Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Turbo-Review: Night Work

Today's the day the shortlist is announced for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I'd promised to review Thomas Glavinic's Night Work, one of two German titles on the longlist. So here's a very quick one.

Night Work is a post-apocalypse tale without the apocalypse. The sole remaining character, Jonas, wakes up one morning to find all humans and animals have disappeared, and we follow him as he gradually comes to terms with his situation and then spirals into confusion. It was recommended to me by a friend who works alone in a rather deserted place, often at night. I dread to think how he felt, reading it. I was certainly impressed by the book's atmosphere and imagination. Although it reminded me at times of a creative writing exercise - "How does it feel to be the last man alive?" the cover asks - it goes deeper than that, exploring Jonas' relationship with his past, his fears and longings, and his own self.

At first the feeling is almost elated. Jonas can walk into shops and pubs and help himself to whatever he wants. He can eat sweets and crisps at any time of the day. He can walk around strange people's homes. He can adjust the TV tower to rotate at turbo-speed. He can stop his new flash car on the middle of the motorway whenever her feels like it. But at some point Jonas turns inwards. There is no way for him to find out what has happened, so he starts to study himself. Using a battery of video cameras, he retraces past journeys and films himself driving cars - and sleeping. And he finds another human being, who may or may not be himself - the Sleeper.

The book builds up a tangible atmosphere of threat, with the sinister Sleeper, dreams of wild animals, and repeated double-takes. But after a while I found myself starting to sigh every time I read, "Something wasn't quite right, but Jonas couldn't put his finger on it." I found the tension starting to wane, only picking up again towards the end as Jonas battles with his other self to get what he wants. Perhaps the brushstrokes in this psychological portrait are a little too broad and repetitive. Perhaps it's simply more interesting to read about genuine relationships than about enforced introspection. But the message is clear - Hell is no other people.

If you read German, Glavinic's website offers a wealth of material on the book, including an extract, reviews and a series of podcasts exploring the book's settings in Vienna. And perhaps I would have preferred the original. I couldn't shake off the feeling that something wasn't quite right about the English - but I can't put my finger on it. Maybe John Brownjohn's translation is just too smooth and eloquent for my idea of Jonas, although a quick look at the German extract doesn't confirm that.

What I find fascinating is that this is one of two German books nominated for the prize, along with Sasa Stanisic's How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone (see my more enthusiastic review here). And although I'll acknowledge it's a good book, I don't think it's one of the two best German books of the past few years. I suppose we have to look at it through the filter of published translations though...


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

"But the message is clear ...". Really? You're right that it loses tension - but I think the length of the novel is justified.

My review offers a slightly less didactic reading.

kjd said...

Hmm. After much deliberation, I have to concede you're right. For "the message is clear" read: "the message was clear to me". And for "perhaps it's simply more interesting" read "perhaps I find it more interesting".

That spells the death of the turbo-review.