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Awakening to the Great Sleep War

Awakening to the Great Sleep War

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Awakening to the Great Sleep War

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Jan 3, 2013


One of the loveliest riddles of Austrian literature is finally available in English translation: Gert Jonke's 1982 novel, Awakening to the Great Sleep War, is an expedition through a world in constant nervous motion, where reality is rapidly fraying—flags refuse to stick to their poles, lids sidle off of their pots, tram tracks shake their stops away like fleas, and books abandon libraries in droves. Our cicerone on this journey through the possible (and impossible) is an "acoustical decorator" by the name of Burgmüller—a poetical gentleman, the lover of three women, able to communicate with birds, and at least as philosophically minded as his author: "Everything has suddenly become so transparent that one can't see through anything anymore." This enormously comic—and equally melancholic—tale is perhaps Jonke's masterwork.
Jan 3, 2013

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Awakening to the Great Sleep War - Gert Jonke


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In the morning, that city is usually enveloped by a low-lying cloud, from which it slowly and with great difficulty extricates itself, and depending on the varying requirements of the day, it ascends at least three or five meters, yes, even as high as seven or nine meters up the air-arena stairwell, into the sublime midmorning.

By noon, however, this dignified stance has already become too uncomfortable for it, so it drifts surreptitiously down to its customary altitude, so that, once there, it can lean back into the comfortable afternoon, over the course of which it will of course still have to put up with just about everything imaginable, till long into the evening, when it pulls the evening’s gray pelt up over its ears before sinking further down, several meters, crumbling away through the porous, moth-eaten skin of the plains, as if its houses were being suctioned away, so that only the pointed tops of a few chimney toques still peep out, only the wings of a few helplessly fluttering rooftops still sail swaying over the spring tides of twilight—it has fallen in on itself, leaving deep furrows, and there is a barely audible rustling sound as the city slips away from the eye of the beholder, glittering as it goes.

In the morning, the walls blow their noses, hanging their bleary-eyed bedding out the windows, the roof trusses cough through asthmatic chimneys, and some buildings sneeze through their opened skylights; now and then an entryway shoves its stairwell, bursting with stairs, out onto the street, and sometimes entire suites of rooms are pushed out through their walls into public places, while the cellars press down on their heaps of potatoes, preventing them from rising up in rebellion when the countless coal sacks, filled to bursting, blow gobs of smog into the public transit system through the bars on the window.

Some days the buildings pull in their protruding bay-window stomachs and bashfully fold back their elegantly pointed balcony breasts, as if obeying an order to stand at attention with their mortar smoothed flat and their walls erect, because the municipal authorities, that is, their superiors, the towers, have come to report on them, have donned their clockwork cupolas and are wearing the marshal’s baton tips of their weathercockscomb teeth up on their belfries.

Some days the streetcar tracks spring out of the asphalt, shake off all those annoying stops, and move their terminals several meters up into the air.

What were you looking for in that city, Burgmüller?!

In that city, some nights moor their black sailing fleets so firmly to the buoys of the church steeples that they’re still there the next day, far above the heads of the townspeople, the dust swarms of their thick night-bird shadows drawing curved lines in the air, passing through the walls of our airspace-vault, as well as its ceiling fresco.

What did you lose in that city, Burgmüller?!

Yes, the days in that city were sometimes invasions of sunbeams pushed out of the nights, their explosive fields of flowers shot up from the first light of dawn, the rain of their petals cascading down from the galleries of air, pulsating with streams of budding light, accompanied by the vapor-lined sultriness of dark, padded storm attics—their bolts bundled together into a rigidly frozen burning fountain of woven lightning; one was thoughtfully offered shelter beneath the fountain, and in order to stay for just a short time (no longer than necessary), people like Burgmüller hid from it on those islands that drifted through the river until, tired of being inhabited, they evaporated.

Burgmüller wasn’t the only person to pass through such days as though moving down an interminable tunnel of light that had been placed over everything, its woven sunbeam runnels brushing very slowly over the city, close enough to be felt, like a cloth made of air, like an extremely thin condom that might burst at any moment if the buildings continued to act up in this fashion: in the process of greeting each other by raising their roof-truss hats, they were hurling their brick-patterned caps so far above their firm, streamlined walls that they got lost in the wind.

It wasn’t just on days like this that Burgmüller had withdrawn, of late.

