Thomas Melle ‘3000€’

—On Facebook people just post stupid links, they’re supposed to be funny, but Denise just doesn’t get the humour, she thinks about closing her account but B1D32F65-1C09-484D-ACC2-E36CB140C044she knows she’s going to have to look through the thousands of options to find the corresponding function and then get to the end of a procedure where she’d have to answer absurd questions (Do you really? And why do you want to? And so and so will miss you a lot). For the time being she isn’t capable of typing it. Anyway, she doesn’t want to close her account. If the truth be told she keeps wanting to, but she’ll never do it.

This is the story, read for German Lit Month, of two people just trying to get by, Anton who first dropped out of law school and took a job as a taxi driver then went of the rails and spent a whole summer drunk and borrowing money, he’s a fragile person who slips back to alcohol under any pressure. His summer has left him with bank and credit card debt which, for the want of 3000€ will see him slowly sinking into the homeless ranks of people with no access to money. Denise a single mother with a special needs child works the till at a supermarket and like Anton under pressure hits the bottle on a evening, in her attempt to make ends meet she has acted in her first pornographic video, imagining that everyone that passes the till will recognise her and she has been waiting two months now to be paid her 3000€ for the video, feeling the wish to act, to get out of her situation for herself and her child and the immobility characteristic of too much pressure illustrated by the opening quote.

Thomas Melle perfectly captures that moment of fragility where Denise imagines herself looking back at her situation. We’ve all of course done this in our lives, hopefully not from such a difficult situation:

—She tells herself stories about herself, as in a television program switching backwards and onwards between the appalled tone of public service programs  and the flamboyant style of private channels. It’s a story where she herself five or ten years later talks about herself now.
—Yes she says to herself in her head looking at the camera.
—Today I find it difficult myself understanding why I was so depressed back then, at the end of the line… retrospect I have to say that my breakdown saved me….I won’t say that I’m happy, but I’m ok and that’s more than I could have hoped for.

Melle brings together these two characters who live at the fringes of society for a short while, but where Denise might just get through, her money eventually arrives, Anton walks away, not wanting to pull her down, as Denise surmises when he doesn’t get in touch:

—He’s just got himself in another situation with no way out, no longer has a cell phone, no credit, no internet access.

3000€, so little and over much at the same time, the price of marginality?

First published in German as ‘3000€’ by Rowohlt in 2014
Translated into French by Julia Sobottke as “3000€” and published by Éditions Métailié in 2017

Elfriede Jelinek ‘Greed’

-Who wouldn’t like to have at least one little house for themselves alone…..The son of the present country policeman…..In order to consolidate and shield his permanent job the son goes every week without fail to his bank on the main square as if his determination would bring in more than his securities justifyimg_0931….to the bank which gives him credit until he will have lost every security….to be rich depends on a precise knowledge of what one has and what one could still get.

In this book by Nobel prize winning author Elfriede Jelinek read for the German lit month VI, and more specifically and maybe tenuously (well there is a crime), Lizzy’s crime week. Jelinek studies both “sinnliche und weltliche Gier”, that is both material and sexual craving or greed. In this book her characters exist for what they are and not who they are, she uses them to paint a scathing vision of her country, Austria and continually digresses from the “story” to the subject of her book, Austrian society. So in revealing the story in this article the subject of the book remains. Although her characters have names, she chooses to avoid them, for example, Kurt Janisch, the male protagonist, is mostly referred to simply as the country policeman as illustrated in the opening quote.

The story as such is relatively simple, and centres on the mixed desires and greed of the country policeman, she describes him as tall, blond, blue eyes who, through his job has the opportunity to get to know and exploit lonely middle aged women who are drawn physically to him:

-he prefers to note where the supposedly, presumably lowered eyes of the women are wandering from the country policeman’s penetratingly blue irises down to his fly, direct connection these greedy grasping eyes of women.

Janisch’s interest in these women is in the property they own and that they may sign over to him in the event of their death. His real interest is not really with women at all:

-There he is, take a look at how as if by accident he rubs himself up against this younger colleague, stands as if unintentionally close behind him when they’re undressing, his colleague has his shirt halfway over his head and can’t see anything and can’t resist for a moment, which is over all too quickly, he is caught up in his clothes like a fish in a net, his arms are raised, his narrow hips are, Well they’re there and feature some red acne I call something like that flesh precisely in it’s imperfection. Such a pleasure to press the somewhat swollen cock as if unintentionally against the left hip of the younger man 

But I fear that I digress, back to the story, poor old Janisch doesn’t really know what he wants and exasperated by the demands of his current middle aged woman, Gerti, who oblivious to the spiralling violence of their sex, wants more from him than he is capable of, love and marriage. One day he brings back to her house a sixteen year old girl he has been seeing in his car, this is more for the sadistic relationship with the woman than for the girl herself:

-Now he has thrown the older woman in whom he places some hope out of her own living room just because of the girl, she had become quite unbearable with her constant demands for more without even knowing everything she’s got, she doesn’t even have all her wits about her, one is always missing she should go and rub her gusset herself with her own hand so that she sees what that’s like. But when she’s supposed to whack off in front of him then it only makes her all the greedier for him precisely because he wants to watch her, it is one of many variants of the heightening of pleasure all of which she would like to get to know later at her leisure.

