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Gert Jonke’s Great Narrative War

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Yes, they had turned up in these rooms, which had now at last become the rooms of their story, had now been conquered by their story, taken prisoner as in a narrative war

Everything is alive in Gert Jonke’s Awakening to the Great Sleep War– buildings, cities, landscapes, the weather.  The world has been remade in strange, yet often comforting ways.  Caryatids speak, buildings breathe.

In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary-eyed bedding out the windows, the roof trusses cough through asthmatic chimneys, and some buildings sneeze through their opened skylights; now and then an entryway shoves its stairwell, bursting with stairs, out into the street, and sometimes entire suites of rooms are pushed out through their walls into public places, while cellars press down on their heaps of potatoes, preventing them from rising up in rebellion when the countless coal sacks, filled to bursting, blow gobs of smog into the public transit system through the bars on the window.

At first glance, Awakening seems to border uncomfortably on magic realism, but part of Jonke’s strategy for defamiliarizing the world and making it new for us is to anthropomorphize everything.  Awakening to the Great Sleep War might more properly have been titled “Awakening to the Great Narrative War,” for this is a novel about language and narrative.  There is a story line or, rather, a series of largely unrelated episodes involving Burgmüller (one is tempted to call him “poor Burgmüller”), a somewhat hapless character whose occupation is “acoustic interior designer.”  As the book opens, Burgmüller discovers that he can communicate with the city’s many caryatids and atlantes, those architectural figures that bear the weight of buildings on their shoulders.  Having stood at attention for centuries, they ask Burgmüller to teach them about sleeping and dreaming.  Eventually this relationship wanes when, among other things, Burgmüller realizes that the entire city would collapse if, indeed, the caryatids and atlantes fell asleep on the job.  So next he sets out on a train ride during which he meets a woman who just might be the love of his life, except that she is determined to get off at the station named THITHER, whilst he is going to HITHER. After much ado, they part ways, allowing Burgmüller to fall in love with yet another mysterious woman, except that she becomes obsessed with a housefly which has taken up residence in their kitchen.  Next, Burgmüller realizes he can mysteriously direct the flow of the flocks of birds that fly overhead, creating beautiful living sculptures -until, that is,his abilities suddenly fail him.  Finally, Burgmüller falls for yet another woman, a writer determined to create the “perfect narrative.” As you can see, summarizing the plot doesn’t really communicate what Awakening is about.

One way of characterizing the trajectory of Awakening is to say that it is the story of Burgmüller’s failed quixotic quest for a Utopian existence, his desire “to make music we can live in”and to find a companion who shares his aspirations and, not incidentally, who might also validate his vision.  Jonke gives us glimpses of this vision in long passages of insanely inventive writing in which every individual component of the world – animate and inanimate – suddenly slips into synchronization (with touches of Rube Goldberg).

He thought of setting up fog horns at varying heights and depths around the city, locomotive whistles, car horns, acoustic alarm systems, and all possible mechanically operable instrument-machines, and to preset them for a certain rhythm, which could cause the masses of birds in the sky to behave according to design; when it was very hot, for example, it should be possible, by sounding an even note at a certain pitch, to collect birds at a certain height, and by filling in the chord, to have them collect in a corresponding density over the city, so that the city itself could be protected from receiving too large a dose of thermal radiation; and then it would also be possible to wallpaper the dome of the sky, as it were, with feathers, and so control the quality of light, from slightly darkened to deep twilight, according to his respective requirements.

There is often a breathless euphoria to Jonke’s writing, but he continually reminds us that Burgmüller’s quest is Sisyphean,   In the end, everyone fails him: the women who desert him, the birds who cease responding to his creative direction, the caryatids and atlantes who exist on an utterly incompatible time scale.  Burgmüller is not even allowed to commit suicide properly; the bridge he wants to jump from collapses only moments before he arrives.  Nevertheless, after every defeat, the ever- irrepressible, Chaplinesque Burgmüller always picks himself up and starts out again.

For Jonke, language seems to be a set of tools with which we conceptualize connections and causal relationships in the world beyond us.  Language might not permit us to actually alter the conditions of the world beyond us, but it does permit us to temporarily refuse the seeming inflexibility of the world through the power of imagination.  All we have to do is throw off the shackles of habit and permit entirely new relationships and systems to emerge. 

Burgmüller’s quest meets its greatest challenge when a nameless female writer takes up residence in a spare room in Burgmüller’s apartment, a woman determined to create a world entirely through writing.  “We need a new language that will simply not allow itself to be persuaded by us.”  Burgmüller soon finds he has become an unwilling character in the story emerging from her typewriter. She has even provided him with an entirely new past, which, “for her sake,” he dutifully attempts to memorize and assimilate. 

