What Lies Beneath: Neoliberalism, Façades and Truth in Aleš Šteger’s Absolution

Posted by Timothy Jones on October 03, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with , , ,

 

By Kate Walker

 

In the introduction to New Directions in 21st Century Gothic, Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Donna Lee Brien discuss the malleability of the term ‘Gothic,’ and its continual transformation into disparate narrative forms and fictional disciplines.  Whilst recognising how ‘contemporary Gothic is never too far removed from its origins and its narrative pasts,’[1]  they simultaneously explore how the gothic has also become increasingly popularised and commercialised within contemporary contexts.  These perspectives led to the development of transnational gothic and Globalgothic theories, which recognise the continuities and commonalities within the gothic, despite varying cultures, experiences or locations, allowing an almost universal identification.[2]  However, Danel Olson still claims that ‘[n]aturally each land, through its art, culture, technology, and history, either disinters or births a Gothic creature substantially its own.’[3]  Acknowledging both contemporary perspectives, I will examine Aleš Šteger’s Absolution to investigate the global recognition of conventional gothic tropes, while simultaneously reflecting his Slovenian nationalism.  By focusing on neoliberalism and corruption, the city and culture of Maribor, and the incorporation of occultisms and truth, I will examine the gothicisation of Maribor and the underlying darkness that Šteger exposes in Absolution.

 

Neoliberalism and Financial Authority

‘This is the European capital of nepotism and neoliberal manure, not culture.’[4] 

Since its popularisation and promotion in the 1970s, neoliberalism has ‘transformed the geopolitical landscape’[5] and dominated contemporary existence.  Replacing collectivism with individualism, where each neoliberal subject was accountable for their own financial success, neoliberalism destabilised the socio-economic state by countries focusing on the resulting financial gain from global trade, the free market and the privatisation of the public sector.  Disregarding the financial situation of their own populous, the financial divide between the elite and the lower classes, subsequently, increased.  It is this consequential environment that Blake and Monnet combine with the gothic to establish their theory of the neoliberal gothic:

Like neoliberalism itself, we argue, such [neoliberal gothic] works have both a nationally specific context and a global awareness. They articulate distinct national histories, identity paradigms and divergent modes of socio-cultural organisation.  But they are unified by a will to interrogate the ways in which neoliberal economics has impacted the modern world, has pervaded our very consciousness and, in so doing, has refashioned the very subjectivities we inhabit.[6]

Simultaneously revealing how neoliberalism is both a global and national instability, there is also an awareness regarding the commonality of contemporary culture’s reactionary transformation once this ideology became adopted by the masses as the norm.  Ultimately, Blake and Monnet examine how ‘the gothic texts of the neoliberal age can be seen to undertake the same kind of cultural work that was carried out by the gothic mode in earlier periods of socio-economic turbulence.’[7]  As the gothic is applied to reflect and critique the socio-cultural fears and anxieties of different eras, within the neoliberal paradigm, it is used to expose the underlying truths and realities resulting from the adherence to this economic concept.

In Absolution, Šteger uses the gothic to depict a dystopic present to reveal the negative impact of neoliberalism, particularly how certain leaders abuse and corrupt the system.  Utilising the gothic, Šteger’s text is a reactionary response and public damning of Slovenia’s second largest city, Maribor, being awarded the European Capital of Culture in 2012. Criticising the neoliberal socio-economic structure of Maribor, which in turn reflects the neoliberalism in Slovenia and worldwide, Šteger demonstrates Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet’s theory of neoliberal gothic.

Erika Gottlieb, when exploring twentieth century examples of dystopia in Dystopian Fiction East and West, identifies dystopia as a post-Christian genre:

If the central drama of the age of faith was the conflict between salvation and damnation by deity, in our secular modern age this drama has been transposed to a conflict between humanity’s salvation or damnation by society in the historical arena. In the modern scenario salvation is represented as a just society governed by worthy representatives chosen by an enlightened people; damnation, by an unjust society, a degraded mob ruled by a power-crazed elite.[8]

Shifting the focus from religion to the socio-cultural, contemporary examples of dystopia reflect the prevalent anxieties over prominent power structures abusing their influence and the resulting damnation, or fallout, from this exploitation. Absolution exhibits this perspective by the protagonists, Adam Bely and Rosa Portero, seeking to remove and overthrow the Great Orc, an ‘octopus’ of thirteen individuals who control Maribor, ”in order to give the future of this city a chance.”[9]  Comprised of the most powerful and influential members of Maribor, the Great Orc is constructed to promote the success of themselves and the city, even at the expense of the residents who are referred to as starving and unemployed.[10]  When explaining the limitations imposed on the residents of Maribor through the Great Orc’s reign to Rosa, who is of Cuban-Austrian descent, Bely states:

‘This has got nothing to do with religion, nothing at all. But it does relate to the past, the truth about where we come from and who we are.  Mostly it relates to the truth of who we might have been if we hadn’t constantly been hypnotized, confined and boxed in within our very own boundaries.  Which, by the way, happen to be even more confining, even more airtight in this city than anywhere else in this part of the world.  Maribor is a truly unique city in this sense.  There’s no other city anywhere that is as narrow-minded as this one.’[11]

Combining neoliberal gothic and the dystopic, the secret society of the Great Orc rejects religion, replacing it with the control the socio-economic paradigm has over Maribor. Although recognising the transnational ‘hypnotism’ of neoliberalism, Šteger also suggests that Maribor, specifically, is particularly corrupt.

