Casebook: Geometric Regional Novel by Gert Jonke
Maria Luise Caputo-Mayr
The concept of Heimat—one’s region or homeland, the place where one’s roots are—has been a constant topic in postwar Austrian literature, critically reevaluating its language, themes, and traditions and culminating in a revival and renewal of the old form of the nineteenth-century idyllic Heimatroman (regional novel) under new perspectives. This has been the case both in realistic novels (e.g. in Franz Innerhofer’s bleak view of the so-called modern Austrian affluent welfare state, as in his Schöne Tage [Beautiful Days, trans. Anselm Hollo, New York: Urizen, 1976—ed.]) and in those works which used the topic for virtuoso creations in language in the manner of the Wiener Schule (Vienna School). Jonke’s Geometric Regional Novel combines both approaches. Since the end of the sixties Jonke has been a member of the so-called Grazer Forum, an eminent association of writers centered in Graz, as the name suggests; it includes, among others, Bar-bara Frischmuth, Peter Handke, Alfred Kolleritsch, Gerhard Roth, and Michael Scharang, and is still thought of as the standard-setting group in contemporary Austrian literature (Kaukoreit and Pfoser 134). Walter Weiss placed him in con-text with formal experiments of the radically experimental Wiener Gruppe or Vienna Group, whose main members were Friedrich Achleitner, H. C. Artmann, Konrad Bayer, Gerhard Rühm, and Oswald Wiener (Caputo-Mayr 99).1 Paul Kruntorad associated Jonke’s writings with novels of “literary scientists” such as Helmut Eisendle and Gerhard Roth (123, 271). Paul Kruntorad and Victor Suchy pointed to the influence of the technique of the nouveau roman, particularly on Geometric Regional Novel (Kruntorad 271; Suchy 33-34). Suchy related him also to Thomas Bernhard (Frost, Amras, Verstörung), Franz Tumler, Erich Fried, and Pe-ter Handke (Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Pen-alty Kick, trans. Michael Roloff, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1972—ed.), defining the common denominator of their novelistic writings as a nearly total lack of a defined subject, while they rely only on their subjective knowledge of themselves and the part of the world that they intimately know.
Jonke’s ironic Heimatroman renounces the traditional action and chapter subdivision. The author reconstructs a provincial world of a village around a geometrically defined village square. The single units of the novel are not devel-oped organically; they are listed schematically. There are seven numbered units called “The Village Square,” alternating with eight portions of numbered “Considerations on the General Situation,” each with a different subtitle (number 2, for example, is “The Bridge,” number 6 is “General and Specific Economic Measures”), as well as three “Intermezzi.”2 The whole structure resembles a piece of music (Jonke had a thorough training in music) or a film script or, as Jonke points out in the title of the novel, a geometric (factual) use of materials of the traditional genre Heimatroman. It is easy to see why Thomas Beckermann called it “ein Kunstprodukt” (an artistic—or better yet—an artificial product), recording language as the autonomous vehicle of development, in opposition to traditional narrative. Jonke presumably was taking a certain provocative stance toward his readers by connecting different stylistic texts, which aimed at criticizing modern industrial life, conventions, and artistic, societal traditions (Suchy 33).3
Jonke uses traditional realistic details and characters of village and countryside— possibly close to his own birthplace, Klagenfurt in the south of Austria (Carinthia), adding an archaic/exotic element from his travel notes to Persia—adopting units of varying form, such as dialogue, prose fragments, lyrical passages, form letters, geometric sketches, associative word and sentence lists, and other devices. We could speak of a linguistic stock-taking according to basic themes, a survey of the regional language types and styles in this “constructed” village—among others the language of the educated; the dialect of southeastern Austria; legal and administrative terminology; the language of religion and legends; journalistic and naive language types. In addition, there are commentaries on various events by the village population with a great wealth and range of ex-pression. All these are combined in Jonke’s “collage” of a regional novel whose main impression becomes the uncertainty of the narrated materials and narrative styles, by presenting also their ironic or parodic opposites. Jonke investigates reality through language. Most of the events, objects, and actions are pedantically and slowly described, resembling the physical presentation as in a film script (Caputo-Mayr 99-100). There are no subjective personal conversations or thoughts, and there is no presentation of anyone’s inner life, neither of the characters observed nor of the two speakers/observers who appear in nearly all scenes on the village square. These speakers want to cross the square without being seen; their short dialogues appear in italics and introduce the text portions.
