x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Imaginative novel Awakening to the Great Sleep War explores abstract love

A newly translated novel by the late Gert Jonke introduces readers into the strange, shapeshifting world of Burgmüller, writes Matthew Jakubowski.

The Atlantes, granite figures known as telamones, support the New Hermitage portico in St Petersburg, Russia. Jon Hicks / Corbis
The Atlantes, granite figures known as telamones, support the New Hermitage portico in St Petersburg, Russia. Jon Hicks / Corbis

Awakening to the Great Sleep War

Gert Jonke

Dalkey Archive Press

The publication of a new novel and autobiographical essay by Gert Jonke gives readers in the English-speaking world a fascinating view of the singular fictional worlds of the late, experimental Austrian playwright and author.

Born in 1946 in Klagenfurt, the city that also produced Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil, Jonke studied piano at the conservatory but chose instead to write, publishing his first book, Geometric Regional Novel, at age 23. In his prolific career he wrote dozens of plays, novels, and collected short works, travelled widely, and was recognised with various literary awards, including the Franz Kafka and Austrian State prizes. When he died from pancreatic cancer in 2009 at age 62, many prominent writers eulogised him, including the Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek.

Jonke values wildly imaginative representations of reality in his novels. He projects worlds in long, recursive, musical sentences that burst with sophisticated grammar and syntax. Quite often there's a hyper-intelligent surrealism bridging the narrative and the mind of his protagonist, upsetting the cities and landscape. It makes for humorous, dazzling and demanding fiction, orchestrated to counteract the absurdity of modern life with the imaginative freedom of an individual.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War, Jonke's sixth book in English translation, opens with a vision of a city rising from the ground in the morning mist and settling back to earth at night, as "only the wings of a few helplessly fluttering rooftops still sail swaying over the spring tides of twilight". We meet the book's hero via the first in a series of omniscient questions that appear in the text in italics, as if interrogating the character and the book itself: "What did you lose in that city, Burgmüller?"

Burgmüller is a dreamer, an "acoustical interior designer" who's recently broken up with his girlfriend. He's introduced as an exhausted figure obsessed with the telamones - the carved stone figures that appear to prop up the city's buildings. Burgmüller believes the telamones have tried to contact him so they can learn how to sleep, something they've never done, and for good reason, as Burgmüller discovers: if they did, "everything could cave in" throughout the city. His ecstatic vision is an effect of both his vocation - he yearns to create "music we can live in" - and the pain he's recently endured. The story behind his pain makes him the most fully realised character in Jonke's translated fiction to date.

Award-winning translator Jean M Snook has stated that Jonke's novels Homage to Czerny (2008), The Distant Sound (2010), and Sleep War form a trilogy. While the books do feature minor recurring characters, such as a portly poet named Kalkbrenner, there's no plot or story arc connecting them. Instead, they have a thematic unity, each exploring the nature of reality, the suffering of artists, and notions of romantic sacrifice.

Jonke wrote broad social satire and touched subtly on issues of class, gender, or race. In Sleep War, however, he focuses directly on male-female relationships, pushing Burgmüller toward the important awakening in the book's title. Jonke uses the basic structure of a tragicomic love story - showing two loves Burgmüller lost - then fills it with intricate emotional and psychological mazes for Burgmüller to navigate.

We read first, in typically zany Jonke fashion, of how one of Burgmüller's previous girlfriends became obsessed with a housefly. She names the fly Elvira, traps it in the kitchen of Burgmüller's flat, drills holes in the kitchen door to observe the fly, and demands that Burgmüller go out each day and buy fresh slices of salami, which she feeds to Elvira the fly by sliding them under the kitchen door.

This goofy episode is mercifully brief and serves to show Burgmüller accepting this odd behaviour and making sacrifices to maintain his relationship. He loves her and blames himself for what's happening and "kept trying to make up for things he hadn't done that might be the cause of their failing relationship". Enrapt yet confused, he watches her observing the fly through the kitchen door "as if it were also the forbidden room of her own innermost being, forbidden even to herself", and he comes to see that somehow "the fly's arrival had facilitated [her] being lost to the world, the better to climb into an entirely different realm".

When the seemingly inevitable day comes that both she and the fly vanish, Burgmüller wonders "was Elvira perhaps an invention of his girlfriend's, or was it possible that the girlfriend was an invention, and there had only ever been Elvira …?" She never returns. Burgmüller is crushed. "It had become a matter of indifference to Burgmüller whether he kept on waiting or forgot to wait while he was waiting, because forgetting had become a form of waiting, and even his memory became a waiting room."

This sets up the next, much longer section where Burgmüller once again loves madly and loses much to the chaos of romance. He starts seeing a writer who's at work on a massive book called Portrayal of the World. She also isolates herself from Burgmüller because, as he learns, "[She] wasn't just writing her story, not just putting it down on paper, but was also living it, going through it, experiencing it for herself."

Hurt again, Burgmüller asks her to explain what's going on between them. Lost in her art, she tells him angrily that "life is a substitute for words", and that he needs to realise that "what seems to be happening right now is nothing more than a sort of symbol for what is being written at the moment". Baffled, he tries to insist that he and she really do exist, to which she replies, "Only as letters of the alphabet, nothing more."

The mind games continue apace in this battle of wills, growing madder still, more layered with philosophy. She convinces him to enlist in "a narrative war" against Herr Karl, a God-like figure who may be the as-yet-living Karl the Great, who is dictating common futures and common pasts to humanity through the "reality-producing projector" of millions of typewriters. Here, Jonke drops in a pun about "Bagel and Schopenglower" (ie, Hegel and Schopenhauer) and eventually we see Burgmüller fully submit to her fantastic alternate reality by letting her "invent a new memory for him" and have it "knocked into him by her typewriter".

Some men express their devotion with tattoos; Burgmüller's masochism runs deeper: "Because his love for her should be as strong as possible, he didn't want to have anything more at all to do with himself … instead, he wanted to be aware of himself only through contact with the woman he loved, as intensely as possible, to the point of wounding himself most gently."

When this girlfriend also disappears, Burgmüller is back wandering the city again. He has sacrificed his entire identity. As he stares one day at a caryatid, a female stone figure holding up a building, he awakens to the idea that she is in fact "his stone girlfriend".

"Was that why he'd been abandoned by his lost love, because any woman beside him was made to feel increasingly like a living, feeling, female telamon who was expected to support the entranceway to his building, or some other thing, and who therefore became afraid that she would finally turn to stone, as he had now?" He abandons the city, imagining it's crumbling behind him as the telamones finally have their sleep war.

The book has tedious passages, but yields many astonishing high points. For those with less patience, two of Jonke's late-career works, Blinding Moment, a collection of fiction about composers and System of Vienna, an autobiographical novel-in-stories, may be more enjoyable. Similarly, a new autobiographical essay called Individual and Metamorphosis, translated by Vincent Kling, is forthcoming from The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

It's Jonke at his lucid best as he discusses aspects of his life that inspired some of the recurring motifs in his fiction.

Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who has served as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award.