READ (red) v. – 1. To comprehend or take in the meaning of (something written or printed). 2. To utter or render aloud (something written or printed).
—Oxford English Dictionary
Consider the above entry from the OED. Readers applying the second definition to The System of Vienna, by Gert Jonke, will, I believe, more readily meet the condition of the first. Jonke’s prose is fun to read, but not always easy to understand. It helps to ‘render aloud’ his words, much the same way that, say, Finnegan’s Wake is served by recitation, all the better to hear Joyce’s musicality. With Jonke, an oral reading brings out the obsessive vocal twitter of Vienna’s denizens such as this one that we meet early on in a chapter entitled “Autumn Mist—Rose Hill.”
I bet you believe I’m a sculptor, the sculptor said, but that’s a mistake. You believe I’m standing here under this tree and busying myself with admittedly unusual sculpture, but that is not at all how things are, no, and that you are now standing here beside me is also purely a matter of your imagination, just as it goes without saying that we’re always quite naturally located somewhere other then circumstances would make it appear, so listen carefully, for in all probability we are located in no place other, of yes indeed, than in a—how do you say it—more or less enclosed space, a room that has a suspiciously familiar appearance to us, you won’t think it possible, but what are we doing here after all, well now you won’t even believe it….
A semi-colon appears a few lines later, but it’s a full page and half before a period hits us. Jonke’s translator, Vincent Kling, who must be signaled out for his bravery and commitment in translating Vienna, notes in his afterward that Jonke creates “clausal monstrosities that postpone the verb for so long that it sometimes never appears.”
If this makes Jonke sound intimidating, let me assure you that The System of Vienna, once you discover its pattern, is entirely accessible. This late Austrian novelist shares Joyce’s desire to experiment with the novel’s structure and language, while simultaneously launching an exploration of his homeland. Just as Joyce walked us through the streets of Dublin, Jonke opens the door on Vienna and the nature of the Austrian character. His novel stakes its claim early, announcing loudly that the reader is no longer in the cozy arena of “narrative structure” or “character” or “linear arcs.” Jonke does not mock these literary conventions, but applies them in his own fashion, and holds up the results for the reader to inspect.
While it can certainly be called “experimental,” Vienna offers a pair of familiar organizing principles for its slim 98 pages. Autobiography (ostensibly) is the first, with Jonke asking the reader to take it on faith that no matter how fantastic his narrative becomes, it’s all taken from real events. (Although his first paragraph promises to explain his “methodology… and academic development” he typically never gets around to it.) The second device is a tour of the titular city by streetcar, with each chapter a different stop not only in the city but also in the author’s life, from birth to death. Each stop, while part of the greater city, is self-contained. The author even notes that the segments were published separately as stories (one chapter, “Danube River Bridge,” first appeared on an album cover). There is no “plot” to speak of, even as the segments trace the linear pattern of life. You don’t read The System of Vienna so much as you hop on and hop off the trolley car, admiring what you like and taking pictures were it suits you, and so, too, might you skip around the remainder of this review, as it reflects how I found myself reading Jonke’s book.
POKING FUN AT BUREAUCRATIC SHENANIGANS
I took great pleasure in reading Jonke’s first entry, “Beginnings In A Small Southern Austrian City,” as he relates the story of his mother, pregnant with him, arriving at a hospital in the middle of a frigid winter night only to find, “that she wasn’t permitted to enter the hospital by that door, but by the main entrance instead, because it wasn’t the usual practice to enter the hospital by any of the side entrances, and moreover it wasn’t even possible to open this particular one, whereas the main entrance, on the other hand, was open all night long, so she could certainly go in that way if she absolutely had to….”
And so on for half the page, until the disgruntled guard finally opens the side gate and lets in the expecting mother. Represented in prose, this hyperactive bureaucracy takes on an element of the fantastic and ridiculous; we who live in the modern world may be all too familiar with the channels and paperwork and hierarchy and adherence to the rule of law that can overwhelm common sense and human decency. Jonke’s first book, Geometric Regional Novel, tackled this head on, the best example in that work being a form that needs to be filled out in order to take a walk in the woods. (Sample questions: “Where are you going?” “What do you want there?” “Why don’t you want to go somewhere else?” “Why don’t you just stay home?”)
Lambasting these systems is a literary tradition. Kafka pioneered the method, and Jonke is one of his many heirs.
BROMIDES & HARANGUES
Tragic comedy reigns supreme in Jonke’s world. Each time he (or his fictional alter ego) introduces us to a new area of the city it’s not more then a few paragraphs before a neurotic voice of worry or anger or frustration at the Austrian way of conducting everyday life takes over. A stopover at Nussdorf station becomes an opportunity to observe the pissoirs (public urinals) and how “yellow lime clings to the tar paper walls, torn prophylactics are often found in the grates over the drains, the drains are often stopped up so the whole pissoir is flooded with diluted urine…. while all around…. people have scratched their names and their depictions of human sex organs—transfigured through the simple grace of unsophisticated folk art.”
With the chapter “In the Course of My Courses…” Jonke admits that his years “spent so far at the University of Vienna have been a fantastic fraud, an unparalleled swindle….” Academic lectures are given “over and over, exactly the same, word for word, every two years since the end of the Second World War….” and when he substitutes for a professor, the man insists on Jonke using a metronome set to the tempo of the “Waldstein” sonata “so as to be able to execute his text with authenticity before the empty seats in the lecture hall.”
Home offers the author no comfort either. In the chapter “Hernals-Style of Household Management,” Jonke feels forced to adhere to said style, in which he does not “put flowers out onto the hallway windows any more… because it makes no sense… it’s not just senseless, but impossible… as it can be grounds for having your lease cancelled.” Neighbors are suspicious and “take their doormats into their apartments… so to be completely sure no one can steal their doormats.”
Then there is the chapter “Wholesale Fish Dealer By The Danube Canal.” Here, Jonke is subjected to the tirade of the said dealer who is convinced he is directing all of Austrian politics from his fish stall. “I’m the real Chancellor,” he says. “Everything proceeds… according to my decisions…. If you believe, that politics are run by those people who call themselves political figures, then you have fallen victim to a serious mistake! Because for those who call themselves political figures, being in charge of politics represents a mere deception, a tremendous cover-up perpetrated on the public.”
Jonke and his characters are building fictions about themselves, perhaps to mask the true misery behind provincial life. It’s both sad and funny. Everyone is swallowed up in their nervous, self-made contortions of invention.
INEVITABLE COMPARISON TO ANOTHER AUTHOR
I found it impossible to read Jonke without thinking of his countryman, Thomas Bernhard. Both men have perfected the art of the Austrian flavored rant. I find Jonke funnier, more playful and easier to read, whereas if you don’t tackle Bernhard’s unbroken brick walls of prose from the first page, you can easily get lost. Jonke is the playful sprite to Bernhard’s grumpy wizard.
A BRIEF NOTE ON THE TRANSLATION
Vincent Kling has accomplished a mighty task here. Vienna’s elaborate verbal barrages create, in his own words, “clauses of such convolution as gradually to slip away from due proportion and begin sprawling over whole pages, gestating storms of thunderwords…. snarled in syntactic structures no mind could follow, let alone unravel.” This monolingual reviewer is in no position to testify to the accuracy of Kling’s work, but will, instead, accept it on faith that any liberties taken with the language were “unraveled” with the reader in mind. A translator’s work is never easy and Jonke must have been a bigger chore then most, however Kling and Dalkey Archive can boast success, providing the English speaking world with yet another neglected master.