27 October 2015

Régis Jauffret: Claustria (2012)

There's a sort of legal disclaimer at the front of this book, stating that it's a work of fiction, as of course you'd expect from a work that describes itself as a novel on the title-page. Jauffret's Sévère (2010) also described itself as a novel on the title-page and was also based on a fait divers or story in the news, but it had nothing like the legal disclaimer here, and it ran into legal complications. But Claustria clearly states that any characters in it have no relationship to living people. Well...

Well, Jauffret did a great deal of research on the Josef Fritzl case before writing the book, to the point of going to Austria, interesting himself in the Fritzl trial, visiting the dungeon in Amstetten where Fritzl imprisoned his daughter Elisabeth for twenty-four years and raped her perhaps 3000 times, and where she had seven children by him. He even calls the protagonist by his real name, but as Josef Fritzl was the only guilty party here he changes the names of all the other characters. The world knows the essentials of this story, but not much about how Fritzl's 'second family' survived, how it spent its time.

This really is where Régis Jauffret's novel comes in, because he imagines what it must have been like to undergo such an ordeal, although as he says, it's easy to imagine being tortured or being shot dead, but how can anyone conceive of twenty-four years of this kind of torture, of not being free to belong to the outside world, of not knowing when your torturer is going to come and rape you, of not knowing what kind of mood he's going to be in, of what he's going to do next?

Jauffret refused to see Fritzl when he went to Austria because he's a man completely without ideas, a blank. Certainly we're talking about a cunning person who premeditated the rape home several years before the abduction of the girl Jauffret calls Angelika because he built it as a nuclear shelter. The food supplies were well thought out as Fritzl shopped in another town to evade suspicion, and he only delivers them at night. But Fritzl has no inner life, is incapable of thinking anything through if it isn't practical. He is Nazi-like in that his power is absolute and he will listen to no one but himself, but he has no ideology: Jauffret shows him an a complete egotist, which must be the truth otherwise Fritzl would have gone mad. And another terrifying thing is that as far as I know no psychiatrist declared him insane. This too is difficult to imagine: how can a person responsible for so much insanity be sane?

So Jauffret (who put off writing the book for several years) imagines the unimaginable. He had an idea of the smells from his visit to the hell-hole, but imagines Angelika trying to escape by using her father's mobile phone, trying to keep sane by watching TV, by resisting the torture in other ways, but by also accepting the inevitable. The book was difficult to write, and in places it's difficult to read but not because there are any graphically described scenes of torture: we're spared, for instance, details of Fritzl pulling his daughters teeth out, and the rapes are not dwelt on in any detail.

But this is a also a story of love, of moments of joy, of Angelika educating her children, of trying to bring them up as best she can in the circumstances. This is 544 pages of skilfully crafted fiction, and Jauffret has made a powerful achievement. The title of the novel, by the way, comes from a fusion of the French word 'claustration' meaning being shut up or confined, and the word 'Austria'.

My other posts on Régis Jauffret:

Régis Jauffret: Lacrimosa
Régis Jauffret: Sévère

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