Enjoy your Cellar: Claustria, by Régis Jauffret (review)


It is tempting to suspect that Josef Fritzl lived his life auditioning for a career in a particular proud tradition of scabrous, satirical, uncomfortable literature. Ritchie Robertson famously argued that life in Austria in 2008 seems to have been competing with literature, and in the five years since then, literature has clamoured to outdo Fritzl’s life. Robertson’s gleeful but scholarly journey through familial abuse in Austrian literature ends with Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust; shortly after the cellar abuse was revealed, Jelinek herself responded to the Fritzl case on her website with the angry piece Im Verlassenen, which is, like all of the pieces on http://www.elfriedejelinek.com, under a strict citation embargo – either, you might say, preserving its integrity from intrusive attacks, or locking it up in its own internet prison. Austria is indeed a land of secrets.

Rather than the poetic invective of Jelinek, though, the most popular literary version of the Fritzl imaginary to date has not been by an Austrian Nestbeschmutzer at all, but by the prolific Irish novelist Emma Donaghue, in her bestselling 2010 novel Room. Room lifts the darkness of the cellar out of the Gothic Alps, and re-locates it in unnamed white-bread American suburbia; a Verschiebung, we might say, in Dr. Freud’s terms, rather than the Verdrängung so neatly represented by the Amstetten cellar. In Donoghue’s version, the abductor is no longer the victim’s father but a random predator known only as ‘Old Nick’, and the cellar is not even a cellar any more, but a bespoke outhouse fiendishly well-concealed in a suburban back yard. So cunningly sealed is this outhouse that, despite its inmates’ plucky efforts to cry for help every week, no neighbour could possibly hear them and come to their rescue. This tasteful dungeon excludes not only the nastiness of incest, but also any specifically Austrian context along with the general corruptions of the modern world, and hence any messy political implications to the captivity it describes. As such, Room belongs less to the Austrian history of domestic abuse in letters, and more to the mechanical genre of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (2003), where a news story with troubling political implications is packaged into an apolitical, anonymous, easily consumable literary product.

Room depicts an idealized Robinsonade where Jack and his nameless Ma can spend most of the day in wholesome educational games without fear of disruption by the dark currents of Freudian psychology or of European history. Ma’s captor has provided them with TV (all the objects in Jack’s limited world are cutesily personified, and hence appear without definite or indefinite articles), but Jack piously repeats Ma’s dictum that it rots their brains, adding ‘Before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that’s like a ghost but walks thump thump’. By exorcising TV, the mother-child dyad thus manages also to exorcise any hint of das Unheimliche, any ghostly or haunting resonances. There are no absences in Jack’s world, but an abundance of presence – every object he has ever owned remains treasured, he is breastfed whenever he wishes at the age of five, even his hair is never cut. James Wood, writing in the London Review of Books, argues that this mother-child dyad represents the perfect Winnecottian fantasy, ‘a Winnicottian utopia, awash with lovingly retained transitional objects, in which Mummy has never had to teach her little boy the art of disappointment’. This seems to me not quite right; rather, Room is a fantasy not of good-enough mothering, but of perfect mothering. Just as the rapist Old Nick holds perfect sway over Ma, Ma has perfect control over Jack’s childhood experience, without intrusion from state, mass media or interfering relatives. Instead, she is free to mould his tiny but perfectly healthy body and precocious mind entirely according to her wise and anti-consumerist principles. Jack is a paragon of cuteness, literacy and trust. Small wonder, then, that after the Wunderkind effects a dashing escape that allows the prisoners to leave the outhouse, both Ma and Jack spend the rest of the novel in a state of increasing disappointment with the fallen world into which they are ejected.

