Austrian novelist Lilian Faschinger's feminist-revenge shocker has been snapped up by publishers worldwide. But instead of a wild misanthropis t, Kate Figes found a woman sad as well as angry
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The Independent Culture
Although the continent is nearer to us than ever thanks to the Channel Tunnel, only a handful of European novels catch the train to Britain each year. Lilian Faschinger, an Austrian, is the latest European literary commercial author to reach our reticent shores after the recent successes of Peter Hoeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and Jortsein Gaarder's Sophie's World. Her third novel, Magdalena the Sinner, was the book of last year's Frankfurt Book Fair (which bore Austria as its theme) with publishers queueing to buy foreign rights to the book. Her British publishers, Headline, paid "a mid-high five figure sum" after another publisher had put down a pounds 30,000 floor, even though Headline had only ever produced one other translation in their publishing history. By the end of next year there will be not one, but two English language editions as Harper Collins produce their own Americanised version in the States, which is unusual given publishers' reluctance to invest in translation. So what is all the fuss about?

Magdalena the Sinner is a wry, ironic, erotic feminist fable. Magdalena kidnaps a priest at gunpoint, drives him to a remote forest in the sidecar of her Puch 800 motorbike and ties him to a tree. For several days, she tells him her life story and confesses to the murders of seven men. She needs absolution and forgiveness from a religious man, but more importantly she needs to be heard; a modern Scheherazade, she tells her stories to save her life.

As her story unfolds in an intense, urgent monologue, the sharp contrast between his purity and her corruption is engrossingly erotic. She is in control, dressed in leathers, nibbling cherries from his virginal ears and forbidding him to speak until she has said all that she has to say. Dressed in his religious habit, Christian the priest hears tales of sex, seduction and relationships forbidden to him; gradually he becomes entranced by her charms, does not want to escape and finally forgives her unequivocally, even though he suspects that she might kill him too.

"It's quirky, individualistic but also commercial," explains editor Anne Williams, who bought the book at Headline. But Faschinger, who has taught English Literature at the University of Graz and translated work by Paul Bowles, Janet Frame, Gertrude Stein and Elizabeth Smart into German, bridles at such pigeonholing and objects to the way that her book is being advertised as a bestseller before anyone has had a chance to buy it. "There's much more to it than that," she told me when I met her in Paris for lunch. "I play with music and rhythm, with literary allusion and cliche."

She has also succeeded in writing a parable about repression, something which has loomed large in Faschinger's own life. She grew up in a traditional southern Austrian village where she suffered repeated and brutal beatings from a weak alcoholic father who worked on the railways. She says that such violence was not uncommon in provincial Austrian homes, and nor was the repressive atmosphere.

"I was always told don't ask stupid questions and shut up. No woman had ever studied at a university in my village, let alone in my family. It was a very tight, neurotic family structure where no one wanted anyone to move because then all of the others would have to start moving, so every attempt I made to break away was resisted. Maybe my questions were just a little too difficult for everybody."

While she has largely forgiven her family, her quarrel with Austria's wider repression and the omnipotence of the Catholic church still burns with a passion. The country which spawned Freud still refuses to talk openly about centuries of anti-Semitism or confront its past involvement with Hitler. It has yet to erect its first memorial to victims of the Holocaust in Vienna, which has been designed by the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread; excavations in Judenplatz in central Vienna have revealed the site of a medieval Jewish ghetto and massacre.

"In Austria they still don't talk openly about their role in the war. It is always assumed that they were the victims because of the Anschluss," says Faschinger. "There has never been any discussion about it and it has never really been condemned. In pubs in the country, when the men are drunk they sing Nazi songs and talk about how good Hitler was in so many respects."

Along with staunch Catholicism, hypocrisy looms large. Christians fall from grace, succumbing to temptations of the flesh is not unusual. "Numerous priests there have illegitimate children, the people in the villages know who they are. We've also had a big scandal recently where a cardinal was accused of sexual abuse by a former pupil."

Faschinger finds it hard to feel comfortable and write freely within a culture which does not want criticism and which believes fundamentally that "writers are mad and that the best place for them is a psychiatric hospital". An Austrian government minister recently said publicly that Austria's best known writer, Thomas Bernhardt, ought to be locked up, she tells me, shuddering over her fish soup. So, like her fictional heroine, she finds herself a refugee from her native land, travelling freely through Europe and now spending much of her time in Paris where she feels able to write.

But it is her treatment of men that is likely to arouse fierce criticism, and for obvious reasons: there are many of us who might not accept that killing a guy is an acceptable way to end a relationship. Magdalena is entirely subversive. She is sexy, beautiful and charming, but she lacks direction or self-esteem and falls into a series of hopeless relationships. Each of the men she becomes involved with suffers from one of the seven deadly sins of relationships, and each dies by a method pertinent to his crime.