A sketch of the village square on the cover of the book (German edition [Munich: dtv, 1971]—ed.) indicates this location as the geometric and narrative center of the novel and will be detailed in the legend of “The Village Square (3),” figure 4 (p. 50 in the original, p. 41 in the English version). One of the village houses around the square belongs to a family named Jonke (!), and the caption goes far to make Jonke’s poetics explicit: “the experience of the conflict between the world of things and the world of people during which the world of things dictates the patterns to the world of people. . . the village square is a structural pattern. . . .” (This and all following English translations are mine—Caputo-Mayr.) External structures, objects and natural forces seem to impose themselves on the daily life of this archaic and at the same time modern village, which we observe from the outside. A type of hypnotic action is exerted through language: repetitive reports on the structure of the village and its surroundings, the tenacious adherence to traditions, rules, and superstitions endlessly repeated by the local dignitaries and the administration. Geometrical, mathematical, and physical references, comparisons, and descriptions alert the reader to Jonke’s intention of showing how imposed structures prevail in this village and its surroundings. Eight sketches, called Figuren, present important as well as unimportant details of, for example, the tent of the artist, the village well, the irrigation system, laundry hung up to dry, and more, making Jonke’s seriousness about his details suspect. In the narrative passages, situations and events are treated in much the same way; they exaggerate beyond the believable and undermine the seriousness through irony and sarcasm. Veritable waterfalls of elaborate, cascading, baroque word associations cross the limits between the real and the imaginary, turning the original event into its comic counterpart. Actual reality emerges only in the context of the mechanics of language (Schober 222).
Could this artificial geometric novel about Heimat only serve as pretext for Jonke’s language games? We are often surprised and amused while reading the prose and perhaps especially the playfully lighthearted invitation to the reader, “Considerations on the General Situation Number Eight: Outlook,” at the end of the book “to wrap up the village in white or differently colored wrapping paper and to throw it back over one of the shoulders or under the arm, backward, for ten or more or fewer meters, and to enter a different landscape.” But Jonke is also confirming through this ending the artificially constructed nature of his work. There are dangerous depths in this novel, but Jonke smooths them over by using amusing terminology, unexpected turns of events, and cabaretlike elements.
The units dealing with the village square are initiated by the comments of the two speakers/observers and display a strong visual element, probably due to Jonke’s early training as a television director. “Village Square (1)” displays fig-ures in marionettelike movements—sitting on benches, getting up, approaching each other and returning to their seats—or the repeated appearance of groups of village people who mimic, as an opera chorus would, stylized reactions to the events, such as curiosity, shock, or surprise. The first three village square units introduce the reader to ordinary village life—fetching water from the well, morning visits, school children on their way home; they also describe the square and introduce the authority figures, such as priest and teacher. “Village Square (3)” and its sequel display the activities of the village hierarchy, the teacher drilling children in the regulations and traditions of the community, explaining the function of the mayor and the respect that is due to him and to all other “adults”; the layout of the square is sketched for the children; art and geometry are explained with the example of the village church carvings and the tree stumps on the village square. It becomes increasingly obvious here that the ad-ministrative hierarchy is strictly traditional and Catholic in its political-religious nature; this hierarchy is reinforced by long word chains relating to obedience, orders, and transgression and by various other