She had once told him incidentally that the story she wanted to write at his place was to be an exact description of the world and also proof of the fact that the whole so-called world is an invention, our life doesn’t take place in it at all, it only represents a description undertaken with such sincerity that it makes us believe we are living it

But try as he  might, her idea of an autonomous, non-referential language proves too much for Burgmüller.

while writing her story of the invented world she had gotten trapped in the invented world of her story, a prisoner and at the same time an actor in her story, she couldn’t behave in any other way, that was it, she was living and simultaneously writing by putting down the plot on paper, and at the same time she was bodily a part of the story she was depicting, without any distance from it, without hovering above it like other inventors of traditional stories, but almost in danger of being crushed by her storytelling…

Jonke clearly relishes both sides of the amusing philosophical arguments in which Burgmüller and the writer engage, but he ultimately sides with Burgmüller.  If everybody wrote their own story and their own history, the world would become a nightmare.  And, for a brief moment, it actually does.  As her newly written world continues to emerge unchecked, Burgmüller’s world – the “real world” – begins to come unglued.  Manhole covers start flapping like “big round book covers,” the streets begin to complain, traffic lights stop working, and chaos descends, “complete with all its anarchistic inconveniences.”  Burgmüller realizes he is losing the war of the narratives and he attempts to argue her back from her position by explaining the potential consequences of her beliefs:

One day soon, all of our shelves will become cascades of life, waterfalls springing with infinite slowness from our walls of books, breaking through, yes, even here, even out of the walls of this very room, slowly plunging through the corridors of every apartment, down the stairwells, out of the buildings; yes, even the ocean and its Sargasso Seas will come to rustle with the book-heaps that have filed out of our library doors through the streets of this city; soon they will be full of all our always-being-imagined stories, thoughts, pictures: inundated, our protagonists having already hopped down undisturbed from all the library ladders, clambered down out of the windows, and then, staggering outside, being caught by a wind, blown up and away through the entire Republic, only going to ground beyond the farthest limits of visions – soon they will even start crossing the unimaginably high wall of the sealed-off ocean.

As a corrective, Burgmüller proposes that they depart on a trip to see “real landscapes, cities, you’ll feel everything yourself, we’ll both experience it, we’ll both be able to experience ourselves at last…”  But she will have none of it and she angrily disappears, taking her typewriter and her narrative with her.

Awakening ends with Burgmüller starting out on a new episode, boarding a transparent train made entirely of glass that heads off across the countryside.

A little later they glide out of the city, or the city is shedding its travelers, or brushing them out of itself, one can’t say exactly, and Burgmüller feels the landscape starting to glide over him like a skin, feels the hills and the intervening valleys skimming across his face.

It’s impossible to say whether he’s gliding through this stretch of land or whether the stretch of land is running through him, whether the travelers are driving the landscape past them or the landscape is throwing the travelers out of it; or whether the region is perhaps just leaning back, has leaned back into the general background.

There is something refreshing, exhilarating, and, yes, joyful in Jonke’s writing here.  Burgmüller seems to have finally won the narrative war and I think it is due to the ability to “hover above”the stories of the world, to indulge in the imagination and in the multitude of stories that language permits us to weave.  Over at Anaesthete, there is an excellent post that, among other things, ponders Jonke’s relationship to the Romantics.  I would agree with Anaesthete that one of Jonke’s major concerns is alienation.  Here’s Anaesthete:

Jonke seems keen to answer two questions with which the Romantics were also confronted: “is there an existence beyond alienation from world and nature?” and “with what means can the individual overcome alienation?”. It is here that Jonke stands apart from the Romantics, at least to some extent, for, in both cases, the former holds that the answer is to be found in language or, perhaps better, is language.

My first attempt to read Awakening resulted in a false start and some serious confusion on my part. But I went back to the beginning and immediately fell under its strange Escher-like spell. I’ll end with with my favorite sentence from the book:

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, where he imagined returning endlessly to the time coming toward him or the day after tomorrow, as if he had put it so far behind him that it had hurried to get ahead of him again and had passed him by miles.

Gert Jonke.  Awakening to the Great Sleep War.  Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012.  Originally published in 1982.  Translated from the German by Jean M. Snook.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I can only thank you for the unexpected mention, as well as for the initial juxtaposition of those striking passages from Jonke. At no point in my several years of reading “Vertigo” did I think that I might one day make an appearance here, of whatever sort. On a final note, two follow-up posts on the passages are foreseen at “Anaesthete” in the coming days. Keep up the excellent work with “Vertigo”!

    November 14, 2013

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