Imagine a Wagner opera without the music – seven hours of dense verbal repetition, lacking the benefit of an oceanic orchestra and exultant singing voices. That’s what Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the Nobel prize in 2004, serves up in this so-called “dramatic essay”. Rein Gold, also defined by Jelinek as a “play which is not one”, was staged in Berlin in 2014, with actors barking amped-up monologues about the iniquities of capitalism while a modular synthesizer intermittently wheezed out Wagnerian motifs.
Jelinek’s title is a heavy-handed Teutonic pun. Das Rheingold, the prelude to Wagner’s tetralogy, is about a clump of gold stolen from the Rhine that comes to be tainted by a curse, the punishment for our pillage of nature. Rein Gold means “pure gold”, although Jelinek believes that it can never be cleansed of the grubby marks left by our greed. In Das Rheingold, the ore pays for the fortress Wotan calls Valhalla, which at the end of the cycle in Götterdämmerung is torched by his rebellious daughter Brünnhilde to free humanity from material vices. Wotan and Brünnhilde debate political morality in Die Walküre, and after she rejects his grim regime he abandons her. Rein Gold brings them back together, now meagrely identified as B and W, to argue over such unmelodious topics as the labour theory of value, teaser rates, homeownership and VAT.
The operatic Brünnhilde rides a flying horse; in Jelinek’s version she bumps down to ground as a “bicycle messengerette”. B remembers being “fucked” by the oafish superhero Siegfried, and W sneers at a sample of such low human types as “the cum guzzler, the clit mouse, and the thunder-cunt”. Sadomasochistic fantasies replace Wagner’s redemptive love. Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher describes a self-mutilating woman; B similarly gloats over a man who castrates himself, removing “anything that protrudes, even the prostate gland”. Whereas purgative fire rejuvenates nature at the end of Götterdämmerung, in Jelinek’s retelling the derelict Earth is fatally poisoned by e-waste. Brünnhilde returns the gold to the river; here, money alone survives, outgrowing and outliving human users.
“What did I want to say that I haven’t said yet?” asks W, who then goes on to say it all, regardless. Later he admits “I know you want me to finally stop”, and though I frantically nodded my head in agreement, he continues for a further 100 pages. B, meanwhile, tells herself to “keep writing!” as she taps out “endless bits and bytes”. Jelinek is certainly fluent: she once compared writing to projectile vomiting, which warns readers to dodge the ejecta when opening one of her books. The Nobel award noted her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices”. Yes, the characters in Rein Gold do make deft contrapuntal patterns with ideas, and their twin streams of consciousness gush, eddy and sometimes drool or drivel like the river in the Ring – but they lack the lyricism that humanises Wagner’s war-whooping Brünnhilde and renders the stricken Wotan tragic. Self-exiled from opera, B and W are woefully unable to sing.
• Rein Gold by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Gitta Honegger, is published by Fitzcarraldo (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply