Munich: C. H. Beck Verlag, 2015
This is an extraordinary book. Nevertheless, there is little about the initial configuration of Astronauts, the first novel to be published by Viennese author Sandra Gugic (born in 1976), to suggest that this might be one of the most interesting books of this spring. The social setting is sketchy, and the urban space is only sporadically mentioned by name. Six very different protagonists move within the fluid network of a metropolis: Zeno, a kind of reincarnation of Huck Finn, with an evident migrant background, i.e. family roots in ex-Yugoslavia; his school friend Darko, whose father Alen is a taxi driver who dropped out of university and has been working on a 136-page manuscript for years; and the policeman Niko, a friend of Alen’s, married, and the father of a one-year-old child, yet with a relationship to his wife and offspring that is emotionally precarious. In addition there is the artists’ daughter Mara, whose father shot himself as a result of his lack of artistic success and whose mother has, after initially successful exhibitions, become a self-absorbed follower of a TV guru, and who falls asleep drunk around the apartment in the evenings. Lastly, there is Alex, a junkie from a good home, who gets by in life as a petty criminal.
The refined and at the same time stupendous thing about this novel is that Sandra Gugic, who studied at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and subsequently at the Institute of German Literature in Leipzig, and in 2012 won the open-mic reading competition in Berlin with an excerpt from Astronauten, gives each of the characters in turn a chance to express themselves in a chapter of their own. The individual characters therefore begin to portray themselves, in sometimes rapid, then again pensively mottled staccato short sentences. They get close, very close, to us through the cataractic, hasty and generally unreflected ways in which they speak and think. The movements of the figures within the spaceless space crisscross and overlap, relating to one another sometimes more distinctly, sometimes in a blurred and pointillistic manner.
This intense prose is distinguished on the one hand by the pull of its language, and on the other by the cleverly concealed art of creating a narrative full of literary references. The epigraphs that head the three parts are anything but random choices: one by Samuel Beckett, one by William S. Burroughs, and one by the dramatist Chris Thorpe. Right at the end of the book, Gugic laconically elaborates on the allusions and alienations that have been smuggled into the text, drawn from Jörg Fauser, John Steinbeck and Franz Kafka, as well as material derived from Billy Wilder’s film The Apartment.