IN AN ARTICLE in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung following the 2009 death of Austrian author Gert Jonke, literary critic Richard Kämmerlings describes Jonke’s unique tactics for expressing dissatisfaction with the world as we know it: “Repressive structures, traditions, and norms aren’t subject to a frontal attack, but rather, in the form of language games that constantly generate themselves — later you were supposed to call this autopoetic — they’re weakened and corroded from the inside out.” The balance between destruction and creation, between critical and poetic functions, has always made Jonke a difficult-to-categorize writer.
Jonke’s profile has risen steadily in the past decade, not only in English but also in German-speaking countries. His loosely linked trilogy following the surreal exploits of a failed composer named Burgmüller represents a significant contribution to German-language experimental literature. The 1982 novel Awakening to the Great Sleep War, the trilogy’s final book (translated into English by Jean M. Snook), was long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award 2013.
Awakening to the Great Sleep War is mainly concerned with Burgmüller’s relationships with three women and his interactions with his surroundings, particularly cities. Jonke composes a wildly imaginative, deeply poetic hymn to landscape: “From the light surf on the sun tide, the time that was yet to come pulled many colorfully shining schools of fish to shore with its nonce nets, while the blossoms on the bushes and trees in the parks began to sing.” Snook’s translation is pure and clean, and her prose has a ceaseless energy that fluctuates gracefully between crisp philosophical enigma and exuberant poeticizing. The world of the novel radiates life and benevolence, but also constant flux and complete disregard for the rules of reality.
This is not, however, a naïve expression of optimism: Awakening to the Great Sleep War was clearly written by someone who loves the world deeply but wishes it were different. At times the tenderness and empathy with which Burgmüller approaches his surroundings recall Christian notions of a creation, in which everything is imbued with the essence of God, and yet is imperfect. But however devout Burgmüller’s manner at times, his sorrows are certainly of this world. Besides his relationship problems, he also feels life’s invisible weight on his shoulders:
a peculiar feeling, namely that he was playing the role of a very mobile caryatid, no, a very mobile atlas [sic] who, to be sure, had no building, no gateway, no ortel to support or to carry on his shoulders, but in its place, and certainly comparable in terms of weight, he had a column of air.
He is a sensitive, earnest protagonist whose thoughts circle back on themselves in melancholic, meditative arcs.
Jonke describes a universe in which the typical categories of animate and inanimate are conflated. There’s something cartoonish about the way his cities come alive, their components jumping and twitching, like when “the manhole covers on the city streets started flapping up and down like big round book covers.” By blurring the distinction between active and passive, Jonke also muddles the traditional line between setting and plot. A city is what happens in it, not a place where things happen.
In his essay “Individual and Metamorphosis,” translated in the Summer 2012 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Jonke recounts an astounding story from his life that casts the far-flung experimentation of his landscapes in an entirely different light. In 1976, he had been contemplating suicide, and he walked to the Reich Bridge in Vienna, intending to throw himself into the water, only to find that the bridge had just collapsed. From his account:
[T]he bridge from which I wanted to plunge into the river went and spoiled it by taking a plunge of its own immediately before I could take mine, simply locked me out, took off just as I was getting there, ran away from me at a mad dash, at the last minute, head over heels, wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.
In a critical essay accompanying “Individual and Metamorphosis,” Vincent Kling, a translator of some of Jonke’s works who knew the author personally, argues that personal experience was significant to Jonke’s achievements: “Hope springs eternal because the imagination leaps high in Jonke’s reshaping of his own life into an art that only seems remote from the everyday.” Jonke himself says the Reichsbrücke story appears “in sublimated form” in Awakening to the Great Sleep War. We are not wrong to read Burgmüller’s experiences as surreal: that is, based on the real, above, but in relation to reality.
Early in the novel, Burgmüller strikes up a friendship with caryatids and telemones (stone figures, common in Vienna, that act as architectural support elements, like columns), and tries to teach them to sleep (the most inactive thing a person can do without dying). The stone figures cannot understand, let alone practice sleep themselves — though Jonke envisions the architectural destruction that would ensue if they did, a great sleep war laying the city to waste. Burgmüller, meanwhile, has ruined his own ability to sleep by trying too hard to teach it. This is the first of many episodes in which Jonke expresses skepticism that experience can be communicated. Trying may even hollow out authentic experience, leaving former sleep-master Burgmüller at the mercy of tranquilizers for rest.
Similarly, a delightful argument between Burgmüller and his first girlfriend about whether they should go to “hither” or “thither” foregrounds Jonke’s concern that our points of reference are inadequate to our shifting destinations. Maps, which contain “insidious disguises for incorrect, misleading topographies,” prove useless for describing reality. It is the changing nature of reality and the passing of time that make maps so utterly inadequate: “But they were unreliable aids to orientation, because aside from the fact that their names and signs were in a constant state of flux, you could often see with the naked eye how the landscape depicted on them was in the process of changing.” You could say that the hyperactivity of Jonke’s scenery, with the roofs of its houses levitating above their walls and its benches complaining of boredom, is a dramatization of the volatile nature of existence. A map might purport to describe something static, but in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, this is manifestly untrue.
