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Elfriede Jelinek: Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead)

Jelinek has said that this novel is the culmination of what she has tried to achieve in her writing. While she might think so, critics have not always been so supportive. Despite rumours, the book has yet to be published in English. Jelinek herself said that the book could not be published in Dutch, though a translation did eventually appear in that language in 1998. As it is Jelinek, it is neither an easy nor an enjoyable one, though a clearly very effective one. There cannot be many Nobel Prize winners who have written books about zombies, which is the subject of this book.

The story is set in a tourist village in the Austrian Alps. She does not keep us waiting but immediately lays on the theme of death – the famous people that have died there, the risk of accidents caused from deteriorating roads and actual or, more particularly, threatened deaths, all of which is set against a background of a happy, almost tourist brochure-like description of the village and the area. Welcome to Austria, where we have skiing, lovely scenery, bloody deaths and flesh-eating zombies. We follow the story of three victims. The first is Edgar Gstranz, an accomplished skier, who was killed in a car accident. More interesting are the two women. The first is Gudrun Bichler, a student (of philosophy) who killed herself when she was worried about her exams. Karin Frenzel is a lonely widow, who works as a secretary for a government agency and looks after her mother and who plunges to her death in a ravine in one version and in a bus accident in another (Jelinek gives us Karin I and Karin II). Jelinek gives us a graphic, almost photographic description of the dead Karin at the bottom of the ravine.

It is not a happy life being a zombie, at least according both to Jelinek and Hollywood B movies. Jelinek’s portrait of these three shows that they are somewhat like the people in Dante‘s Purgatory, neither here nor there. Nor are they pretty, with flesh and hair hanging off and drifting round in a rather insalubrious state. They are quite keen on sex but, as this is Jelinek, the sex includes, indeed focuses on masturbation, castration and, of course, necrophilia. Throw in cannibalism, rotting body parts, vampires, strange dietary needs and a general zombie-like distancing from the world, and you soon get a very unpleasant picture of the life of an Austrian zombie. Just to add to our confusion, it is never very clear when what they are doing is taking place, i.e. before or after their deaths. (They are also able to die and be reborn as zombies multiple times.)

Of course, as in her other works, Jelinek is making a strong point about Austria and Austrian society. The zombies are, of course, modern Austrians, feeding on the past (particularly the Nazi past) and, instead of changing Austria for the better, spending too much time enjoying their consumer goods – cars (in particular), food, clothes, nice houses and so on. The women are just as much to blame as the men. Indeed, Karin and Gudrun are probably somewhat nastier than Edgar, with Jelinek making a clear point about the complicity of Austrian women in what she sees as the lurch to the right of her country. You won’t read this novel for fun but it is still strangely compelling, as an intellectual version of a Hollywood zombie movie and, of course, whether you agree with Jelinek about the political situation in Austria or not, she certainly makes her point.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Rowohlt
First published in English in 2024 by Yale University Press
Translated by Gitta Honegger