contexts. The language of these passages is consistent with the cultural/religious vocabulary of a southern Austrian region, but it also incorporates a strong tongue-in-cheek attitude, mocking precisely these same authorities, traditions and superstitions. We find among them children’s rhymes—”knife, fork, scissors, light are not for little children to play with— general rules of good behavior and good citizenship (e.g., “one should go to church on Sundays, . . . one should think democratically”)— which transmute gradually into hilariously transformed versions from a variety of re-ligious, administrative, commonsense/nonsense, and proverbial sources that end in a veritable downpour of breathless verbs of order and prohibition. The arrangement of these single units seems to be calculated to destroy any of the re-spect initially exacted and enforced by the teacher. The teacher also includes in his training session for the children the story of the wood carver from the village chronicle, compiled by local priests. As a matter of fact, one of the priests had given overnight shelter to the artist and convinced him to decorate the local church with his carvings. The artist, a fugitive from other envious wood carvers, tells the story of his hermit life in the forest with annoyingly repetitive terms, where he cures his stomach ailment with a locally popular herb tea (“Scharfgarbe”), brewed over an open fire according to specific rules and rituals, which he always somehow misses, a miserable and ridiculous “king of the wood carvers.” The teacher relates to the children this story and others like it from the village chronicle, alerting them to the historical sources of the village, presenting a persiflage of local traditions and habits. The teaching as practiced here is marked by regimentation, strict and obtuse discipline, and pre-established authority, while the verbs used—for example “make the children line up,” “he ordered the children”)—have an ominously military sound.
The village—at first only schematically and geometrically sketched—takes on a more complex character as we proceed, and even shows a possible chrono-logical dimension (Wilpert 526). Nearly every “Village Square” section refers to the history of the trees on the square: first they are still standing; they show carvings of names and signs referring to past private lives, but then the regulations of “City Hall Department 42″ come into play; the trees were then cut down since they had grown into the roofs of the adjacent houses. People started to rest and sit on these tree stumps, which were finally dug out and substituted with benches; however, these were to be taken away again to protect the place from the assault of birds. Such powerfully growing trees might be a last reference to the all-present nature of the old traditional Heimatroman; they exert considerable influence on the villagers’ decisions.
An exotic, mythical element is added by the wood carver episode from the Village Chronicle, by the oriental coffeehouse tradition and also by the chapter on the inundation of the village square. These two sections are characterized by pronounced pantomimic action (appearance of the wandering prophet and rainmaker, arrival and work of the recruiting commission, followed by negative social/political comments on the loss of work force, as well as the farcical acts of literally dragging the reluctant recruits from their hiding places). A parodic highlight is added by a university professor’s philological explanation of the rainmaker’s magic spell as the language of a yet undiscovered cannibal tribe in the rain forest (German 91).4 One “Village Square” section describes the repair of the tile factory’s chimney, during which falling tiles fly away like birds in a poetic fantastic reversal, another example of Jonke’s surprise moves. The actual village square story ends in the final two sections with detailed descriptions of plans, situations, children at play, noises, contents of basements, removal of benches, and finally the battle against annual bird attacks on the facades of the houses. Finally, after the failure of scientific and technical means and many fruitless village committee meetings, the hosing of the birds and houses brings success. At this point the two hidden observers finally can cross the village square.