Janisch then during sex appears to casually kill the girl and to dispose of her body in a sterile man made lake. Further along in the book Jelinek gives an insight into how this could have happened in today’s society:

-That one can buy dolls in a sex shop whose bodies look in a way unappetising, Well the head’s ok, that while masturbating one can pull a plastic bag over ones head and tighten it at the throat till one almost pops off and then one pops up again the bag abruptly suddenly open, please don’t forget that, and there’s our orgasm which we once had and have missed for some time now, there it is again stronger than ever before, stronger than with any woman, stronger than any arm, we had begun to believe that we won’t get one at all any more but the shelves are full. Every poor man wants to be rich that is just as natural a phenomenon as the fact that one can introduce all kinds of things into one’s ass hole both small and surprisingly large objects that however one has to do with the other hand, one hand is supposed to tighten the bag so one hand always knows what the other is doing

Finally the country policeman is then part of the search team looking for the murderer of the girl and then,he woman, without hope takes her own life.

This chilling examination of  modern society concerns of course more than just Austria, Jelinek presents a vision of the incompatibility of men and women, and the flame of the impersonal at the heart of this book has since been fanned by the Internet era.

First Published in German as “Gier” by Rowohlt Verlag in 2000
Translated into English by Martin Chalmers as ‘Greed’ and published by Serpent’s Tail in 2006

Hertha Muller ‘The Appointment’

-It was just after I had separated from my first husband; white linen suits were being packed up for Italy. After we went on a ten-day business trip together, Nelu expected to keep on sleeping with me. But I’d made up my mind to marry a Westerner, and I slipped the same note into ten back pockets: Marry me, ti aspetto, signed with my name and address. imageThe first Italian who replied would be accepted.
-At the meeting, which I was not allowed to attend, my notes were judged to be prostitution in the workplace….
-The man in charge of ideological affairs personally delivered two written reprimands to my office. I had to sign the original for the records, the copy remained on my desk. I’ll frame it, I said. Nelu didn’t see what there was to joke about. He sat on his chair, sharpening a pencil.

In this book from my 2016 German literature targets and read for the German lit month VI, the Nobel prize winning Herta Müller gives us in this starkly realistic account of life in communist Romania an appreciation of the hopelessness of the period, where the state controls every aspect of your life.  On her way through Bucharest by tram to her appointment at 10h with the state interrogator the unnamed female narrator gives us an insite into her life. The opening quotes tell us of her original fault, putting the notes inside of suits bound for Italy, this is then compounded by the jealous Nelu who fakes her writing and puts notes into suits bound for Sweden and France which of course are found and lead to the series of state interrogations of which today’s appointment is one, but of course there is no way out:

-To clarify the facts of the case, I was supposed to write down every Italian I knew. I was sick and tired of the facts of the case, it was almost evening, I didn’t know any Italians and said so, in vain. He charged about and yelled: You’re lying…..
-And yet he acted as if he knew everything. A man like him must have realized I wasn’t lying…..
-Then he ran his hand into my hair above the temple, twisted my hair around his index finger, and yanked me, as if by a tassel, around the office, over to the window, and back to the chair. And when I was sitting down facing the paper, I wrote: Marcello. I was biting my lips, I couldn’t think of any other name apart from Mastroianni and Mussolini, and those were names he knew as well.

Müller at the same time describes the chaotic nature of life around the narrator, from her partner, Paul, who as all men in Romania, it would seem, has a state sponsored drinking problem with the Two Plums, (plumb schnapps) and who’s life is impacted by the narrator’s problems with the state interrogator, Albu:

-The last time I was summoned, Albu smiled a little as he was kissing my hand: You and your husband drive down to the river quite often, don’t you, and accidents do happen on the roads.

And then some time later true to form:

-As Paul was riding back from the shop, a gray truck had pulled up behind him, it never left his rearview mirror. Paul pulled over to let it pass. There wasn’t much traffic. He was driving quite slowly, the truck pulled up close to him, so close on the roundabout that it seemed the driver wanted to ram right into the Java. Then the motorbike flew up, and Paul went hurtling through the air, without his bike, and then came falling down like deadwood from a tree…..

This chaotic, even random life is further illustrated by her friend Lilli who in trying to get away from her current life, strikes up a friendship with an older miliatary man at the end of his career,  and first uses this as a way to explain the particular role of the miliatary in this Soviet satellite country:

-It had been a long time since the last war. Idleness threatened to erode military discipline, which had to be shored up with so-called precision work, namely, the conquest of beautiful women…….The old officer had thoroughly educated Lilli about the best tactics for combating idleness in peacetime. He too had been on constant maneuvers, Lilli said, until his wife died.

She then tells us that Lilli and her miliatary man meticulously plan their escape to the west but are betrayed by the man supposed to meet them on the western side of the border, who does not turn up  and where Lilli is first shot dead and then ravaged by the border dogs whilst he, in civilian clothes, is taken prisoner.

There is a dark satire in her descriptions, take for example Paul’s mother, a country woman who has the habit of saying what she thinks, which as we now know has not proven to be a very successful strategy in a communist dictatorship :

-Paul’s mother said: In this country you can be as smart as a whip but without a red book all you can do is stand on your beak and fart in the dust like a partridge. She was a village girl who’d left her turnips for a life in the city. She moved into heavy industry, where there were five times as many men as women. With the lower half of her body she joined the Party, learning the ABC’s of communism lying on her back in various beds.

The hopelessness of the situation felt by the woman protagonist and so well transmitted in this book after so many years of this régime can be summed up in my final quote:

-There are people who distinguish not only between objects and thoughts, but also between thoughts and feelings. I wonder how.

An all together grim story of a time gone by in a world that no longer exists (at least no longer in Romania).

First Published in German as “Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet” by Rowohlt Verlag in 1997
Translated into English by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm as ‘The Appointment ‘ and first published in the USA by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company in 2001, my edition published in the U.K. By Portobello books in 2010