Ottessa Meshvig never had much hope. Her novels tell of lonely women and strangers, embroiled in pain and perverted desires. But “Lapvona” is the pinnacle of cruelty, even in Moshfegh’s grotesque, often fantastic work. In Labafuna, a medieval principality, people are starved, tortured, raped, mocked and killed.
son to son
The mutilated corpse drives the story. Prince William’s son died ruling Labafuna with arbitrary taxes without measure and morals. For his murdered son, yes even for his admitted perpetrator—Marek the deformed eccentric, sheepherder “Bankert”—the Prince has only a weary grin. for he was “so accustomed to entertainment that any drama, however real, seemed to him to be a stage for his personal distraction”.
Without further ado, William replaces the 13-year-old offender with his dead son, who was the same age. Marek’s rise from a shepherd of lambs to a princely son is at the center of the novel. The disasters in “Lapfuna” are as unfounded and improbable as his change of roles.
Misfortune for all
Misfortune befalls all: blind Ena, who spends her youth as an outcast in a cave in the woods, only to return to the village as a herbalist but shady healer. With her milk, which does not dry up in old age, Ina raises countless children, including Marek. While she still holds a modicum of sovereignty within the community, Meshfigh abuses the other characters to the greatest extent possible.
Repeatedly raped, Marek’s mother finally lives silently with her tongue cut out in the castle with her son, whom she leaves shortly after his birth.
Literature can do anything
In the end, no character gets what they deserve in Lavona. The author does not give an example of any of the characters, nor does he offer any socio-analytical explanations of depravity and meanness. If the Prince of Labafuna rules as he pleases, then in her version Otissa Meshfegh rules in the same way. In the intoxication of sheer power, coached by Georges Bataille and the Marquis de Sade, cruelty emerges – with epic luxury, down to the smallest detail, and simply because she can do it. Because literature can.
So it is no coincidence that the sadistic ruler of Lavvona reminds us how this novel can be read, that is, as fiction, without moral implications: ‘William was a happy man. Tragedies of this kind left him cold. That was not the case. It was impossible. But he accepted that in a way, as a kind of game.”
Whether this brutal gesture of force carries a narrative is another question. Like the spoiled, easily bored Regent, the author loses sight of one or the other of the secondary characters when she jumps back and forth between her characters with powerful narrative authority.
Her good sense of the present does not play a role in this novel. George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the hit series adaptation “Game of Thrones” have long shown us the voyeuristic lust for excess. But Ottessa Meshfegh, who likes to present herself as proud and iconic, may have calculated this reception long ago. And she screams at the world what she can, simply because she can.
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