I and I

Philip Oltermann

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.’

Back on the ground, Jonas finds more and more signs that he might not be the last person on earth after all: a closed door he thought he had left open; a guitar case abandoned in the middle of a motorway; a noose dangling from a beam in an empty room; a jacket in his wardrobe that isn’t his; a Polaroid picture of himself sleeping, tucked behind the bread bin, though neither he nor his girlfriend owned a Polaroid camera. Are these clues, or is his mind playing tricks on him? ‘Anything might or might not be significant.’

Jonas becomes paranoid. Instead of leaving messages, he tries to hide his tracks. In public places, he pretends to be holding things that he shields from the view of anyone who might be watching him. He steals some camcorders from a warehouse and installs them around the city, timing them all to start recording at the same time. He also places a camera beside his bed. When he plays the tape back the next morning, he is terrified by what he sees: ‘For a fraction of a second, the Sleeper’s eye looked sharply into the camera. Without a trace of drowsiness. Then it shut.’ Jonas’s nocturnal alter ego, ‘the Sleeper’, seems to have a mind of his own, and a more creative and productive mind than Jonas’s phlegmatic waking self. The night work of the title is what Jonas watches on subsequent tapes, with ever-increasing horror: the figure on the screen laughs, screams like an animal, wields a knife dangerously close to his throat and trots off to the bathroom to pull an infected tooth from his mouth.

In a flat his family occupied when he was a child, he comes across a bit of graffiti he once wrote on the toilet wall. It says, ‘The fish and I’, but the word ‘The’ and the ‘f’ and ‘sh’ of ‘fish’ have been crossed out: ‘I and I.’ The science fiction novel that could be a parable has suddenly become a psychological thriller.

Glavinic’s next book after Night Work was Das bin doch ich, which was published in Germany last year. In many ways it is a more straightforward, less experimental book. But it would be surprising if it were translated into English: too much of it depends on the reader’s familiarity with the big names in the German and Austrian literary industry. In a series of short chapters, a first-person narrator spends most of his time getting drunk on red wine and playing computer games while fretting whether his agent will find a publisher for his recently finished novel, Night Work. Throughout the novel, he exchanges text messages with his friend ‘Daniel’ (read: Daniel Kehlmann), whose novel Die Vermessung der Welt (published here last year as Measuring the World) has just been shortlisted for the German Book Prize and is selling phenomenally well.

The title (roughly: ‘But That’s Me, Surely’) sums up the narrator’s reaction when he sees Kehlmann described in the Süddeutsche Zeitung as ‘the best author of his generation’. The scene recalls a short story Thomas Mann wrote on the centenary of Schiller’s death in 1905. ‘Schwere Stunde’ (‘Troubled Hour’) imagines the poet in his bedsit, stricken with a cold and writer’s block, morbidly jealous of his miraculously productive friend Goethe. Both stories are based on the idea that creative endeavour might not be inspired by anything more noble than envy.

Das bin doch ich paints a marvellously unsympathetic portrait of Thomas Glavinic: an overweight, vain little man, given to drink and jealousy. Kehlmann, on the other hand, is Germany’s new literary superstar: charming, intelligent, trilingual, exchanging email addresses with Mario Vargas Llosa and fielding calls from Angela Merkel. In reality, Glavinic and Kehlmann are better matched. They are very similar writers, a literary double act: for a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung about the Viennese literary scene, they turned up together to be interviewed. Kehlmann was published first: Beerholms Vorstellung, a novel about a ‘12-year-old Platonist’ turned magician, appeared in 1997. Glavinic’s first novel came out a year later. Carl Haffners Liebe zum Unentschieden (Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw) is a fictionalised biography of Carl Schlechter, a shy but extraordinarily talented Austrian chess player who frequently let favourable positions end in draws, ‘because he didn’t want to hurt his enemy’. In the deciding final game of his world championship match against the combative German grandmaster Emanuel Lasker, he sees a foolproof checkmate unfolding in a few moves but decides to go for a less obvious, more elegant combination that refers back to the greatest games in the history books – and loses. The novel must have made a lasting impression on Kehlmann: Measuring the World is a fictionalised double biography of the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the natural historian Alexander von Humboldt; less obscure than Lasker and Schlechter, but similar cases of fierce intellect paired with social awkwardness.

As a writer, Glavinic too is more interested in elegance than solutions. He is an ironist, with a liking for short sentences and deadpan humour that used to be rare in German writing. And as an ironist, he prefers the stilted artificiality of Hochdeutsch to the warm vowels of his native Austrian dialect: it leaves interesting gaps between what people want to say and the way they say it. In 2002 Glavinic wrote an entire thriller, Der Kameramörder, in the clinically exacting prose of a legal protocol; Wie man leben soll, a novel in the form of a self-help manual, followed in 2004.

