The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square
by Gert Jonke
"In the morning, the city of Vienna is usually shrouded in a low lying cloud, out of which it slowly unwraps itself with great exertion"
- Gert Jonke, The System of Vienna, p 87.
This novella reminded me a bit of Calvino in its terse style and bizarre images. Like the bulk of his work, this novel is musical, innovative, and difficult, not in a dusty academic way, but as a delightful puzzle, as a well-constructed argument, as a challenging game of chess. Innocence devolves into disillusion and the paranoid appear in unexpected moments.
Beginning with a recounting of the narrator’s birth, and how his skin was tinged blue, the novel proceeds with descriptions of events that helped shape his personality, his consciousness, his obsessions: he encounters a man who thinks the French Embassy was built in the wrong place; he meets another who is unsure whether he is or isn’t the Chancellor’s confidant; he bumps into an eccentric stamp collector in the woods he thinks was imitating a tawny owl’s call; he meets another man (perhaps Jonke’s tribute to André Gide’s The Counterfeiters) who hands him a book called The System of Vienna; and he meets a paranoid fish merchant who believes that he masterminds Austrian politics from his stall.
Filled with eclectic sketches of personal interests of the narrator, his friends, and other characters the images seem to fit together in a magical way that defies analysis. It is a book that bears reflection and perhaps ultimately will leave questions unanswered and thoughts unresolved. From stamp collecting to lovemaking to an opera class the book becomes more fantastic as it spans briefly into nonexistence.
The System of Vienna by Gert Jonke. Dalkey Archive Press, 2009 (1999)