First English translation of Jonke's 1982 novel,
This review is from: Awakening to the Great Sleep War (Paperback)
This is the first translation into English of Jonke's novel 'Erwachen zum großen Schlafkrieg', which appeared in German in 1982. The author, who died in 2009, was an Austrian of the radical postwar generation of writers that produced among others Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. By comparison with them, Gert Jonke remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. He made his early reputation with a book published in 1969 (Geometrische Heimatsroman / Geometrical Regional Novel) and published steadily thereafter, winning the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 1977 and the Austrian Prize For Literature a decade later. In the years immediately before his death he enjoyed great success as a dramatist.
The 'story' of 'Awakening to the Great Sleep War' is relatively simple. The male protagonist, Burgmüller, undergoes three repetitions of a love-trial, meeting and losing in turn three women (who may be the same woman) while living in a city that is shaped and disrupted by surrealistic irruptions governed by a dream logic. Jonke blurs the boundaries between dream, fantasy, waking life and the world of words so that the reader is continuously off-balance. His protagonist accepts without question his ability to 'orchestrate' the flight of birds and talk to statues; but there are other, more violent disruptions of sense and continuity - of memory and identity - lying in wait for him.
Jonke was a musician by training, and his characteristic manner of proceeding is as much musical as literary in its influences. One can see similarities with the writing of Peter Handke and Jonke's slightly older contemporary Thomas Bernhard: but Jonke's essentially improvisatory style, which seems to owe something to the older example of surrealist prose, has a dissociated, dreamlike quality that is his own, while lacking the savagery and satirical force of Bernhard. Musical structures - theme and variation; subject, development and recapitulation - suggest themselves more readily as structuring devices than more normal notions of plot and character development. Whether this can work at more than a subconscious level is open to question.
Jonke is a difficult writer - though perfectly readable sentence by sentence - who makes few concessions to conventional expectations. Dalkey Archive have seen fit to describe the book as 'enormously comic', which in my view gives a completely false impression of the novel. There is an underlying strain of paranoia and even desperation that is disquieting. Jonke has something of Kafka's ability to persuade the reader that to submit to some monstrous imposition is reasonable, even inevitable. His protagonist, Burgmüller, and his lovers are straining at the bars of a world that often seems quite literally to be a box in which even the sky is composed of something more solid than air.
'Awakening to the Great Sleep War' requires considerable patience from the reader and is not likely to reveal all its secrets at first reading. I felt on balance that in spite of some tedious patches it was worth my time, and I will be exploring further.