I was really sad to hear yesterday that the Austrian novelist, poet, playwright, TV writer, and arbiter of various other word-bound enterprises, Gert Jonke, had died of cancer at age 62 on Sunday. I had just that evening been talking up his work to Ken, saying how criminal it seems that he is not more well known and read in English, having written and published more than 17 novels in German that are just now, thanks to the ever-brilliant and vital Dalkey Archive, becoming available outside of Austria and the like.
Hopefully, if nothing else, his death will help bring even more attention to his brilliant and innovative work.
I had just recently discovered Jonke's work last month when I ordered his GEOMETRIC REGIONAL NOVEL from Dalkey during their amazing December sale. The copy for the book alone was enough for me to want it without knowing anything else about the work or the author:
Geometric Regional Novel is an innovative satire on the process by which bureaucracy and official regimentation insidiously pervade society. In a deadpan, pseudo-scientific tone, the nameless narrator takes us on a tour of a bizarre village whose inhabitants lead such habitual, regulated lives that they resemble elements in a mathematical equation. The traditional village leaders—the mayor, the priest, the teacher—uphold the status quo with comically exaggerated attention to ceremony and trivia, and nearly every aspect of life has been codified. Contrasting with the mathematical descriptions of village life are flashes of colorful, surrealistic writing, exemplifying the power of the imagination to counter the monotonous routines of daily life.
When the book arrived I read it from cover to cover without moving off my sofa. Jonke's rendering here of a ridiculous 'region' where science and law are so askew it is as if someone has taken a smear eraser to the city's face was something I had been looking to read for a long time coming. From page to page, literally, I was in awe of how Jonke was able to meld so many high concept ideas together into a narrative so immensely readable and downright funny. For every inch in that he is innovative (with paragraphs that recurse on their own logic in the mist of themselves, weird Frank Stanford-imagery of bulls and hollow trees and bridges that stretch on and on, sudden 'new law' attached to the community in the midst of its rendering that continue to skew the perspective, descriptions of traveling artists performing impossible tasks, etc.) he is also downright amusing and hilarious. This isn't one of those books that are so brash in their innovation that the reader is made to slog along: every page is literally one you find yourself want to read again as soon as it is over, if not to see how the hell he did it so smoothly, but just for the pure pleasure of it.
I could go on about the new new of the executions made in this book, such as the absolutely amazing questionnaire that is placed in the middle the book as a thing that must be filled out by the geometric region's citizens who wish to cross through a forest (before Barthelme did it with SNOW WHITE, as well as elsewhere). His employment of double-speak questions and Kafkaesque bureaucracy in form I literally had to stop and read aloud. I've never seen a questionnaire in a book work so well, and that is not to mention the other strange and amazing tactics employed here: the diagrams, the weird city ordinances, the disjoined post-fairy-tale language, the amazing logic, and etc.
I find it pretty interesting, too, that this book was originally published in German in 1969, predating Calvino's INVISIBLE CITIES by three years, and pretty much accomplishing everything Calvino set out to do in that book, but tenfold, and with even more zeal and audacity I think.
That more people in English do not know this book is something that should change. Fans of other curious books in such as a Jesse Ball, Matthew Derby, Brian Evenson, and Kelly Link, as well as Borges, Robert Pinget, Beckett, and others of the magic weird camp should most certainly check him out. It's literally been a thing I've not been able to get out of my mind, a book I've continued to carry with me every day since I read it just to touch and hold and open just to look. It's gotten so into my mind that literally the same day I started writing a book out of the mind Jonke's awoke in me, and haven't been able to stop fixating on it since.
I am excited, too, that the other Jonke title released so far by Dalkey, Homage to Czerny, is sitting on my desk waiting for the right moment, and sounds like a completely different bag from the other, which is exciting. I can only imagine what treasure awaits in all his other works, and hope that Dalkey and other mindful presses will continue to make his work available (I believe I heard Dalkey has another of his titles coming out in 09, as does Ariadne Books).
So far I've only been able to find one other English obituary reference outside of Dalkey, which makes me like him even more:
I asked if [Jonke] would be willing to come to the U.S. for a reading tour. He politely declined, saying he wasn’t really interested in coming to the States because there’s no where you can smoke in this country. And he wasn’t sure if Red Bull would be as accessible here as it is in Austria . . .
There is also a really great criticism casebook arranged by Dalkey on the GEOMETRIC REGIONAL NOVEL.
Do yourself a favor and explore some Jonke. You will be glad you did.