There hasn't been much to laugh about in Jörg Haider's Austria in the year since the party he put on the political map made its entry into government. With diplomatic ostracism, EU sanctions and a steady flow of humiliating reprimands from the international community coming their way, Austrians have had more than enough reason to be in a sour mood.
But around April of last year, there finally came a reason to chuckle, in the form of a slim, unassuming hardcover book entitled Jörgi, der Drachentöter (Jörgi, the Dragon Slayer). Under the guise of children's literature and within only a few pages, this medieval fairy tale summed up Austria's contemporary political situation more acutely than any scholarly analysis.
No ordinary bedtime story
One need look no further than the bottom right-hand corner of the book's cover to see that this is no ordinary children's story. There, under the illumination of a single lantern, in the otherwise greyish-blue dusk of a medieval town square, a tiny, tanned likeness of the Carinthian governor and former Freedom Party (FPÖ) front-man stands beaming from ear to protruded ear, a small sausage by his side (which, as it turns out, will never be far off throughout the tale).
Our Jörgi is a small lad who stands apart from the other boys and girls in his village in wanting to be a dragon slayer rather than a cobbler, a tailor, a locomotive driver or the like.
But alas, the Jörgster will have none of it, plunks a pot on his head, grabs the lid for a shield and, wielding an enormously long lance, sets out for the castle, where he insists that the king hire him as his dragon slayer in residence.
The catch, however, is that the only dragon far and wide is the king himself. No problem, Jörgi tells the king, I'll just have to kill you. The king gets a good laugh out of that one and decides to keep Jörgi on for amusement, as the court jester's jokes are getting old anyway, and this new guy's a gas. He dismisses his advisors' concern with a "Come now, he is completely harmless and, in a way, quaint."
Jörgi's no dummy and knows he can't go it alone, so he does the castle rounds to rally supporters. Rejected by both the chaplain and the chef, he wins over the princess, who, entourage in tow, is up for what looks to be a fun new game.
Jörgi wins the villagers' hearts
The court jester is aghast to see "Death to the Dragon!" and "Down with the Chinese!" painted on the door of the Chinese restaurant, but when he tells the king's son, the prince dismisses it all as silly boy antics.
Jörgi's biggest coup comes when he convinces the night watchman that the dragon—and the Chinese, of course—is the cause of all the worries he never even knew he had and as a result gets the keys to the armoury.
After a failed run at he castle—foiled by the princess's change of heart and turn of coat—Jörgi and his troops retreat but soon find a new ally in the prince, who makes a bargain with the fearless leader, offering his help in return for the throne. So, with the aid of the prince and the night watchman, Jörgi finally topples the king, literally.
A time of darkness descends on the formerly cosy kingdom. With all the children longing to become dragon slayers, not even the new king/dragon himself is happy. He forbids all mention of his dragonhood and purges his castle of all mirroring surfaces.
The jester saves the day
Just when things look their grimmest,
As word spreads from princess to peasant, the simple truth dawns on the kingdom—every dragon slayer is bound to become a dragon—and its inhabitants happily hurl the incriminating objects into the ocean, transforming the scary, autocratic dragon back to just the same old loveable Jörgi.
And so everything is back where it belongs: namely, in the kitchen. With helmet and shield turned pot and lid and that elusive sausage in its proper place—that is, in the pot—Jörgi pensively pronounces, when asked again what he wants to be, "Hmmm... I don't know, maybe a chef."
And there ends this simple tale, or at least the text portion of it. Gerhard Haderer's accompanying illustrations go on to tell a whole other story, for the characters of what would otherwise appear to be an innocent fairy tale wear the faces and mannerisms of Austria's political elite.
The faces behind the fairy tale
Aside from the man of the hour himself, other star appearances include: a goose-necked Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, with tell-tale spectacles and bowtie, as the prince, whose enormous crown encompasses his scrawny body, left exposed throughout the book except for black silk boxers and, occasionally, a red cape; a hunched, appeasing President Thomas Klestil as the gullible night watchman, with a red-and-white presidential sash just barely showing under his ratty bathrobe; a droopy-eyed, buck-toothed Heide
There are also a few characters who are perhaps lesser known on the international stage, such as Catholic Bishop of St Pöltner Kurt Krenn, known in Austria as an ultra-
Haderer's detail and unmistakable facial expressions ensure that a keen Austrian political watcher will recognise several other faces among the townsfolk and the king's court.
Jörgi as archetype
But despite these concrete depictions, the book's author, Leo Lukas, is quick to point out (in an e-mail interview with Central Europe Review) that Jörgi also represents an archetype:
Everywhere on the planet, Haider, and his many brothers (and a few sisters), are so alluring, because they appeal to the Jörg-like in very many people—to an uncontemplated rebelliousness, a type of merciless missionary conviction which stretches from Gilgamesh across Jesus right down to Fidel Castro and this small Austrian.
