I and I
- Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Canongate, 384 pp, £8.99, July 2008, ISBN 978 1 84767 051 9
The opening scene of Night Work, Thomas Glavinic’s Viennese novel, recalls something Karl Kraus said about the city in 1914: Vienna was a ‘Versuchsstation des Weltuntergangs’, an experimental station for the apocalypse. Jonas, Glavinic’s protagonist, gets up one morning and switches on the TV. There is no picture, only snow. He checks the post, but the paper hasn’t been delivered. He tries to check his email, but the server is down. He walks to the bus stop, but no bus arrives. And there are no cars. And no people, and no birds. He calls his girlfriend Marie, who is visiting a relative in the North of England. The ringing tone, he notices, is ‘different from the Austrian one, lower and consisting of two short purring sounds’. After listening to it for the tenth time, he hangs up. Ten pages later, after several unanswered emergency calls and a mad dash through the city centre, he still hasn’t seen a soul. An alien abduction? An Alpine tsunami? A nuclear attack? If so, ‘why should anyone take the trouble to waste such expensive technology on an old city that had lost its importance?’
Brian Aldiss coined the term ‘cosy catastrophe’ to describe the kinds of story, especially popular in the 1950s, in which the end of the world outside was an excuse for a return to scenes of domestic middle-class life. Jonas comes across as a character from that sort of novel. He is too tired, too confused, too realistic to be a hero. When it eventually dawns on him that he might be the last person left on earth, ‘Jonas looked through his collection of videos for movies he hadn’t yet seen or hadn’t seen for a long time. He deposited a stack of comedies in front of the TV and lowered the blinds.’
Glavinic’s post-apocalyptic Vienna doesn’t in any case pass for what science fiction fans call ‘hard SF’: a wholly imagined world with its own detailed and consistent rules and conventions. Here, things are more erratic. There’s electricity but no internet; deserted cars in car parks but not on motorways. When Jonas calls his girlfriend’s mobile, he eventually gets her answerphone message: when he calls his internet provider’s helpline, the automated menu doesn’t work.
Several days pass. Jonas picks up a pump-action shotgun and smashes his way into the flats of his friends and family. He leaves little messages on postcards and beermats around the city and in nearby villages, noting down his name, mobile number and the date. One evening he spots a light switching on and off at irregular intervals in a window on the other side of town: a Morse signal. When he gets there, hours later, he finds that it’s only a loose connection. He ‘screwed the bulb in tighter. The flickering stopped.’
What sort of clue or sign is Jonas looking for? He has a hunch that what he is living through might not be real, but a parable – like the story of Jonah and the whale. Maybe it’s all a test of some kind, the sort of thing that happens in computer games: once he comes up with the right password, everyone will jump out from behind the sofa. He has a dream one night in which his dead grandmother pats his cheek and mutters: ‘UMIROM, UMIROM, UMIROM.’ The word, which he has never heard before, must have some significance, he thinks. The following day he goes up to the rotating observation terrace at the top of the Danube Tower and hangs a white tablecloth out of the window. On the cloth, he writes, with black ink, in large letters: ‘UMIROM.’