The Austrian Riveter: From the Prologue of DIE KINDER DER TOTEN by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Gitta Honegger

This land needs a lot of airspace for its blessed spirits to move freely above the waters. In some areas it rises over three thousand metres. That’s how much nature has gone into this land. In turn, the land – perhaps as a way of paying back its debt to nature – treated its people quite generously, throwing them right back into it as soon as they took the bait. The great dead, to name just a few, include: Karl Schubert, Franz Mozart, Otto Hayden, Fritz Eugen, the Last Breath, Zita Zits, Maria Theresiana, plus everything her namesake imperial military academy, the Theresianum, produced in Wiener Neustadt until 1918 and in Stalingrad 1943, plus several million more destroyed creatures. A place for wheeling and stealing: those sorts of deals and double deals are part and parcel of the tourist trade, in the course of which people, rather than getting worn out and thrown away, return in newer and better condition than they came; they are getting less for themselves though, as they have nothing left in their budget. Still, it was worth it. Unfortunately, some also crash in the process. We find ourselves where we can truly find ourselves at the core of our being, in an Austrian village, – or rather, at its outermost reaches which the mountain has already slipped into its pants pockets. Located rather on the fringe of tourism, the place is largely undeveloped. Only older people and families with lots of children go there, as there are hardly any opportunities for serious sports and entertainment. But all the more fresh air and deep forests. And beautiful mountains, about two thousand meters high, some even higher; but this area does not yet quite belong to the high alpine region. Hiking trails, a small local railroad, brooks, a clear river; however, if the dam is opened too quickly, the trout choke in the mud and they float by the bridge, belly up, countless squadrons, traveling along their choppy route just a moment ago, now driving away the tourists, who want to get to the inn on the other side, which is built into the rock, and can be reached only over a sort of chicken ladder, a nearly impassable pathway.

Today some of the guests registered for a trip. They want to visit the Wild Alps region with its lakes and the small castle of the Habsburg Archduke Johann, who married the postmaster’s daughter from Aussee and then dug up the land like a mole – because besides those daughters above the earth, there had to be some iron left for the sons below the earth that could be processed for ploughs or cannons, both sharing, as always, a place next to each other in harmony. The earth gave the ore and in return the hammer barons from the Mürz river canyon and the iron barons from Vienna returned to the earth her tender children, the cannon fodder. So there is a lot to see in this area, if you are interested in the history of the iron dynasty. Fresh cold air. The minibus they had reserved well in advance stops in front of the inn, which is connected to a farm and a hotel. Six people registered for the tour. Two of them, a couple from the Ruhr area, are dawdling around the entrance, asking each other for items they forgot and for the place they were to stop for lunch (included in the price); they are joined after a while by a single woman from Halle, (formerly East) Germany, they chat a bit – will the weather hold out, were they dressed properly, might it even be possible to arrange for a tour by one of the Archduke’s heirs? Would they be able to see the famous speedwell flower that Habsburg gentleman had planted himself in honour of the postmaster’s daughter? The Chrysler Voyager, ready to receive the passengers, pushes her snub nose across the parking lot, she already got wind of her living prey. It’s up to her whom she wants to deliver at the destination and in what condition, she has wild horses under the hood. The chauffeur is already slightly drunk, but he doesn’t care, around here everyone’s always somewhat inebriated, it’s the custom of the region and the regional champions eliminate each other in nightly piss-offs. Mornings at eight not even the players in the qualifying games are playing; they are asleep, leaden from the evening before. After the three passengers had already mounted the best seats, ready to let themselves be pushed out onto the water-grey country road that nearly gets squashed between all that luscious green rolling in from the left and the right, from above and below, four more people arrive – wait a minute, that’s one too many, no problem, we’ll just squeeze together a bit. During vacation you are more willing to accept things you wouldn’t tolerate at home. One of them, a young man, hadn’t made a reservation but wants to come along, nonetheless. Others, a mother and a daughter, not exactly a spring chicken either, the daughter, would not want to give up their seats or sit apart. Besides, the old lady wants to sit all the way in the front. That’s not possible either. But it’s possible to squeeze them all into the car. We are not that fat, joke the passengers who like company. 

