Posts Tagged ‘gert jonke’

Awakening to the Great Sleep War

May 15, 2013


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.

Geometric Regional Novel

October 28, 2011

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.