The first drags Magdalena down with him into his pit of misery and suicidal tendencies. Knowing that he cannot swim, she lures him into deep water and he drowns. The second smothers her with his obsessional jealousy and burns to death. The third drives her to distraction with his insensitive adultery. The fourth is a violent, blood-sucking vampire who dies by being stabbed in the back in the shower (the Psycho parallel is intended). The fifth is a closet homosexual Jehovah's Witness who makes her dress up in his mother's clothes. The sixth is a Baron who forces her to become his dominatrix, performing acts of sadism on his 77-year-old body: he ends up garotted accidentally-on-purpose during one of their sessions. And the seventh is a serial bigamist who cannot stop talking about his former wives, who constantly criticises her cooking and exhorts her to go to a gym for bodyshaping.

Despite the impression given by such a bald desciption, these are not senseless acts of violence against men such as those portrayed in Helen Zahavi's novel Dirty Weekend. They are fantastic, fairy-tale methods of revenge from an author who admits to feeling very angry, disappointed and let down by her relationships with men. She was married for three years to "quite a nice man" when she was in her twenties, but she has met many of the stereotypical patterns of behaviour encountered by Magdalena. Nonetheless, at 46, she still refuses to give up hope.

"I am completely dissatisfied with the men I have met so far, but I am also conscious from watching relationships I know that better relationships do exist. I still have this hope, this vision that there may be a happy relationship for me one day. If you don't aspire to high ideals, you're lost."

Magdalena the Sinner met with fierce criticism in Austria from men (and women) who were unable to grasp the heavy irony of her tale. "Irony is not really understood in Austria," says Faschinger; "crazy humour, yes, but not fine irony." Here too, people are likely to carp at such manslaughter, judging by the reaction to Dirty Weekend, and a more recent row about the level of violence in some of the titles submitted for the Betty Trask prize. Such critics seem to forget that violent crime against women is a staple ingredient of thousands of thrillers seeking to do nothing but thrill.

"You can't take this murdering of men at face value. There is a weakness in Magdalena in that she is attracted to these men. Murder is not a solution at all, but for Magdalena it is her only way out because she doesn't change things before it is too late. It's a quest: she always escapes and makes her bid for freedom, that's why she's always on the road, always running, always looking for something better. In the beginning she feels guilty and needs Christian to say Ego te absolu, but in the end, through explanation and talking she realises that she doesn't need it."

Each reader is bound to be affected differently by this powerful stuff. Faschinger's brother found the first death by drowning the most distressing, "but then he is rather miserable", she says. I found the last lover, who subtly undermines her self-confidence, deeply irritating, and cheered when he got chucked off the mountain. Perhaps because of her own childhood experience of abuse, Faschinger loathed the Baron the most, as he forced Magdalena into acts of barbarism that she did not want to do "but he forced her anyway". When Magdalena confesses to Christian the priest, who has long forgiven her sins and now sees her as St George slaying the dragon she says, "When I garotted him, at the same time I was killing all the people in my life who, by persuasion or by the use of force, had drawn me into acts that I didn't want to perform."

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? "If you expect understanding and meet with incomprehension, the disappointment becomes a desire for vengeance." Magdalena explains to Christian that "there is nothing more dangerous than a woman whose longing for love has been unremittingly disappointed. Such a woman is more to be feared than any brainwashed terrorist, any religious fanatic."

This is not a literary masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable, racy and original novel with - surprisingly, perhaps - a high feel-good factor more in keeping with Thelma and Louise than with any feminist diatribe. Faschinger has no axe to grind, just a deep hurt and longing for more understanding between men and women and better relationships. It is early to tell exactly where this novel will ultimately sit within modern European fiction, or how Anglophone readers will react, but it is an unusual book in its unleashing of such anger and frustration in brave leaps of imagination and literary allusion.

Faschinger has taken her personal revenge through the writing of this novel and there did seem to be a cathartic lightness to her step as we walked back to her room, borrowed from a friend above a studio in the Sixieme. But it takes more than revenge to mend the deep wounds to her sense of self-esteem, through years of alienation from the love of her family and the love of her country. There is an air of deep sadness and unrequited longing in her. "They're putting such an enormous amount of effort into this book, I only hope it's worth it," she said as we parted. I tried to reassure her that it was worth it, before I hurried back to the Gare du Nord, eager to leave this cauldron of central European emotion for England's familiar stiff upper lip, but I don't think she believed me.

! `Magdalena the Sinner' is published by Headline Review at pounds 12.99