As he negotiates this unmappable world, Burgmüller dreams of a language that will make true communication possible, unlike our “fabricated language of undiscoverable falsifications.” Love, the other great beauty besides landscape in Awakening to the Great Sleep War, motivates his desire. The book displays a complete lack of cynicism regarding romantic relationships. Though his relationships eventually founder in tragicomic absurdities appropriate to the Jonke-universe — one following the “hither–thither” dispute, the next after his girlfriend becomes obsessed with a housefly, the third because her understanding of reality is so different from Burgmüller’s — the sex and companionship that Burgmüller experiences with his lovers is genuine and whole. It’s language that fails them. The fullness of their connection cannot be communicated in words.
Jonke’s final girlfriend is the paramount embodiment of this problem. She’s writing a book that she insists isn’t about experience. Rather, it is an experience, which she lives as she writes it, her typewriter a machine for creating reality. Unfortunately for Burgmüller, he continues to exist outside of her book. There is an aching eagerness that underlies this woman’s desire for language to be absolutely, literally commensurate with experience. It manifests itself not only in her book project, but also in her dialogue with Burgmüller:
And then she whispered something to him very quietly in confidence: Listen, don’t tell anyone what I’m going to say to you now, because it’s one of my most intimate secrets that no one else will know now other than you, listen, my breasts, they look like, what do you think, yes, they look like a capital B from the German word LIEBE written in capital letters, which means LOVE...!
The form of the secret, often invoked by Burgmüller’s girlfriends, approximates the structure of a romantic relationship, which is a private and singular connection denied to the rest of the world. Even if your lover tells you something utterly universal, that the letter B looks like breasts and is contained in the word Liebe, only being told so as a secret is appropriate to the experience of communicating with your lover.
But it’s not enough to find structures within our existing language that are near to the nature of experience. What is needed, according to Burgmüller, is:
a language in which the remaining incomprehensibly personal strangeness would soon be more familiar to us, as we would someday catch hold of this word-sail far ahead of us, disappearing before our eyes, whose ranges of tonal expression would be made up of incomparable ways of speaking on the writing routes between the lodgings of so liberating a future grammar.
Language is what will free us and propel us together, through landscape, toward what is to come. In this sense, Awakening to the Great Sleep War is a utopian book, not only in its glowing depiction of love and the world, but also in its hope that human understanding can someday contain these wonders. The book focuses relentlessly on the future, ending with this lovely, mysterious, forward-looking dream: “Much that is now invisible will soon be very easy to discover, because everything has suddenly become so transparent that one can’t see through anything anymore.”
In his FAZ essay, Kämmerlings traces Jonke’s fall from popularity in the 1980s to this focus on alternate reality, a trajectory that left his writing nowhere to expand: “Narratively, he, like many of his characters, reached the limit that art cannot go beyond if it wants to maintain an anchor in reality. To imagine freedom for yourself, which suffocates under social constraints, leads to escapism, after all.” This statement might say more about the attitudes of prominent contemporary German literary figures toward the avant-garde than about the actual potential for development within Jonke’s writing. After all, his books are readable if challenging, and a lag in his production does not mean that his writing stopped developing. In an interview with Matthew Jakubowski on The Quarterly Conversation, Kling, in keeping with a more biographically informed reading of Jonke’s works and career, suggests that it was Jonke’s spiral into alcoholism that stifled his career. Whatever the reason, Jonke reemerged in the 2000s in German-speaking countries with a series of extremely successful plays, and in 2010 his hometown of Klagenfurt created a bi-yearly literature prize in his name with a 15,000€ purse. His stock rose in English around the same time, as Dalkey Archive Press began publishing translations of his significant works, with Awakening to the Great Sleep War being the latest.
Such cyclical patterns, such rising and falling, decline and renewal, are to be found within Jonke’s books, as well as in the course of his career. For all that it is focused on the future, Awakening to the Great Sleep War never arrives there. For all that it is a visionary book, it is also an extremely repetitive one at every level, from sentence to theme to plot. Burgmüller communes with his city, philosophizes, loves and loses, dreams his dreams. The world as we know it shudders, ripples, finds itself reinvented. This is necessary. This is the only way forward, or perhaps it’s just the only way. As one of Burgmüller’s girlfriends emphasizes, “[T]he march of time could be thought of as a recurring cycle of terrible library fires alternating with incessant library reconstructions and expansions, which then led again to new library fires.”
This review is part of a series dedicated to several German-language books long-listed for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, including:
The Island of Second Sight, by Albert Thelen
The Hunger Angel, by Herta Müller
My Father’s Book, by Urs Widmer
Amanda DeMarco is a Berlin-based translator, and a contributing editor for the international book industry news website Publishing Perspectives. She is also the founder of Readux Books, a publishing house dedicated to individually published short works of (mostly) translated literature, whose first books will appear in October 2013.