Because he had already made the acquaintance of those remarkably different beings who inhabited the city, had been involved in intensive discussions with them for a long time now, had become increasingly fascinated with them, hoping to fathom the various modes of their existence, which he tried, futilely, to comprehend in every detail, together with the world in which they lived, and definitely also moved, although at an apparent standstill.

But how had it all begun? Had he simply stood there and called out to them, You! hey, you there!? No, he would have considered that tactless, pushy; instead, one day, he felt something come up and touch him from behind, without warning, and he turned around, but saw nothing. The only glance cast at him came from the ossified face of a woman of stone, a caryatid, her hands propping the balcony of a building up against the sky in such a way that she could also have been thinking of throwing it. He knew for certain that only she could have attracted his attention in so threatening a manner; Burgmüller was about to answer in the same tone of voice, to forbid that sort of treatment and demand an apology, when he thought or felt that there was an entire congregation all around him, a crowd blocking his way and even laughing at him—from underneath archways, windows, oriels, and other parts of the façade of a long building, whose very marble began to tremble gently. When Burgmüller asked what the reason was for their mockery, which was obviously directed at him, they replied, no, it wasn’t mockery, it was joy, satisfaction, because with him, for the first time in several decades, they had at last found someone who was able to sense a little of their conversation, of how they occupied themselves, of what their days entailed, of their wallseasoncalendar plans, of their buildingfront epochs, etc., what a happy coincidence, and at that he and they decided to meet each other daily; yes, please come tomorrow, all of you, to my apartment, Burgmüller suggested happily to the caryatids and atlantes—which is what the male columns called themselves—and of course they would always be most warmly welcome at his place, in future he hoped as many of them as possible would swing by, any time was fine, he would always welcome a visit from the telamones—which is what all of them together called themselves—at any moment, because their friendship would brighten the twilit loneliness of his quiet rooms!

But unfortunately they didn’t give him a single opportunity to wine and dine them, if discreetly, with his meager hospitality, because of course they never went to his apartment; it would just have been too difficult, for a number of reasons, but above all it would have taken too long.

Instead, he went to visit them regularly, questioned them about the composition of their world, their worldviews, their ideas about existence, and about the course of their walled-up everyday life.

How did they manage to communicate?

On the one hand Burgmüller spoke as slowly as possible, with pauses between each word, between each syllable, if possible intervals of several seconds, so that they were able to hear or understand everything he said or asked, even if he spoke quietly, barely audibly, or often just thought; while on the other hand, their utterances took the form of a not-really describable nor closely definable trembling of the light in the airspace immediately around their figures: Burgmüller thought he heard it very quietly, at least he thought he understood the meaning of it, because hearing probably wasn’t the right word for it, although each of their sentences did seem to be infinitely slowly and carefully spelled and then spoken, if it could even be called speaking, no, speaking wasn’t a suitable word either, not for this type of communication—those veins of light that flashed through the thin, perhaps whispering, nearly invisible blurring of the air that very quietly surrounded their figures, that buzzing of their heads which expressed itself in a manner that was obviously just barely perceptible: when Burgmüller listened to the telamones, it often seemed to him as if he were hearing with his eyes.

The telamones lived, as he soon found out, in a version of the world that was at first neither understandable nor apparent to him: movements in that world flowed with infinite slowness, and indeed their understanding of existence seemed to involve hardly any motion at all. E.g., for one of the marble arms to make a fist so that its stone hand could punch some passerby in the head, or else if one of them wanted to give an inconsiderate loudmouth a pert slap with the back of its stucco hand, or else tear the seat from the pants of a disrespectful slob peeing at the feet of their lonely evenings and nights, they would need, depending on their position and location, at least two to three years, or even twenty to thirty, and in extreme cases two to three centuries.

The by no means crippling, infinitely slow pace of their days and years was the necessary precondition for their existence and protection. The same purpose that air served for Burgmüller—something to breathe, but which also held his biosphere together in and with the atmosphere—was served in the telamones’ case by the inestimable time at their disposal, time that they even conceived of in a material sense; yes, they needed whole piles of eternity around them in the form of time clouds that they also somehow breathed, but breathe is again of course an entirely wrong word, because time held their biosphere together by not only being consumed but also being gathered into millennia and epochs, which remained always present, circling around them like smoke, those densely steaming centuries, the number of which determined the density of their atmosphere, whose every wheezing season and vapor trail fluttered inexhaustibly for decades—and this very dense chronospheric shell could not be measured with the conventional concept of infinity, because its inhabitants would often inhale and exhale in a single minute the time-space network of more than a hundred or a thousand years, which for them had passed imperceptibly . . . yes indeed, how to spend the time was no problem for them at all.