Régis Jauffret’s Gothic, reeking Claustria (2012), a French novel drawing on the Fritzl case, differs in almost every imaginable way from Donaghue’s sanitised thought experiment, but for one. Donaghue’s angelic Jack is based on Felix Fritzl, the youngest of the Amstetten ‘cellar children’, and Claustria similarly preserves for the reader the naïve and hopeful consciousness of the youngest cellar child (here called Roman) as a focalisation point for the reader. In an odd temporal swerve towards its beginning, the novel gives us a potted summary of Roman’s unhappy afterlife until the middle of the century, catapulting us into 2055. Roman dies after a series of failed relationships and failed jobs as an ‘old, fat, dissolute youth’, but we are still told that ‘of the cellar clan, only Roman will be saved’. The novel then returns to the cellar, and grinds through the twenty-four years of horror suffered by the imprisoned Fritzls, but the birth of young Roman is awaiting us towards the end of the narrative. He grows up playful and happy, the only one of his children who melts Josef Fritzl’s heart and receives affection, not abuse. Jauffret embraces the grotesque darkness of the cellar, but here, too, he saves a mother-child dyad as a point of hope for the reader. Roman is mostly delightful, and the abducted daughter (here called Angelika) is also more or less brave, kind and corrupted neither by her abusive upbringing nor by her subsequent incarceration in the house of horrors. It would be stretching a point to call Claustria cosy, but, like the desperately sad children’s stickers on the bathroom in the Fritzl cellar, it suggests that a sentimental faith in humanity might shine through its darkness.

If Room is conventional, digestible and brief, Claustria rambles, swings wildly about in time, switches narrators, moves above and below ground, drags the reader between sympathy and disgust, and dispenses with most conventional forms of reader guidance, signally chapters. The cover and foreword insist that it is a novel, and of course it is a novel: it’s imagined, emotional, generically hybrid. But it also contains a semi-documentary account by a French journalist called Jauffret who cannot speak German, who travels to Austria to report on the Fritzl case, makes some appalling discoveries about the negligence of the police team investigating the case, befriends several neighbours of the Fritzls, and manages to effect an illegal entry into the Fritzl cellar. It’s just as well that Claustria is completely fictional, because otherwise Jauffret might have some serious allegations of libel to answer. As it is, readers of this blog will probably know that Claustria has not been welcomed with delight by the famously touchy Austrian press. Jauffret’s fictional case against Austria indicts both the justice system and the residents of Amstetten, hence by implication indicting all small-town Austrians who would rather not ask awkward questions about their neighbours, and the vain Austrian state that is more concerned with its international image than with establishing the truth.

Claustria isn’t quite a novel, then; it contains at the very least a hefty dose of j’accuse. The documentary aspect of the documentary fiction is introduced early on. Shortly after the swerve into the year 2055, Jauffret’s fictional detective interviews the forensic acoustics team, who provide him with evidence that Fritzl’s jerry-built cellar in no way cut off the everyday sounds of the people imprisoned there from the outside world. The cellar television would have been audible in the attic. The forensic team argue that the plans of the cellar that the police issued to the world are entirely wrong. The police refuse to admit their evidence to the trial, the forensic experts are dismissed halfway through their investigations, and they find themselves blacklisted by the police, unable to secure any further work. When Jauffret breaks into the cellar with a semi-criminal accomplice months later, he finds the forensic recording equipment still there, under a thick layer of dust. Jauffret further discovers that the police closed their investigation into Fritzl’s wife (here called Anneliese), taking her protestations of innocence at face value; they refuse to interview the neighbours of the Fritzls; the forensic psychiatrist only takes an interest in Fritzl’s own psychology, refusing to provide psychiatric support for Angelika, the principal victim, or to investigate the possibility that Fritzl may also have raped his daughter’s children, or to investigate Fritzl’s ‘upstairs’ son, who on his own admission had been in the cellar. Further, why was the disappearance of Fritzl’s daughter not investigated in the first place? and how on earth could the authorities swallow the story of a mysterious succession of infants ‘abandoned’ by the supposedly untraceable daughter on her father’s doorstep? The list of accusations towards the (fictional, of course) authorities is damning, and it isn’t surprising that the Austrian press was not entirely warmly disposed towards Claustria. That said, the extent of the scandal may be exaggerated. Die Presse , drily reported that although Jauffret had claimed that his book had caused uproar in Austria as soon as it was published, Die Presse had been the only publication even to review the original French edition in January 2012, with Der Standard merely printing a press notice about its positive reviews in France. However, the German translation of Claustria managed to garner a marketable aura of scandal, at least, with the tabloid magazine News obediently terming it ‘The book that’s shocking Austria’, and Rudolf Taschner, reviewing for Die Presse, thundering that the book was ‘pure filth’ . The Kurier also reported widespread rage in Amstetten, termed a ‘grey dump’ in the novel, but also noted that apparently no Amstetteners had actually read the book. At 528 highly-strung pages, this is perhaps unsurprising. However, in general the tone in the Austrian press was less outraged than dismissive of Jauffret’s efforts to create a scandal or make yet more hackneyed pronouncements about the ‘Austrian disease’. Jauffret had discovered nothing that the general reader couldn’t, the Presse remarked, and given that he couldn’t even speak German, one wouldn’t expect astonishing revelations. An Austrian writer could never have got away with such sloppiness.

