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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Stefan Kutzenberger

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To purchase Jokerman

Title: Jokerman
Author: Stefan Kutzenberger
Genre: Novel
Written: 2020
Length: 352 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Jokerman - Deutschland
  • Jokerman has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B- : fun idea, but rather hodgepodge and baggy in execution

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Falter . 23/10/2020 Jörg Magenau
Neues Deutschland . 19/8/2020 Ernst Reuß
Wiener Zeitung . 15/8/2020 Andreas Rauschal

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jokerman macht lange Zeit viel Spaß, weil man erstens eine Menge über Dylan und seine Songs erfährt und zusammen mit Kutzen- oder Katzenberger eine abenteuerliche Reise unternimmt. Doch während der Erzähler in Island seine Autoschlüssel verliert, so dass das Fahrzeug nur noch rumsteht, trägt es die von viel zu vielen absurden Einfällen beschleunigte Geschichte in hohem Tempo aus der Kurve." - Jörg Magenau, Falter

  • "Für Bob-Dylan-Fans ist Kutzenbergers Jokerman ein Muss ! Für Liebhaber des skurrilen und schwarzen Humors ebenfalls." - Ernst Reuß, Neues Deutschland

  • "Ihm gelingt es, über Musik als etwas zu schreiben, das uns ans Licht bringt, während er Protagonisten und Leserschaft gleichzeitig hinter das Nämliche führt. Es geht außer um die Wahrheit und deren Behauptung immer auch um die unterschiedliche Les- und Deutbarkeit im Grunde eines jeden Textes -- und darum, was Literatur vermag. Am Ende lauern mit Søren Kierkegaard noch die Moral, ein Verzerreffekt namens Erinnerung und die gute alte Wiederholung als Repeat-Button, der trotzdem ein Korrektiv sein kann." - Andreas Rauschal, Wiener Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: Jokerman has not yet been translated into English; all translations from the German original are mine.]

