The Year of Reading Dangerously – Gert Jonke
Although Gert Jonke is apparently one of Austria’s most important writers, Geometric Regional Novel (first published in 1969) took twenty five years to appear in English. The precise, official language of the title (which at least includes the word ‘novel’, removing any doubt that this is simply a work of town planning, but at the same time suggesting a need to label) does not clash with our initial impression of the interior:
“The village square is rectangular, bordering on the houses gathered around it; streets and lanes flow into it; other than the well in the centre, in which the paving stone patterns seek their source, and from which they spread out like rays, there is nothing in the village square.”
This indifferent description, however, is at odds with the voices that echo through the novel, two individuals (only ever voices) who want only to walk across the empty square but who “weren’t supposed to be seen” for reasons that are never explained. Each time they think the square is empty, they almost immediately notice something preventing them from leaving their hiding place, giving the apparently peaceful village a sinister air.
Jonke uses this disjunction between style and content throughout. The language is generally bland and passive but the events can range from the unusual to the surreal. He parodies a number of different forms. The visit of an “artist” is described initially as if in a policeman’s notebook using such constructions as “people are said” and “it is reported”, interspersed with snatches of unpunctuated reminiscence. This is then followed by a ‘Report in the fine arts section of the newspaper’ where the man’s fatal accident is lost in a diatribe against “reckless agitators and imitators in the service of the radical Left.” Even diagrams are included, and there is a four page parody of a form which must be completed to walk in the forest, including such questions as:
What do you want to buy?
Do you also want to buy anything else which you are not, however, listing here?
Are you aware that you are a bad person through and through?
A lengthy section is written in the form of instructions to bridge keepers, with much emphasis placed on what they should do in the event of an individual who appears “at all suspicious.” Fear of strangers is a recurrent theme:
“For reasons of security it will be henceforth prohibited to walk through forests and along tree-lined roads in order to protect the population from the black men who hide so well in the shadows of the trees that sometimes they can hardly be distinguished from the darkness of the tree-lined roads.”
The most surreal element (which, according to translator Johannes Vazulik’s afterword, was much expanded in Jonke’s revised second edition, of which this is a translation) is that where the village comes under attack by small birds which eat mortar. In much the same way that a swarm of insects might devastate a village’s crops, these birds remove the mortar from the buildings causing them to collapse:
“…their beaks peck around in the mortar uncontrolledly, hysterically, uninhibitedly, quite violently knocking out the wall as if it were the flesh of their prey…”
Whether the birds represent time, nature, chaos or an attack on the village’s static solidity, it is unlikely the symbolism is entirely straight forward. Only by spraying the walls with water can the destruction be averted.
If there is a plot it applies only to the village square itself. Trees which surround the well are cut down as they are regarded as dangerous. The stumps, which at one point school children sit on, are later removed and replaced by benches. They, too, must go to allow access to the walls of the houses to fend off the birds. Only then is the village square finally empty, though another kind of emptiness has persisted throughout.
Danger rating: Geometric Regional Novel is a novel that, from the title onwards, appears dull when it isn’t. Witty and amusing, it also seems, at heart, rather sad. Luckily another four of Jonke’s novels have been translated ingot English in the last few years.