Awakening to the Great Sleep War is not my first excursion into the non-narrative absurdities of Gert Jonke, meeting those early pages, as usual, with a mixture of delight and bemusement. The city we enter raises itself from the ground each morning before hovering at a comfortable height; in the evening it slowly sinks beneath the earth again. Everything in the city seems alive:
“Some days the streetcar tracks spring out of the asphalt, shake off all those annoying stops, and move their terminals several metres up into the air.”
Most alive, to the novel’s protagonist Burgmuller, are the stone figures which support the buildings – ‘telemones’ in their own language. His experience of the telemones is not unlike our own experience of Jonke:
“The telemones lived, as he soon found out, in a version of the world that was at first neither understandable nor apparent to him.”
Time moves so slowly for them that a simple gesture might take years. They are equally baffled, however, by Burgmuller’s ability to sleep. Telemonic sleep would, of course, be disastrous for the city, causing it to collapse; indeed, it is suggested that this very event takes place in the novel’s final pages as “the city suddenly swells up like a huge puffball that then explodes.” In between we learn about Burgmuller’s experiences of love.
All are stories of lost love, the first taking place on a train journey. Burgmuller meets a woman and they fall in love but are heading for different towns and cannot agree to leave the train together. In the end they separate, with Jonke finally throwing doubt on any meeting at all:
“…You’ve only being signalling at one another from afar, the two of you did meet at the train station and then did see each other on the train, where upon you simultaneously thought all the above things in each other’s directions…”
The following love stories end as sadly. In one his girlfriend becomes fascinated with a fly, locking it in the kitchen and refusing to leave the house, spending her days and nights sliding salami under the door for the fly to eat. When the fly finally disappears he notices its departure before that of his girlfriend who has similarly left. In the final story his lover is a writer who insists she is writing the reality around her: her typewriter is a “reality-producing projector.” he begs her to leave the city with him (“you can’t find the real conclusion of your narrative from here because you’ll be hindered by your own writing”) but she refuses.
Of course, this summary makes the novel seem only a little surreal. It doesn’t take account of the fact that these tales are not constrained by time and space and have no real ‘order’. Burgmuller is not a character in the traditional sense having no character development; the various women are even sketchier, and do not necessarily represent different characters. Despite using some of the dynamics of romance, Jonke’s intention is to defy narrative convention through the plasticity of his setting. While at times this can seem like being in a maze littered with dead ends, at others we are suddenly lifted above the maze, seeing everything momentarily from a new and unexpected angle. It is these moments of wonder that make the novel worth reading.