Another type of text subdivision is given by seven “Observations about the General Situation,” which complete the rudimentary image of Jonke’s village life. They form excursus about important outside forces and events that are in-fluencing the village. While the “Village Square” sections inform and enlarge our knowledge, the “Observations” provide negative facts, limiting and narrowing down movement and the different views of life. Accordingly, they present the condition of this unnatural village in an unnatural landscape, cut into geometric shapes by access roads and “an epidemic of fences,” surrounded by the sine and cosine forms of the mountains and particularly the Trapeze Mountain, guarded by bulls and warning signs, blocking the approaching traveler. Alternative solu-tions such as “Death of the Bull” or “Death of the Traveler” offer further insight into the political/cultural complexities of life in the village. Difficulties in approaching the village fill also the second “Observation” section: the river in the east seems to be barred by a detailed list of obstacles (bridge guard with guard house, doors, locks, chains, boats, boat designs, identification documents, and numerous other items), paralleled by similar obstacles that render it impossible to leave the village (“The New Law”)—the display on the billboards, for instance—and other contents literally spilling over from the village locale and into text of the novel itself—the bogey man, the dark men, and so on—prohibiting even an innocent walk in the countryside. The curtain rises to reveal, behind geometrical, linguistic, and cultural structures, a totalitarian system petrifying everything and everybody, adopting any existing method to control the inhabi-tants of this place. The last symbol of freedom, the proverbial lovely green forest, the “schöner grüner Wald” (Caputo-Mayr 99; Kruntorad 271)5 of German romantic and folkloristic culture, is off limits, guarded by administrative units who sit at desks and hand out forms containing pages and pages of absurd data for the applicants to fill out before they can get anywhere near the woods. The forms are actually included in the text of the novel. This section also contains measures against unemployment that involve earmarking every stick of available timber for items to be used in projects not yet actually planned. The inventory once more ends in lunatic absurdities: “bridges for roads possibly to be planned, windows for possibly gazing women, bridges for possible future rivers, . . . scarecrows for possible future gardening centers.” The plan is to panel over the entire countryside by some time in the near future.
There is only one moving, socially relevant story: about the blacksmith couple who are destroying themselves with hard work, alluding to the brutaliz-ing effect of hard, monotonous work, which spills over into education of chil-dren—not a love story. On the contrary, there are “General and Specific Economic Measures” to increase milk production and irrigation systems, but also pure nonsense sections with the titles “Sleeping Positions” or “Aluminum Foil and Door.”
The cultural character of the village also includes the arts: “Intermezzo Number One: Presentation by the Artist” narrates the circuslike acrobatic performances of the tightrope walker and his assistants. The village reacts in choral commentaries, ironically interspersed by a narrator and the cultural reporter Weinzierl’s “objective” article that deals with general health issues, rather than with art, and warns of leftist politics. The entire section demonstrates Jonke’s stylistic bravura, a persiflage of local provincial artistic endeavors, and possibly pokes fun at his own writing in a “reportedly modernist vein.” The tightrope walker’s episode is given two possible endings: a realistic accident with a torn rope and a bad fall, or the artist’s ascension to heaven after the accident. Two additional short “Intermezzi” about art describe a landscape with trees in the fog, and a two-line remainder of an Austrian folk song, provided with music, of a provocative nature.
The novel can be seen as linguistic parody of an illusory homeland and the presumed freedom of life in the countryside, in that it shows the continual narrowing of personal freedom and cultural horizons. The geometric subdivisions and plans for the village and surroundings, seemingly no more than gently ironic at the beginning, gradually lead to a total isolation of this world. Social criticism, criticism of a restrictive legal system, warnings about an all-paralyzing bureaucracy enveloping even the countryside, are created through means of powerful restricting language—a frightening condition. Similar to Handke’s early efforts, but with stronger undertones of parody and even cabaret, Jonke shows the civilizing but also restricting force of language, which can deceive, oppress and even incarcerate human beings. With a gesture of relief the author Jonke suddenly turns away from this complex linguistic landscape. In a light vein he abandons the envisaged “totalitarian” horror, simply wrapping up the village and throwing it behind his back, leaving it all behind, but indicating that he is looking for a new landscape.
1 For the Wiener Gruppe, see Weibel.
2 As other contributors to this casebook point out, Jonke’s novel exists in two versions, the original from 1969 and a revised, abridged version from 1980. Caputo-Mayr is drawing on the original version. (This note is by the editor.)
3 See Beckermann 220: “an artistic product that records language, but does not reproduce reality or images.” See also Vazulik 293.
4 Some of the episodes described in this paragraph have no correspon-dence in the English version, since it is based on Jonke’s revision and abridge-ment from 1980, while Caputu-Mayr is drawing on the 1969 original. See note 2 above. (This note is by the editor.)
5 Aue notes that the entire novel presents a struggle between nature and geometry, exemplified especially by the struggle of the aggressive trees on the village square or the inundation. This battle would signify a variant to the tradi-tional contrasting countryside–city thematic of the old Heimatroman (697).
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