Gert Jonke – complexity literacist


According to a Google search the word ‘literacist’ has been use by others; it is however a neologism of sorts given that it does not appear in any (easily accessible) online dictionaries. The point I’m trying to make in any case in that Gert Jonke is an author who seems to have an incredibly poetic grasp on the form, function and interaction of people and places within a city; an understanding that is sought in a domain that we might now think of as complexity science. Jonke is not however a scientist, he is a poet and author of fiction whom I encountered through his work “The System of Vienna: From Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square” – a book that may have some relevance to social and complexity scientists as it deals with the rhythms of the city, in this case Vienna, capital of Jonke’s native Austria.

A System of Vienna - Trams

The book itself is a journey through Vienna by tram, often seen initially as an autobiographical tale which charts, in each tram stop, the progress of Jonke’s life. However, as each stop yields a more fantastical story, the connections to reality, and hence to autobiography, break down. Each stop, sees the protagonist entreaty, often almost by accident, the telling of a story that describes an interaction or hierarchy of the city; from the paranoid fishmongers assertion that he is controlling the council through a series of puppet officials; via the way that Jonke assimilates music as a representation of the system, and education as its inevitably lazy by product; to the peculiar love between Jonke and a caryatid, a symbol of the very structure and physicality of the city itself. Throughout we get a sense for the hidden and mysterious interactions and rhythms that define a city, including; the stamp collector whose appearance in nature heralds his desire to teach “systematic and general philatelistics”; the old man who faints after having been to the bakery and interrupts the natural order of passersby; or the wine merchant unloved by his neighbours. It is the increasing absurdity of the situations that bring into sharp relief the chaos that the author is investing in to define the system of Vienna, it is the sense of disorder and irregularity that has inexplicably been ordered, and forced into regularity by the tram lines. So much so that Jonke’s final comment is almost willfully prosaic, entitled “Quick Orientation”:

“In Vienna there’s an Earth Mound Square (Erdburst Platz). It’s located in the middle of the Ottakring – that’s the name of the sixteenth district – and can be reached by streetcar line J (J as in Josefstadt, the eighth district, through which the J passes), the bend of whose tracks at the last stop wraps around the square like a shirt collar always properly starched, encircling the neck and choking off the windpipe.

There’s also a Heaven Street (Himmel Strasse), it doesn’t begin, on the other hand, until well past the bend of the tracks at the last stop of the 38 trolley (Schottentor to Grinzing), from which point it leads out of this outlying district, a little wine growing village purposely aged for idyllic effect, seducing as it goes, while behaving at first in the most mannerly way, a few exceptionally genteel houses typical for this end of the city, haughty as only the pettier aristocracy can be, houses assigned to protect it on its route, soon leading them upwards, almost airborne, to the somewhat higher vineyards behind them, only to take them along as it goes pitching and swaying among the hazy, indistinct hillcrests along the bright green waves of meadow surf at the edge of the Vienna Woods, here plunging down, down to the Danube and out past it, outwards from the city, pushing on westward, only to slither and slide downward into the land all around a plain opening outward with practically no bounds, all the way – for that matter and in all probability – to the shore line of Lake Bohemia, the northward leading hiking dunes of which, filled with rustling sounds, allegedly begin far before the Czech border.”

- Gert Jonke, The System of Vienna: from Heaven Street to Earth Mound Square, Dalkey Archive, p.106-7. Translated by Vincent Kling. 2009

I have just acquired a copy of an earlier work by Jonke – “Geometric Regional Novel” and look forward to reading it.

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