However, Claustria far exceeds a not entirely controversial fictionalisation of Régis Jauffret’s own investigations into the Fritzl case. When Jauffret breaks into the cellar and lies down on Angelika’s filthy bed, he also descends into a spiral of psychological horror, is assailed by the presence of ghosts, faints, and then awakes surrounded by rats. ‘The certainty that something is here, something living – memories, that are immured in the walls and were woken through my intrusion, that are just about to awake from their lethargy, to let twenty-four years of horror happen…’ We have left the realm of the documentary and entered that of the Gothic, and it is in the Gothic that Jauffret’s attempt to imagine the twenty-four years of horror in the cellar is firmly situated. The narrative jumps around between time periods and between narrators in an attempt to describe every possible aspect of the Amstetten horror. Towards the beginning, we are more often with Josef Fritzl, inhabiting his boundlessly vicious, vain and stupid fantasies; we are with him as he imprisons Angelika, ties her on a leash, rapes her, breaks all her teeth, nearly kills her; we are privy to his pornographic imaginings, sadistic impulses towards his children, abuse and de facto murder of his mother, pride in his early rape conviction. We hear his complacent certainty that Angelika is beginning to ‘bitch like a proper wife’ and has become sexually dependent on him. But we also hear Angelika’s frantic attempts to free herself from a household where her father had already started raping and beating her while she attended school, follow her as she tries to escape Austria with her first boyfriend, resist her mother during repeated beatings, attempt to maintain some kind of dignity during her imprisonment, manipulate her father in an attempt to protect her children, keep a barely legible diary. It is here that the present reader began questioning the legitimacy of Jauffret’s enterprise. Fritzl is far too tempting a monster not to explore thoroughly, and the mixture of empathy and revulsion that his self-pitying, self-aggrandising inner life provokes is not entirely new in fiction (one thinks here not only of John Fowles’s Collector, but also of the protagonist of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow). Equally, protracted scenes of rape and torture are a staple of today’s gritty crime fiction. But to ventriloquise the voice of the victim is to stray into the territory of kitsch, and stretches credulity moreover. The artless, desperate, yet still hopeful voice of Angelika resembles the homespun heroism of Donaghue’s Ma, more than the lacerating rage of an Elfriede Jelinek. Once we are told that, despite all the misery, Angelika’s diary is in fact a ‘magical booklet’, that as she scribbles ‘in the beginning really was the word’, our credulity is strained beyond tolerance. When, after five hundred pages of horrors, Jauffret gives us a touching image of the prisoners packing and stumbling towards daylight, the reader is left irritably asking, ‘How on earth would you know anything about it?’ In an attempt to imagine everything, from the unbearable stink of the cellar to the flabby, constantly masturbating figures of the cellar children, Jauffet only reveals that he can know nothing.

