January 2009

Drennan Spitzer

fiction

Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn

In Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, Jonas, the protagonist, awakens on the morning of 4 July, rushes out the door to catch a bus, and discovers that he seems to be the only living being left on earth. Jonas lives in contemporary Vienna where food and other provisions can simply be “borrowed” from the local grocery store. This allows Jonas and us, the readers, to explore the emotional and philosophical struggles of being the last human on earth.

Glavinic’s last-man-on-earth-scenario may not be terribly original, but Glavinic deals with the scenario in interesting, thoughtful ways. After exploring Vienna and attempting to place many phone calls to his friends, family, and lover, Jonas is forced to accept that no human or animal life, besides himself, exists. However, he is plagued by the feeling that someone or something is watching and even following him, and he quickly takes to carrying a loaded gun everywhere. Jonas begins videotaping different parts of Vienna, in the attempt to determine for certain whether he really is the only living being left.

Eventually, Jonas’s sense that he’s being watched, combined with his apparent sleepwalking, compels him to videotape himself while he is asleep. Increasingly, Jonas spends his waking hours watching the videos he shoots, videos of the empty city and of himself asleep. He begins to identify the sleeping figure of himself as The Sleeper, and as he separates his own sense of identity from that of The Sleeper, The Sleeper’s actions become increasingly troubling to Jonas. For example, The Sleeper often spends extended periods of time staring into the video camera. This suggests that Jonas may be suffering from severe sleep deprivation and may be hallucinating or merely dreaming that he is the only human left on earth. These uncertainties create suspense and mystery that make Galvinic’s novel compelling.

Jonas also grapples with the all-but-cliché question about meaning: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And yet Glavinic manages to pose the question in such a way that it doesn’t feel cliché. Over and over, Jonas questions whether his actions have meaning when there is no other human to witness them. He, in near-compulsive behavior, leaves messages wherever he goes, often written on the menu boards at restaurants and pubs, simply stating his name and the date. He reads and rereads the scribbles and graffiti left by his child self. He leaves nonsense notes to himself and others. He also dwells on the nature of time and its passage. And he finally wonders whether the world will continue to exist when he, the last living being, is no longer present.

Glavinic approaches a scenario and a set of philosophical questions that could be predictable, yet he manages these in a fresh way. The novel, however, drags in the middle. The novel only covers about six weeks, certainly no more than two months, yet the middle sections, as Jonas obsessively collects the previous day’s videos, sets up new video cameras, watches the previous day’s videos, prepares a frozen meal, and suffers from a cold, become redundant. Glavinic is, I can only assume, attempting to convey the boredom and paranoia that grow from being entirely alone and bound to compulsive behavior, yet the momentum and suspense created early on are lost in the middle. I could easily have set the book aside about one-third of the way through and did, in fact, set it aside for a week or so. The momentum is, however, regained in the final quarter of the work, as Jonas leaves Vienna on a quest to find both answers and personal fulfillment.

Translation is always a tricky, sticky endeavor. John Brownjohn has translated this work from the original German in a way that conveys both a particular literary quality and a stylistic elegance. The sometimes disjointed sections and choppy sentences work to reflect Jonas experiences and perceptions. However, the use of particular wording may, at times, be challenging to speakers of American English.

Of course, this reviewer would not want to spoil the read by giving away the ending. However, it should be said that in the end Jonas’s experience is a meditation on the experience of being human and the essential loneliness bound up with this experience.

Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Canongate
ISBN: 9781847670519
375 Pages