Nonetheless, Bely is later corrected by a member of the Great Orc who reveals ”[m]y daddy Orc has lots of brothers, one in every city,”[12] to imply that this neoliberal dystopia is a worldwide crisis.  Through the depiction of a secret society dominating and controlling the city, the connotations of neoliberalism is a nefarious and oppressive construct, and one that underlies every global location.  In the next blog post, I will continue to examine how Maribor is constructed as a gothicised city, and how Šteger’s exposes Maribor’s hidden past and corrupt foundations.

 

Corrupt Foundations and Culture as Art

You, too, are only art.[13]

In her chapter ‘Gothic Cities and Suburbs 1880-Present,’ Sara Wasson explores how nineteenth-century urbanisation and industrialisation relocated the spatiality of the gothic from remote locations to the urban city:

By the 1880s, the labyrinthine streets of Europe had become a perfect platform for updating the themes of earlier Gothic, and in the 130 years since, cities and suburbs have remained rich sites for Gothic production.[14]

The city has continued to be an important location for the urban gothic, and Wasson examines how it has been consistently reinvented into the twenty-first century, leading to the city becoming an active component of the gothic. This includes the city’s architecture and structure often being reflective of psychological or emotional experiences, such as claustrophobia and mental instability, that builds upon the character’s state of mind.

In continuation and expansion of urban and suburban spaces, Wasson states:

while urban Gothic emphasizes the particular horrors of unique cities, suburban Gothic presents its settings as strikingly uniform, and indeed in that conformity lies much of the horror.  And while urban Gothic is highly alert to threats from the past returning, suburban Gothic often represents its locations as disturbingly devoid of history rather than menaced by it.[15]

Focusing on Wasson’s definition of urban gothic, Šteger can be seen to exemplify this conventional trope to manipulate Maribor into a gothicised location. Emulating the secrecy and fabricated culture of the city and its citizens under the control of the Great Orc, the urban space of Maribor is used to explore the corruption that is hidden beneath the surface and in its past.  Throughout Absolution there are continual references to the city council developing and building a sewage system that will run under the city and be erected in the old city centre.[16]  This repeated acknowledgement of Maribor being situated over faeces and waste is reflective of the corruption that the Great Orc members promote, as the new sewage system is to actually a ruse to provide Mayor Voda (and Great Orc member) with the money to build apartments for his mistresses.

Furthermore, Maribor is also depicted as situated over mass graves that originate from Scientology’s mythology of Xenu’s genocide, but also include other major Slovene historical moments, including those from when Slovenia was known as Yugoslavia. Upon Bely and Rosa’s interview with the director of the Maribor Funeral Parlour, Magda Ornik, to confirm her affiliation with the Great Orc, they discuss her view on death:

‘First, our entire country is nothing but one big burial ground. We all know that whenever you start digging with a shovel you’ll hit a grave or even a mass grave.  The Romans, the Middle Ages, the Ottoman invasions, the First World War, the Second World War, the post-war massacres.  Slovenia is at a crossroads.  Everything comes together and mixes here, and every era provides its share of the dead.’[17]

Ornik’s disregard towards the multiple events of mass deaths emphasises Maribor’s horrific foundational location, the particular horrors unique to Maribor. Furthermore, Šteger also employs this commentary to criticise how certain historical European events have attempted to be altered to distort or reinvent their past history.  In discussion of Absolution and his other works at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2017, Šteger claims that ‘[t]his erasure and distortion of history leads [. . .] to ‘a vacuum of identity’.[18]  Whilst this motive opposes Wasson’s urban gothic definition by relating more to suburban gothic, Šteger uses Maribor as a microcosm for his views on historical rewriting, depicting a nationalism specific to Slovenia but also incorporating and referencing the biased or disregarded histories on a global scale.  Simultaneously revealing and concealing the corrupt foundation of Maribor, literally built over shit and death, Šteger utilises the spatiality of the urban gothic to reflect the depths of the disreputability of the Great Orc’s motives and exploitation of the city.

