Tuesday, February 1, 2011
The Distant Sound
By Gert Jonke
Despite being one of the most respected Austrian writers of the late 20th Century, Gert Jonke remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. In an excellent introduction to Jonke’s new novel, The Distant Sound, translator Jean Snook helps to explain some of the reasons why this is the case. Firstly, as Snook points out, translating Jonke’s unusual prose and sentence-structure is virtually impossible to render in anything like a truly faithful English version. The second reason, however, lies in the difficulty of Jonke’s novels; in Austria, novels like his are described as Gehirnjogging, which translates as ‘brain jogging’. While these difficult books are prized among German-speakers, they are typically marginalised and accused of wilful obscurantism in the English-speaking world.
Unsurprisingly, The Distant Sound is not a novel that one reads for tight, conventional plotting, but, for all of that, it nonetheless has an interesting premise: a well-known composer (who has now ceased composing) wakes up in a mental hospital without knowing why he is there. He is told that he has attempted suicide, but has no recollection of this act and feels no desire whatsoever to kill himself. He soon falls in love with a young nurse in the hospital who is sympathetic to his plight, and after she suddenly disappears the composer plots his escape to go in search of her. But even after regaining his freedom, his every attempt to locate her is hampered by another absurd turn of events, which shows that the outside world is just as claustrophobic as the insane asylum. (In point of fact, The Distant Sound is actually a sequel to an earlier novel called Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, but ignorance of this first book isn’t likely to disrupt your enjoyment of The Distant Sound).
Despite the seemingly dark, Kafka-esque nature of this material, The Distant Sound is also very much a funny book, filled with humour that recalls the work of absurdist writers like Eugene Ionesco. And it is fittingly full of often-surprising twists and turns that operate with a dream-like logic, resulting in the appearance of a tight-rope walker who can quite literally walk on air, a newspaper staff that spends all day in a train-station café reading newspapers, and the appearance of a horde of strange parasites that may well threaten the future existence of the human race, among many others.
The Distant Sound is a book that sure to appeal to fans of writers like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Max Frisch, and, most of all, the Argentinean author Cesar Aira, But whereas Aira’s books are typically brief novellas, The Distant Sound clocks in at close to 300 pages. It’s not that The Distant Sound is boring—indeed, it is never, ever boring—but many of its jokes intentionally take on a repetitive form (in which different characters offer mutually exclusive—and equally ridiculous—interpretations of the exact same phenomenon); while I liked this conceit, most readers’ enjoyment of the novel will depend on the degree to which they appreciate this style. But overall The Distant Sound is an extremely enjoyable farce, which shows that Gert Jonke is certainly deserving of a much larger English readership.
Posted by Emmett Stinson at 10:56 AM