’s book is left with the impression that Zeno’s relationship to the female gender can be a bit arduous at times, and significantly contributes to his malaise. There’s a certain amount of misogyny written into the novel, which helps us nail down the slippery character of Zeno a bit more. With Trojanow’s Zeno, we have a similar situation and just as with Svevo’s counterpart, we can’t but feel that his explanations and descriptions are a bit self serving.
There are two women we get to know at some length, and then there’s the female tourists on the ship. The first woman is Zeno’s wife Helene. She is painted as a superficial, spiteful woman, interested in material values beyond everything else. She’s portrayed as unhappy: unhappy about Zeno’s obsession, unhappy about his academic income, unhappy about the cheap trips abroad they take together, unhappy about the apartment and possessions they can afford. On a trip to Spain, Zeno and Helene cannot be happy about the same things, and the narrator Zeno puts his now ex-wife into her place by placing a lesson on humility at the end of his account of the Spain trip. There’s no intimacy or passion between the two. The other woman we get to know is Zeno’s current girlfriend Paulina, who works on the ship and with whom he has a torrid relationship that lasts just as long as the cruise. Am attempt to continue the relationship beyond the ship has failed because Paulina and Zeno find each other boring when exposed for a long time. His treatment of her is a bit condescending and it somehow includes awkwardly written sex scenes, just to somehow drive home the image of her as a loving but temporary sex kitten. Zeno’s discussion of the female lecturers and tourists are similarly condescending. He may be aware of a broad swath of social issues, but his own sexism clearly escapes him. It is due to the masterful art of Trojanow that our attention is directed towards that subject. It’s implicit in the descriptions but his narrator is not aware of it. Without broaching the question of intentionality, it’s still not clear how central this aspect is to the book, how much it is supposed to tie into its other questions and concerns. I have a tendency to assume that books I generally like use prejudice as active elements rather than say that these books are racist or misogynist. In this case, the background of antarctic exploration justifies, I think, this charitable reading.
In The Lamentations of Zeno, I think, there’s a broad discussion of masculinity and destruction. Exploration and destruction, we learn are connected, and Zeno himself, once pushed hard enough, decides on being destructive. The history of antarctic exploration, for a long time, was a history of men doing manly things. Men enduring pain, men persevering, men rivaling other men. The first woman to set foot in the Antarctic didn’t do so until 1935, and she was the wife of the captain of a whaling ship. This is not due to a lack of interest of women in exploration. In fact, women wrote a rather famous letter to Shackleton in 1914 and Shackleton declined because there were “no vacancies for the opposite sex”. As in many other areas dominated by men, women’s absence is not due to female disinterest, but due to men imagining and enforcing gender roles, something that continues to this day, as the harassment of female participants in the programming and gaming culture proves. This separatist mindset also fits the broader mindset regarding nature. As the great ecologist William Cronin suggested, we live with the cultural paradigms established by nature writing, including travelogues, which provide an account of nature as something separate and apart from human beings, and this criticism includes ecologists as well as writers celebrating the use and exploitation. The novel, by offering us a closed, fixed (in the page of a notebook) story, which it undercuts, asks us to establish alternative narratives. There’s a quiet line that connects Trojanow’s work to stories like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Sur”, her story about female adventurers who reach the south pole before Shackleton in a privately finded expedition in 1909. Their “desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see – no more, no less.“ The lack of such counter narratives in the book itself contributes to the desperation. Zeno has no solutions, only anger and frustration and at no point does he manage to look past his known points of reference for other ideas. This, one suspects, is the call to arms of Trojanow the activist. Write and think solutions, offer counter narratives, understand the urgency of the desperation and challenge it. Trojanow’s writing is full of ellipses, and he uses every part of the novel to his advantage, creating multiple narrative spaces. Ilija Trojanow is a very good writer and The Lamentations of Zeno is a very good novel. Go read it, but do it carefully, look into the spaces between and below the language.
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The amazing, the grand Elfriede Jelinek in an interview in five parts. Below is part one and youtube will lead you to parts 2-5. There is much to be cherished in her work, an extraordinary writer and this interview is interesting, if German.