By Lukas's own account, the idea for the story and the writing of the text itself all occurred over a span of three days, but, to his surprise, the book rode the bestseller
Haider even had himself photographed with the book. But apart from this incident, there have so far been no other reactions from any of the political leaders depicted, which Lukas takes as a compliment.
Cabaret takes on the conservatives
A cultural multi-tasker, Leo Lukas dabbles in virtually every art form—from song to sci-fi—but is probably most often seen on Austria's cabaret stages, either as a performer, director or composer of music for his own or his colleagues' performances. Lukas the cabaret artist is, in fact, a bit of a conglomeration of the various personas he lives out separately in other milieux, whether it be writing or staging theatre pieces, composing scores for children's musicals or writing science fiction novels in the Perry Rhodan series.
Nevertheless, according to Lukas, his previous attempts
Gerhard Haderer has long been known as a skillful cartoonist, whose work appears
In 1997, he teamed up with Austrian author Robert Menasse to illustrate a work much in the satiric spirit of the parable he later created with Lukas. Die letzte Marchenprinzessin (The Last Fairy Princess, Suhrkamp, 1997) tells the story of a kindergarten teacher turned princess, whose royal wedding and eventual tragic death capture the hearts, minds and TV sets of the public.
More recently, Haderer has crafted the Green Party's campaign posters for the upcoming regional elections in Vienna.
Portraying the Austrian political scene
In Jörgi, der Drachentöter, the cartoonist and the cabaret artist combine talents to nail down the key features that have characterised the Austrian political scene over the past decade and beyond.
The propensity of the old king (and later also the prince) to, as the chef tells Jörgi, "save all the tastiest morsels for himself and his pals" echoes the post-war
Similarly, the king's, and then the prince's, original dismissal of Jörgi as a silly, amusing, harmless boy are only too reminiscent of the miscalculations that not only Austrian politicians made when assessing the potential power of populist far-right parties.
The clever way in which Jörgi wins the almost accidental support of the wider public can only illicit a bittersweet chuckle for its dead-on accuracy:
"Do you know why you have to hold watch all night?" asks Jörgi of the night watchman.
"Because I'm a night watchman?" retorts the watchman.
"True, but the blame lies not with you but with the dragon. After all, he could have hired other night watchmen long ago!"
"Do you know why you limp?" Jörgi asks the stable hand.
"Because I fell drunk into the moat?" says the stable hand.
"True, but the blame lies not with you but with the dragon. After all, he could have had that moat filled in long ago!"
"Do you know why noble guests don't come to your tavern?" Jörgi asks the innkeeper.
"Because the Chinese place in the village serves better food?" retorts the innkeeper.
"True, but the blame lies not with you but with the dragon. After all, he could have had the Chinese restaurant shut down long ago!"
Long on sarcasm; short on satire
However, although some of the faces and particular details may be specific to Austria, countries the world over could benefit from similar sharp-witted parables of their own.
The current era may be long on sarcasm, but clever political satire is not always in such abundant supply. Cartoons have long been one astute way of rendering such satire, and as a means of concise and effective social commentary, there is often no weapon like caricature.
With Jörgi, der Drachentöter, Haderer and Lukas show that it is a form adept at knocking down paper tigers, and the book's sales make a strong case for the argument that, in the end, it will be wit, not wisemen, that pulls Austria out of its slump.
As it did Haderer himself throughout the course of working on the book, explains Lukas in our interview:
Afterwards, Gerhard Haderer, the illustrator, told me that the idea, the story, had helped him get over a deep depression [he was suffering] on account of the [recent] events, and I suspect that it was the same for many others. Perhaps this was/is the truly decisive factor of this work of mine—that Haider is, in a way, de-demonised, which, despite numerous attempts, no one had succeeded in [doing] before.
When asked about today's political situation, the author expresses hope that the FPÖ's recent setbacks in regional
Much more worrisome for Lukas is the lack of media reaction to such outbursts, which, he says, is "a sad indication of the wretched state of the current intellectual climate in the country."
"I feel that our time is distinctly sadder, less visionary, more discouraged, more self-crippling, and not as cool... as the sixties and early seventies," he adds.
Asked if there are many court jesters in today's Austria, Lukas's answer is: "Too few."
That may be so, but Leo Lukas and Gerhard Haderer are definitely two of them, and their joint effort is an attack against all that Lukas identifies as wrong with the times. It pokes fun. Its vision is a vibrant one, and it fights discouragement and paralysis by offering up a very reasonable solution. After all, who could argue that Haider wouldn't better serve his country in the kitchen?
Kazi Stastna, 12 March 2001
Also of Interest (in German):
- Buy Jörgi, der Drachentöter from the publisher, Ueberreuter, or from Amazon.de
- Learn all about Leo Lukas on his colourful Website
- Learn more about the Austrian cabaret scene
- See Gerhard Haderer's cartoons in Stern magazine
- Visit Gerhard Haderer's own monthly comic, Moff
- Read Magali Perrault's review of two studies of Haider's ascent
- Archived book reviews
- Archive of Kazi Stastna's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Austria through CER
- Return to CER front page