They had no objection to Burgmüller’s spending his, in telamonic terms, ridiculously short time with them.

Soon afterward, he spent several uninterrupted days and nights with them, but once again, far into the evening, his eyes fell shut on him, and so he spent the following night too, until far into the next day or evening, maybe even longer, he didn’t know, lying in the protection of their fixed shadows, in the marble folds of their back courtyards.

When he woke up again, all of them were terribly upset about him, at a loss as to how to explain his presumed illness, from which he had just recovered—some of them had almost written him off already as having died some sort of motionlessly crumbling, timeless death, as having collapsed into a pile of rock debris at the foot of a cliff, as having died in a way clearly puzzling to them because it involved a loss of time.

In any case, they had been very worried about him, had feared he would just remain lying there, would dissolve into little scraps of air that would in turn evaporate and flow away into the evening, but he got up again at last.

It was only a little nap, said Burgmüller, he’d been very tired, more exhausted than he had been in a long time, and he’d slept better than he had in ages; was that really so unusual to them, why were they all suddenly so concerned about him, or had he done something to offend them?

Slept? Tired? But what did it mean?!

I fell into a deep sleep, he explained, and tried to define such concepts as rest and recuperation, and the degree to which they were needful.

Sleep?! But what was it, and what purpose did it have, and where did it all lead to?!

At first, Burgmüller wanted to tell them a little about his already forgotten dreams, but they didn’t understand—Dreams? What are those?—until Burgmüller finally grasped that the telamones up to that point in their existence had never heard anything about sleep, about sleepers, or about sleeping dreamers, because until then every sort of tiredness or exhaustion had remained completely unknown to them.

No, until then they hadn’t known what sleep is, what it’s good for, what and whom it serves; and why should they have known even the slightest thing about it, after all? Nothing even remotely like falling asleep had been included in their blueprints; even the faintest hint of telamonic tiredness would bring the buildings of half the city to their knees: one night of marble sleep would cause everything to cave right in, a single dream would bring catastrophe, desolation, mountains of rubble, collapsed walls, burned buildings, the remains of sunken cities from recklessly forgotten wars; yes, it would have been exactly like a war, a telamonic sleep war of the caryatids against the city.

Even the word sleep had been unknown to them, it didn’t occur in their language.

They had never been tired, never exhausted, but rather were trapped in petrified wakefulness, immured by the need for an eternally preserved insomnia. That’s why Burgmüller had to make a great effort at first to explain things in a way they could begin to understand; he began with the word sleep, and for weeks he explained again and again what was meant by it, what it designated, represented, in order to give them an understanding of it, along with all related phenomena, and he did so lovingly, and was precise down to the last detail, so that, at least on a hypothetical basis, sleep would be understandable—or more understandable—to them.

The phenomenon was completely new and puzzling to the telam-ones; they were soon so fascinated that they demanded he tell them more and more about it . . . slowly but surely, they were starting to see sleep as an expansive, hitherto unsuspected art form, now presented for their appreciation, and which they couldn’t help but regard with astonishment and great admiration.

Yes, that was a good time in his life, perhaps one of the best, all told; under his highly esteemed professional direction, almost all the caryatids and atlantes in the city undertook theoretically rigorous and pure sleep research, and as the chairman of their stony meetings, Burgmüller would give detailed lectures about sleep that proved immensely popular and were a great success, as were the follow-up dream seminars about all the phenomenologies associated with this area of the discipline: dozing, deep sleep, afternoon naps, daydreams, and the dream-night, which is to say the sleep period before and after midnight—in the coming days and nights, their zeal for any knowledge related to the subject became evident in their plasterwork: They were wide awake.

Soon afterward, the telamones approached Burgmüller with the particularly heartfelt request that he now proceed to the practical part of these exercises: they requested that he sleep, asked him to demonstrate sleeping as intensively as possible, from the dusk of falling asleep to the dawn of awakening, to demonstrate it in all its clarity, together with every possibility arising in the process, moving from theory to practice, just so, as often as possible.

