Charges (The Supplicants)
By Elfriede Jelinek
Translated by Gitta Honegger
Seagull Books, 2016
As a showcase of Elfriede Jelinek’s stellar writing and her unique approach to drama, this astutely structured book could hardly be bettered.
It contains the title work, Charges, a ‘play’ (the reason for the quotes will become clear in due course) touching on the plight of migrants arriving in Europe, and two later additions to it: Coda and Appendix. These texts are followed by an interview, fairly wide-ranging in scope, between Jelinek and her translator, Gitta Honegger. I would recommend that the reader begins the book with this interview.
Here, she touches on her influences and background (she studied music, and in particular composition), speaks about the work of other Austrian writers (notably Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard) and confesses to a fascination with Heidegger. She also discusses the experience of translating Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and her particular methods of working and approach to her craft. I was struck by several remarks, for example that ‘writers don’t really have to know anything’ (in a context where she is contrasting herself with philosophers). Most enlightening of all, mind, with regard to Charges and its related texts is an explanation of her approach to drama:
But my plays are texts, basically like the novels, just that the ones are texts for speaking, the others for reading. And that’s the only difference.
In formal terms, what is intriguing about Charges is that there are no designated speakers, or characters as such. To be sure, there is a collective voice or chorus (anyway, a ‘we’) and, arising out of this, you can discern (sometimes) distinct individuals (in the interview Jelinek talks of ‘linguistic templates’). But by no means are there characters as would be found in a conventional West End play. Rather, it is as though the text is a reservoir, or better yet a sea, not unlike the Mediterranean, out of which characters can be rescued or salvaged (or to change the metaphor: carved, excavated) though this process is not clear-cut. The individual voices are nebulous, fuzzy, difficult to reach. Some cannot be reached. They perish.
As one might gather from the subtitle in parenthesis, Charges leans heavily on Aeschylus’s great play (which I was privileged to see last year in a fine production at the Royal Exchange) to present the plight of migrants in Europe. It was topical when written in 2013, a chief inspiration for Jelinek being an incident where a group of asylum seekers occupied the Votivkirche in Vienna. And, God knows, it is topical now too. Disaffection with Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to immigration lay at the root of her disappointing result in the recent German election and the rise of the far right. And immigration is the predominant issue in the current Italian election too.
Recent years have seen a fair few works touching on migration crisis, notably from Ai Weiwei, and of these Charges comes across as one of the most compelling. The crucial question, present in Aeschylus too, is: What does our response to ‘them’ say about ‘us’? Do we recognise ourselves when we look at one unlike us? Are they part of our ‘we’, or not? Hannah Arendt was able to say ‘We Refugees’ and include herself among their number, can we say as much?
‘Best keep yourself clean and bright,’ advised the wise George Bernard Shaw, ‘you are the window through which you see the world.’
The publisher’s description of Charges (The Supplicants) can be read here.