There is a murmur in the air that it will be a sunny day after all and people are eager, all too eager, to learn about anything assuring them that they are part of this world. Time has passed, the sun has climbed a bit, taking a breath around midday, but the car is merrily rolling along, now she climbs up a mountain road, snaking higher and higher around the steep curves. It seems to be quite warm outside. People on bikes are showing off their bodies. The pavement ribbon, a grayish, living continuum. The alpine panorama reveals itself here, at the Niederalpl, the little lower alp in all its splendor – mountains are pointed out by name, they nearly drown in all the sunlight, the motor hums soothingly. Now we are approaching the highest point, the summit of this ancient mountain path, and on the other side we’ll have to get down again. The summer storms, which hit this area especially hard, took parts of the road down into the river with them. Pretty red-white-red plastic ribbons stretched between poles have been placed along the road in many spots where the concrete had broken off; caution, motorists and fellow travelers! Where there used to be a firm shoulder and just enough room to get out of the way of an approaching SUV, there is a sudden chasm, a jagged wound in the road’s side. One doesn’t have to thrust anything – a lance – into it to see that the wound is real. Again and again signs commanding extremely low speed limits. A voice from Halle requests in a strange German accent to follow orders, ancient obedience drills keep twitching in this woman’s paws, but in this country official orders, which cling to us hungrily and want to ruin all our fun, are on principle not taken quite so seriously. So let’s keep driving those sixty kilometers per hour, what can happen. I am telling you: Unfortunately, coincidentally, a tour bus will pass exactly the same part of the road. Here, that giant vehicle harnessed in metal ads is irrefutably the stronger. Unexpectedly, that monster which a month ago bit off a side of the road and spit it into the creek gets a desert that’s not much easier to digest. Only some garnish is missing, but wait – we can still get you some: this multicolored woolen jacket looks quite good, that torn off shoe over there, yeah, it’s a little asymmetrical, the second one’s missing, it’s still stuck to a dirty, twisted foot. And what’s that minibus doing down there all of a sudden, like a careless beetle tossed on its back by a giant step, limbs spread apart, idling in helpless rotations? Four persons spurted out of it, not wearing seatbelts, of course, now they lie here, colorful splashes of miracle whip and cream dotting the steep grassy incline that merges, together with the debris of the road into the creek that still carries the flood waters. One, two uprooted trees in-between. But those are left over from the flood. A twisted young man, two twisted women, an old woman, screaming, screaming like a sinner at the tabernacle, hurry, hurry!, before this roadside sale of humans closes. Torsos bent out of shape, arms tossed up high, as if a deep joy had overwhelmed those poor souls. Cool mountain air wafts across it all. The wheels are still spinning. The driver is pinned to his wheel that crushed his chest, a bit of liquid trickling from his mouth. But he won’t be able to drink it, he was dragged away from his discount beverages; clutching the half-filled bottle of his life, he still seems braced to resist the steering of a higher power. Up on the hill, people are getting off the bus, screaming and crying they are also trying to find their way, down the hill to the colorful meadow dotted with humans. Pine trees stand tall. Birds screech because of the disturbance, though deep inside they are unimpressed. The bus driver mumbles something sitting on the steps of the dangerous colossus entrusted to him. In any event, here you really can feel the tangy mountain climate. Like his passengers, the driver is Dutch and no longer understands the mountains or the world or those defeated people around here, this special breed which prides itself to be nature’s master and can’t even master its own cars. Something has been felled here, a clearing opens up, it generously makes room for the sun to shine on like a spotlight. Like rolling stones, helpful inhabitants of the valley clamber across the muddy meadow. From the giant balcony above, the terrace of the tourist centre, more human wrecks are tumbling down, unharmed, but unhinged by their grief for the victims, they will get in the way of the rescue workers. All are wearing colourful summer clothes until evening. Then they will throw on their sweaters. Like a woolly dog, playful and fresh, nature jumps around her guests, circling them, tossing them up in the air, but not catching them, because another little stick flying through the air seems suddenly more attractive; capriciously, nature puts her paws on this and that, lets go again ignoring that her playmate had been completely squashed and torn apart by her. She sniffs at the pieces, howls her song into the Lite until nightfall, then hauls another song from deep down her throat. Nature! Jumping about clumsily, she bullies her way across the terrain like her bulldozers, which are already on the way. Endless the thrill of those life size dolls scattered about, their limbs spread-eagle, their mouths no longer speaking words. Branches are broken off, their leaves already wilting. Rising high in the midday heat are the human slopes, decorations for the landscape, from which this land lives, they stretch all the way up the hill, to the tourist center and even inside, where those continuing alive are scurrying about, rescuing their belongings on the trash pile; they’ve been saved, now they can spend themselves on the fitness trail. Dark forests below; those recent storms only ripped the hem, soon construction brigades will have it fixed and rip us off, if we dare to speed across it over thirty km/h. Let us proceed on foot, into the woods. The sun holds up a light to our faces, we think the Lite in front of us is a mirror and bang our heads against the mug that is us. Thus, we throw ourselves down the alpine valley, the dogs bark, something grabs us by the neck, but not the dogs, they want to assure us for now.

By Elfriede Jelinek

Translated by Gitta Honegger

From Children of the Dead by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Gitta Honegger. Published by Yale University Press in 2024 in the Margellos World Republic of Letters series. Reproduced by permission.

From the Prologue of DIE KINDER DER TOTEN

(‘Children of the Dead’)

By Elfriede Jelinek

Translated by Gitta Honegger, 

Published by Rowohlt (1995)

Translation of the book forthcoming

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Elfriede Jelinek is an Austrian playwright and novelist. She is one of the most decorated authors writing in German today and was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Gitta Honegger is the authorised translator of Elfriede Jelinek. She also translated works by Elias Canetti, Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard, among others. Recent translations of Elfriede Jelinek include Fury, rein GOLD, Charges (‘The Supplicants’), The Merchant’s Contracts, Rechnitz, Shadow. Eurydice Says, Death/Valley/ Mountain (Totenauberg) and The Children of the Dead.

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