Thus began the calmest, indeed most comatose period in Burgmüller’s life, because almost all he did was sleep: the telamones couldn’t get enough of watching his sleeping body along with the dance performances of his dreams; his sleep demonstrations in those days were considered a wonderfully exotic, peaceful Gesamtkunstwerk, which he launched into the atmosphere in all its vast incomprehensibility, along with his Gestalt, making magnificent the day-nights and the night-days.

For this reason, his body was passed from building to building, from caryatid to atlas, as comprehensively as possible, so as to give wider circulation to his sleep concerts, sleeper plays, dreamer serenades, tiredness tragedies, and exhaustion comedies . . . with increasing excitement, they marveled at his performances, thinking them the ultimate or penultimate secret that would at last explain and transfigure their inflexible existence, thus solving the mysterious equation of their petrified philosophy.

It goes almost without saying that many of them tried to get to the bottom of Burgmüller’s dreams, but, alas, found them hovering unfathomably high above them; their goal in making that attempt, which they at first kept secret, was to learn for themselves how to sleep.

In vain. Not one of them got even close to it; and how could they? Burgmüller might just as well have tried to breathe time instead of air; no, he wouldn’t have succeeded in getting a single day into his lungs.

Nevertheless, or just because of that, his performances—every snore dedicated to their breathlessness, which spanned centuries—became ever more popular; hardly had he awakened than he was immediately obliged to give a new sleep demonstration.

So he took stronger and stronger sleeping pills and potions, because in one’s natural state it’s impossible to be honestly asleep all the time, that is, without affectation, and especially not when giving public demonstrations of the art, as he was doing in his new function as, on the one hand, a creative sleep artist, now very well known and famous among them, and then, on the other hand, as the interpreter of his own sleep, following each performance. He could neither bring himself to deceive them by simply pretending to sleep during his performances, which is to say without actually sleeping, because they deserved better than such amateurism, nor could he possibly expect them to have the least patience with a sham performance, because they would have seen through any deception from the start: their theoretical knowledge had in the meantime become so thoroughly sound that no one could pull any tricks on them:

Once Burgmüller had started his presentation, the stone women first carefully pulled up his drooping eyelids to measure the strength of his sleep by the position of his pupils; then they proceeded to rock his limp, sacklike body slowly and gently back and forth as it lay there relaxed and exposed on all sides, swinging it up and down to double check if he was sleeping deeply enough, after which they began to give the sandbag of his body a good shaking, throwing it up to the cloudruins of the weather station and catching it again; yes, and in conclusion they hurled him carefully and slowly over every gable in the city, even those of the highest roofs, playing catch with the crumpled, crinkled bundle of his body.

As soon as he woke up again, they held him to his agreed-upon obligation to describe his dreams. But it was above all when he succeeded in speaking from the depths of his unconsciousness that his sleep performances exceeded all expectations—for when that happened, he spoke in the person of a character inhabiting one of the dreams that came over him in the course of his increasingly unavoidable passages through nightmares, so that his audience had a very clear sense of the haunting force of these images—and such successes were downright triumphant.

Which however made no difference to his body, upon which he was visiting such harm, mainly because he had to keep increasing his dose of sleeping pills in order to continue his work, to maintain as well as to improve on the unconscious qualities of the artistic embodiment of his subconscious in the service of sleep research, because the demands of his stony admirers set into their walls were also increasing, until one day or night he had reached his limit and could go no farther; no sleeping potion helped anymore, and it turned out that he had landed himself in a terrible state of torturous ossifying wakefulness, and was thus unfortunately forced to withdraw, due to illness, from the sleep-theater palaces of the telamones’ world, of which he had become very fond. He postponed all planned performances until further notice, so that he could discontinue his sleeping-pill regimen, and so time went on without him.

How had you gotten yourself to this city anyway, Burgmüller, it almost seems as if you never really arrived here, never really climbed up the crumbling ruins of those proud walls that once formed a quay on a river that has presumably been nameless for a long time now—or was it that you yourself were supposed to bestow upon that river one more word for its miserable trickle? But how to decide on one when your memory was made up of nothing more than prophecies flashing back at you from far ahead? And they didn’t do much to convince you of your plan to settle in the aforementioned place, even if, on a daily basis, in the center of its accumulation of buildings,

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