Marija Peričić’s first novel, The Lost Pages – a historical reimagining of Max Brod’s relationship with Franz Kafka – won The Australian/Vogel’s Award for Young Writers in 2017. Her second book, Exquisite Corpse, is also a historical novel. As one of my old English teachers would say, it is “what it says on the tin”. It’s a necrophiliac Gothic horror nightmare, set in 1930s Stockholm.
Peričić has based the narrative of Exquisite Corpse on a bizarre true crime story that occurred in Key West, Florida. Carl Tanzler was a German-born radiographer who became obsessed with one of his tuberculosis patients, 22-year-old Elena Milagro de Hoyos. Two years after her death, Tanzler removed her body from its mausoleum and lived with her corpse in his home for the next seven years. As her body decomposed, he augmented it with wax and rags, glass eyes and a wig. After he was eventually found out, an autopsy determined he had fitted the corpse with a vaginal tube for his necrophilic pleasure. Nevertheless, public favour was on his side, the consensus being that he was a hopeless romantic.
The novelistic appeal of this tale is obvious. Further, the public’s apologist response to Carl’s blatantly predatory nature is a telling indictment of how far society will go to excuse male violence and ignore female suffering. Peričić’s novelisation gestures towards exploring these complexities but ultimately fails to pack the punches its premise offers.
Exquisite Corpse takes the Tanzler affair, transposes it to Stockholm, changes Elena’s name to Lina and adds some ghostly elements. It is told from four main perspectives: Carl, Lina, Lina’s sister Greta, and Carl’s wife, Doris. Each section is told in a straightforward, expositional style that echoes Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What most differentiates Peričić’s novel from the plentiful newspaper articles about the real Carl Tanzler is that we get access to Lina’s post-death perspective: her consciousness hovers in and above her body as Carl force-feeds and rapes her corpse. These scenes are awful but they do little more than demonstrate Carl’s creepiness and Lina’s powerlessness. We get closest to a nuanced look at the effects of male entitlement through the perspective of Doris. Her friends and family pressure her to support her husband even though he is clearly a psychopath. Doris is a humourless woman but some of her lines are unintentionally hilarious: “You mean to tell me he fucked that corpse?”
Reader, he did. He fucked the corpse. That about sums it up.
Ultimo Press, 320pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 10, 2023 as "Exquisite Corpse, Marija Peričić, fiction".
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