In trying unsparingly to show everything, to break not only the taboo surrounding Austria’s complicity in the Amstetten horror but also the taboo on representing perpetrators relishing their monstrous crimes, Claustria resembles less the Anglophone middlebrow novel and more another recent epic French novel that dives with pornographic gusto into the violent German historical subconscious, munching the scenery as it goes: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006). While Claustria hasn’t yet found much favour outside its native France, The Kindly Ones was showered with praise worldwide, as well as winning the Prix Goncourt, and creating its own amount of scandal in the German press too. Like Claustria, it is also ostentatiously well-researched, sensationalist and intimate with the grotesque inner life of the perpetrator. Littell’s fictional protagonist, Max Aue, describes his excesses of violence during the genocide of European Jewry with as much gusto as he describes his endless incestuous fantasies about his sister, so much so that we begin to suspect that this hyper-realism may, in fact, be nothing but a parody of authenticity, a giant, grand-guignol sneer at the pious literary belief that mass murder can be personified, pathologised or psychologised at all. It might be stretching a point to call Claustria groundbreaking metafiction, and the tawdry tortures in Amstetten, horrific though they are, are hardly of the same historical gravity as the Nazi crimes in central Europe. Although Jauffret cannot be accused of anything like irony, he is all too aware of the Freudian temptations of the Fritzl case. His narrator warns that the cellar is in constant danger of becoming a cheap psychoanalytical metaphor, and yet he cannot resist the temptation of that metaphor, just as he cannot resist the temptation to make Fritzl a metaphorical Hitler, Amstetten a metaphorical Nazi Austria, Roman a metaphorical baby Jesus, even to make Fritzl, with his mania for property speculation and shoddy extensions to his home, a metaphor for the economic hubris and crash of 2008. He does not stop at showing us Fritzl’s inner life, but must also reveal the inner life of the victims, Anneliese’s relatives, the Amstetten bystanders, Angelika’s complicit teachers, the police investigators, everyone. Over-fraught with meaning, Claustria collapses into kitsch, despite or more probably because of its careful research, wealth of stomach-churning details and grandiose literary ambition.

Does it matter? If we accept that the metaphoricity is so overstretched as to be meaningless, might Claustria not just become a gruesome entertainment without any obvious historical referent, like David Peace’s Red Riding quartet or simply a Patricia Cornwall whodunnit? Or does the explicit use of the names ‘Josef Fritzl’ and ‘Amstetten’, the careful chronology, the meticulous explanation of just how aware the local plumbers, lodgers and electricians must have been of the atrocity happening underneath the filthy Fritzl mansion, mean that Jauffret must take on some responsibility for representing historical events that happened to real people extremely recently, all of whom can and probably will read his book? In which case, shouldn’t Jauffret turn some of his energies towards securing the justice that he clearly feels has not yet been done to the victims? Littell broke one minor literary taboo (on tempting the reader to identify with the perpetrator) in the context of a seventy-year-old tradition of erudite debates about representing the Holocaust; Jauffret broke the rather larger taboo on intruding on the painful recent experiences of the living. Thankfully, we know almost nothing of how the real Elisabeth Fritzl and her family are living now, five years after their liberation, and in a sense this book has nothing to do with them, and far more to do with Jauffret and with us, the readers. And for general readers, the novel is accomplished and has an undoubted fascination. Jauffret has done this kind of ‘imaginative investigation’ of lurid cases before (see his 2009 Severe), and he knows what he is doing. There were many places where the details were so stomach-curdling that I had to put the novel down, but I picked it up again, too, and not just because I had promised to review it. If our enjoyment of fictionalised Amstetten horrors is symptomatic of the cruel pathologies lurking within all of us, well then, as Žižek wisely enjoins us, we should enjoy our symptom.

Régis Jauffret: Claustria, Verlag Lessingstrasse 6, 528 pp, 24,90 Euro

My thanks to Prof. Peter Davies and Dr. Matt Boswell for their insightful help with this review.


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  1. In trying unspa… | Helen Finch linked to this post.
  2. Heide Kunzelmann

    The Austrian pedophile who holds his victims hostage in a cellar has apparently evolved into an archetypal figure in crime fiction. The crime drama “Top of the Lake”, set in New Zealand and starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss as well as Holly Hunter (http://thefilmstage.com/reviews/review-top-of-the-lake-parts-1-3/) presents Wolfgang Zanic, an Austrian bar owner in a small town and Fritzl-figure with a Gustav Aschenbach attitude, who becomes prime suspect in a case about a disappeared pregnant 12 year old.

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