Šteger’s critique of Slovenia’s attempt to remove their history and resulting void in national identity, is also portrayed through the repeated references to the citizens of Maribor as façades and culture as art. During a discussion, Rosa queries why Bely talks about ”façades and not people,” to which he replies, ‘You don’t get it; façades are people.”[19]  This notion combined with the performativity of the residents of Maribor, implies that the citizens have no depth of identity, but merely existing in their assigned roles.  This includes the deviance and criminality within Maribor, which is also controlled and regulated.  Great Orc member and famous prosecutor Laszlo Farkas confesses that he sponsors the Volleys, a group of football thugs, in their displays of organised crime and violence: ”[p]erformance art during matches: volcano flambé, torchlight parades, pepper shows, choreographed with music and applause.  The Volleys consider themselves to be urban artists.”[20]  Referencing that the Volley’s criminal acts are defined as art, Šteger continues his reproach of Maribor being deemed European Capital of Culture through the implication that these are the artistic or cultural contributions that Maribor supplies.

However, the negativity provoked by Šteger’s criticism of façades and performative behaviour is conflicted through his construction of the narrative and his repeated references to how reality is a theatrical performance. Adhering to Piatti-Farnell and Brien’s statement that ‘the preoccupations of the [gothic] mode in the post-2000 era appear to go beyond simple issues of format, medium, and even characterisation,’[21] Absolution includes a Dramatis Personæ, multiple sections from a dramatised version of War and Peace, and references alluding to the fictionality of its own narrative.  Set during the Slovenian Kurent carnival, (although Šteger relocates it from Ptuj to Maribor for his novel) Absolution is infiltrated with demons, mythological creatures and animals that seemingly materialise throughout the city streets.  It is also through the use of the carnival that Šteger reveals a homage to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in the opening paragraph, where a devil is walking the streets of Maribor:

Isn’t it just the thickly woven, brocaded stage curtains, the weight of the fog that falls through the dusk, the moisture, the cold that matters? Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man. [. . .] The whole time the silhouette of a woman has been at the man’s heels. A figure draws near them, and it looks much like the Devil.  And so it is.[22]

Also an imitation of an opening act of a theatrical performance, this introductory paragraph establishes the narrative structure for the rest of the novel. Although incorporating the urban gothic overrun by demons and façades effectively shows the artificial and corrupt nature of Maribor, Šteger’s application of theatrical references and narrative can be seen as inconsistent in comparison to his demeaning representation of culture and art.  Nonetheless, these inclusions reflect the city’s underlying corruption breaking through to the surface, revealing Maribor’s hidden darkness.  The next blog post will examine the power of occultic truth and knowledge in overpowering neoliberalism and the Great Orc members.

 

[1] Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Donna Lee Brien, ‘Introduction: The Gothic Compass,’ in New Directions in 21st Century Gothic: The Gothic Compass, ed. by Lorna Piatti-Farnell and Donna Lee Brien (New York: Routledge, 2015), pp. 1-10

[2] Fred Botting and Justin D. Edwards, ‘Theorising globalgothic’, in Globalgothic, ed. by Glennis Byron (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 11-24, p. 12

[3] Danel Olson, ‘Introduction,’ in 21st Century Gothic: Great Gothic Novels Since 2000, ed. by. Danel Olson (Maryland: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2011), pp. 18-34, p. 24

[4] Aleš Šteger, Absolution, trans. by Urška Charney and Noah Charney (London: Istros Books, 2017), p. 47

[5] Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, ‘Introduction: neoliberal gothic,’ <http://d2yvuud5fila0c.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/10084448/NeoliberalGothic_Intro_Blake.pdf> [accessed 13 April 2018] , p. 1

[6] Blake and Monnet, p. 3

[7] Blake and Monnet, p. 1

[8] Gottlieb, Erika, Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001), p. 3

[9] Šteger, p. 37

[10] ‘The people you saw outside, they’re a wonderful group. Intellectuals, very erudite, proactive youngsters who are fed up with this neoliberal shit.  Have you heard what’s going on in the city? Huge deals, that’s what’s going on.  All while people are starving. We must put an end to it. This city is rife with discontent; every other person here is unemployed.’ Šteger, p. 45

[11] Šteger, pp. 36-37

[12] Šteger, p. 59

[13] Šteger,p. 35

[14] Sara Wasson, ‘Gothic Cities and Suburbs 1880-Present,’ in The Gothic World, ed. by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend (Oxon: Routledge, 2014), pp. 132-142. p. 132

[15] Wasson. p. 136 (emphasis mine)

[16] Šteger,p. 45

[17] Šteger, p. 90

[18] Morelle Smith, ‘New International Literature from Edinburgh Book Festival,’ <https://rivertrain.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/new-international-literature-from.html> [accessed 13 April 2018]

[19] Šteger, p. 32

[20] Šteger, p. 58

[21] Piatti-Farnell and Brien, p. 1

[22] Šteger, p. 11

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