Der Kameramörder is Glavinic’s best book after the Haffner novel. Two young couples have recently embarked on a week’s holiday in a cottage in the remote Austrian Weststeiermark, when they hear the news of a horrific crime committed in the area: a man has forced two brothers, aged eight and nine, to commit suicide, and filmed their deaths with a camcorder. A third boy escaped with the tape, which has been seized by the police; the man is still at large. The two couples try to ignore the story, but there are constant updates on the news, filling in more and more gory details. Glavinic’s narrative alternates, without changing register, between the brutality of the murders and the straight-faced, minute by minute account of the two couples’ holiday activities:

Upon ascending the stairs I detected a musty smell (presumably caused by the age and poor insulation of the farmers’ cottage) which pervaded the entire house but was distinctly more detectable in the table-tennis room than in the bedrooms or the lower floors. It didn’t prevent us from playing several matches. The outcome was changeable, but ultimately it was beyond dispute that Heinrich’s capacities as a table-tennis player were more developed than mine. He won 21:12, 23:25, 21:12, 21:13. It was now time to descend to the basement to watch the news. As we passed through the corridor, my partner exclaimed that we had come just in time. Food would be served in just a few minutes.

There’s nothing less relevant to the murder than the score of the ping-pong match, but Glavinic includes it anyway: he knows we are taking it in because we are looking out for clues. His novels are crammed with that kind of information, scattered about to conceal more telling detail. The narrative continually zooms between close-up and wide-angle, sometimes obscuring the bigger picture with minute detail or letting us see the scheme of things while blinding us to its obvious relevance, as in this passage from Night Work:

Many past experiences seemed so fresh and immediate he felt they couldn’t possibly have happened ten or fifteen years ago. It was as if time curved back on itself, so that events separated by years were suddenly mere days apart. As if time possessed a spatial constant capable of being seen and felt. The sky was getting lighter. Something had changed in the last few minutes, something to do with himself. His teeth were chattering, he noticed.

At the end of Der Kameramörder the two couples are in the cottage watching the news: they see lines of policemen with sniffer dogs passing through the neighbouring villages. Two helicopters appear overhead; the picture shows a shaky bird’s-eye view of their cottage and the tightening circle of policemen. Heinrich starts to get irritated: with all that noise from the helicopters, he can’t understand a word they’re saying on the news. His girlfriend panics and runs out of the cottage over to the police vans: what if the murderer is hiding in the attic? Heinrich and his partner follow. The narrator is still staring at the screen when an officer puts a hand on his shoulder and tells him he is under arrest: ‘I am accused of murdering two children. I wouldn’t deny it.’

Night Work doesn’t click into place quite so neatly. In the last quarter of the novel, Jonas makes a sudden decision: he has to leave Vienna and try to find his girlfriend on the other side of the Channel. It isn’t clear why he does this: even he thinks it unlikely that she’s still alive. It’s as if Glavinic had decided, after 25 chapters full of false starts, that his novel should perhaps have a plot after all. Jonas packs food, drink and a motorbike into the boot of a truck and drives south: past Salzburg, Amstetten, Saarbrücken, Rheims, stopping intermittently at petrol stations to set up more video cameras pointed at the empty motorway lanes. At Calais, he drives straight into the Channel Tunnel, but somewhere near the middle he has to stop because a train is blocking his path. He walks the remaining 15 kilometres.

Even this part of the story is full of false starts and wrong directions. In Folkestone Jonas manages to find another car and drives north, skirting London. Near Bolton, he stops in a lay-by and falls asleep. When he wakes up the next morning, he is still sitting in his car, ‘but his surroundings seemed to have changed’. He has dried pasta sauce around his mouth and a taste of wine on his breath. It’s as if he’d been drugged. Outside, he sees a sign: ‘Exeter Airport’. He gets back into his car and drives off again. It’s a distinct possibility that Jonas has now lost his mind. He hears voices and sees faces outside the car window; his thoughts are all over the place. He stops the car, rolls down the window, yells at the wind and drives on. It made sense for Jonas to call out when there was still hope of finding other survivors, but now his outbursts suggest a disintegrating mind talking only to itself.

Jonas’s journey from Central Europe to Britain reverses the route that Lionel Verney takes to escape a plague-ridden Britain in Mary Shelley’s proto-SF novel The Last Man. It’s unlikely that the echo is accidental: the Gothic is another genre that Glavinic happily borrows from. On his second night in Britain, Jonas makes it as far as Lancaster before he falls asleep. He wakes in the dark, in a confined space, with a knife in his hand. A Shelley-esque nightmare: he has been buried alive. Then he recognises the shape of a wheel next to his body. He is in the boot of his own car. That isn’t quite the end, however. Jonas crowbars his way out and solves the mystery of the meaning of ‘Umirom’. But the anticlimactic ending is a disappointment in this otherwise gripping experiment, and leaves one longing for the simple checkmate that Glavinic contrives to end Der Kameramörder.