Awakening to the Great Sleep War by Gert Jonke


Isolate and save you from yourself

From the very first page, Gert Jonke’s Awakening to the Great Sleep War boldly announces that it will defy definition as a standard piece of easy digestible fiction by introducing its protagonist as a man who converses with telamones, atlantes, and caryatids and tries rather unsuccessfully to persuade them to appear for dinner at his apartment.  Conversation and invitation in of itself isn’t all that strange.  Conversation with supposedly inanimate objects like stone support columns and marble statues most certainly is.

This protagonist, a name named Burgmüller, works as an acoustic interior designer, which one would assume involves creating buildings that will maximize the potential for superior sound quality within their walls.  Perhaps it’s this possession of a unique skill set that allows him alone to discover a path to communication between the inanimate and the organic, one that leads to an odd friendship between that which is considered permanent and that which is ultimately destined to live a transitory life.  It’s this idea of permanence vs. temporal that’s on full display in the novel’s opening pages and continues to be explored throughout the text.

The telemones are fascinated by Burgmüller’s ability to perform an act which they cannot: sleep.  And so he begins to hold lectures and demonstrations for them on this very subject.  Can they learn to sleep?  What will happen if they do?  Will the city’s buildings come crashing to the ground?  Does sleep alone hold the power to reduce that which is a considered immutable into nothing more than a pile of rubble?

This strange probing by way of asking absurd questions which have no logical answers doesn’t end here.  Jonke proves that he’s got more than one trick up his sleeve as he sets out to build a surreal landscape which pushes at the boundaries between the physical world in which we live and the imaginations we all possess.  The two certainly co-exist, but can they actually ever cross over?

TelamonesThe exploration of the ideas of permanence and invented realities continue to be explored through a series of failed love affairs.  Burgmüller isn’t the exception to the norm, oh no, he meets some women that are just as quirky as he is, including one who falls hopelessly in love with a pet housefly and another who believes that through the use of her typewriter that she can reinvent history.  As if “normal” relationships weren’t hard enough to maintain, Jonke feels the need to magnify the problems inherent in them and push them to the absurd extreme.  The results aren’t always spot on, in fact at times they can be quite tedious and perplexing, but the joys of navigating Jonke’s wondrous creation, absorbing that which it has to offer and guessing at where it could possibly turn next, transform Awakening into a very powerful piece of writing.

Accepting Jonke’s story, buying into his idea of plot and his narrative structure, requires starting from a place of emptiness, forgetting all that has been learned about how the art form of the novel works.  One doesn’t just read Awakening to the Great Sleep War; they give themselves over to the experience of it.

Straight forward is most definitely not how this novel would be described, but quite often the best fiction comes wrapped in a more difficult package.  Jonke’s novel will make you question just how much you’re missing out on, how much you’ve got your eyes closed to, and how much of your life you’re blindly sleepwalking through.

Do you possess the power to transform reality?  Can you create something lasting from your temporary existence?  Awaken yourself to the possibilities.

Awakening_To_The_Great_Sleep_War ★★★½☆
Awakening to the Great Sleep War
By Gert Jonke
Translated from the German by Jean M. Snook

Dalkey Archive Press
(1982) 2012
250 Pages
ISBN 9781564787941

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • Zenjew

    Jonke’s The System of Vienna has a section where a man converses with telamones, atlantes, and caryatids and teaches them how to sleep. So is this basically an expanded version of that?

    • Typographical Era

      As I understand it Homage to Czerny, The Distant Sound, and Awakening to the Great Sleep War form a thematic trilogy with some reoccurring characters appearing in each. I haven’t had a chance to read the other two however. I’m not sure where The System of Vienna fits in relation.