       Jokerman has an entertaining premise and, at least at its August 2020 publication date, quite striking immediacy, but for all its ultimately high stakes -- keeping failed American president Donald Trump from a second term in office -- it is an uneasy mix of would-be thriller and bumbling-character portrait. The main bumbling character is the novel's protagonist and narrator, none other than 'Stefan Kutzenberger', the close-to-life (if slightly more sad-sack) fictional alter ego of the author, sharing most of the author's biography (and writing credits).
       Narrator Kutzenberger begins by recounting how he first heard the Bob Dylan tune 'Jokerman', in 1997, on his way back to Austria from Portugal, where he had been working on his dissertation. He actually heard the song in Caetano Veloso's cover, and only learned that it was a Dylan song when he looked for a recording of it; when he heard the Dylan-(original) version he was unimpressed and pretty much forgot about it. He had however, already been somewhat of a fan -- hearing Dylan live at the 15 June 1991 concert in Linz -- and continuing to listen to his music even after not being that impressed by 'Jokerman'.
       Many years later, in 2014, like actual author Kutzenberger, the narrator wrote a piece for the Dylan-themed collection AustroBob (Falter Verlag), and then in 2016, he's invited to take part in a Bob Dylan panel at a literary conference being held in Vienna. Fumbling for a subject at the last minute -- narrator Kutzenberger is a very last-minute, fumbling kind of guy -- he stumbles onto the idea that in Dylan's pronunciation, 'jokerman' sounds like (the German pronunciation) of Wilde's(/Strauss') John the Baptist from Salome, "Jokanaan – Tschokanan". He doesn't get much further than that observation in his presentation, but it's enough to attract the attention of one Guðjónsson.
       A few months later, Bob Dylan (in)famously was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature -- yet more validation for Dylan-devotee Guðjónsson of the significance of the master, and reason enough for him to drag Kutzenberger into his grand scheme. A ticket lies ready for Kutzenberger for the ferry from Denmark to Iceland -- where Guðjónsson is from and based --, and Guðjónsson is ready to put him up for an open-ended -- a year, at least, he expects -- fellowship of sorts as a Dylan-exegete in out-of-the way Rif. Pretty much everything is sorted for him; Kutzenberger just has to get to the ferry on time. As to what exactly he is to do up there, Kutzenberger can't figure out much more than it has to do with Dylan and his work -- though Guðjónsson does mention: "and Trump, we'll talk about that when you get to Iceland" .....
       Kutzenberger isn't exactly tied down to anything in Vienna -- he's divorced, and his ex-wife is used to him not paying alimony or spending that much time with the kids -- and he's game, putting his limited life in order in a couple of days, borrowing dad's car (his ex-wife drew the line there, so he couldn't borrow hers) and setting off for parts pretty much unknown.
       Kutzenberger doesn't really know what he's getting himself into. Guðjónsson is Dylan-obsessed, and leads a kind of Dylan-cult. He's convinced that Dylan's lyrics are the key to ... everything, finding in them cryptic messages as to how world events should unfold, which the huge, worldwide Dylan-following then helps put into action. Notable examples of their successful efforts include bringing the Berlin Wall down, bringing the New York City World Trade Center down (yes, "9/11" was a conspiracy, but of an entirely different sort than commonly thought ...) -- and the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. Kutzenberger is of interest to Guðjónsson as a chosen one because of his perceived ability to read into Dylan's texts -- i.e. figure out the hidden messages --; Kutzenberger himself is ... less convinced. Still, he is the first 'chosen one' that Guðjónsson has entrusted with this kind of work in fifteen years; Kutzenberger's immediate predecessor, way back, turns out also to have been a familiar name.
       Kutzenberger makes it to Rif, but, even though he doesn't know what to expect, finds even fewer answers than hoped for. For one, Guðjónsson isn't around, nor has he left any proper instructions. And while Kutzenberger finds room and (minimal) board, he remains baffled by the situation. (Locking himself out of his car -- with all his luggage inside -- doesn't help either.)
       The sojourn in Rif doesn't last a year, and does allow for some Dylan-immersion, but at the end Kutzenberger isn't too much the wiser. Fast forward to 2020 and the near-present-day -- complete with Corona-virus -- and Guðjónsson again invites Kutzenberger to head abroad, this time to Washington D.C.. Again Guðjónsson has made all the arrangements, before Kutzenberger has even agreed -- but Kutzenberger (still) doesn't really have that much going on in his life, so off he goes.
       While Guðjónsson -- following the leads he found in Dylan's lyrics -- had facilitated Trump's 2016 election success, now the word from Dylan (as interpreted by the Guðjónsson-followers, pinpointed by Kutzenberger) is that can't be allowed to win a second term.
       The conspiracy theory is a lot of talk, but also some actual action. And things get even wilder when Kutzenberger is contacted by another true believer in Dylan's leading words -- albeit of a different school than Guðjónsson's: while Guðjónsson is a strict literalist, paying attention only to the lyrics, there's another group who think they are on the right track by listening to all of Dylan's utterances, and thus also think it's important to pay attention to the slight variations from performance to performance, or, say, shout-outs at live concerts. The person who contacts Kutzenberger is no one less than Hillary Clinton, who draws him into her plans -- and invites him home to meet Bill, too. She's even read a bootleg translation of (the real and the fictional) Kutzenberger's one novel, the autofictional Friedinger (Deuticke, 2018), which, despite some good reviews, quickly sank (and took its publishing house with it) into more or less complete oblivion. (The translation is by (real-life translator) Vincent Kling (who really has: "for twenty years been working on an American translation of the Strudelhofstiege [by Heimito von Doderer]").)
       The fact that Kutzenberger had been at that 1991 Dylan concert in Linz is also significant -- as is that Guðjónsson has recordings of every Dylan performance, and that there are mysteriously two short missing bits in the one of that concert ... -- with Clinton dispatching Kutzenberger back to Rif to get to the bottom of things (and landing him in yet another messy complication). Finally, also, when Kutzenberger again returns to Washington, there's a plan to take out Trump that is practiced and then put into action .....
       It's all a bit convoluted and messy, but there are some decent plot-threads running through this; one of the problems is, however, that they get rather tangled. The thriller outline remains mainly outline -- though the novel's finale does go pretty much all-in on it, with reasonable success -- but the Dylan-exegesis and the cults of devoted followers and the pseudo-scholars is already a bit flimsier. If an entertainingly far-out idea, Kutzenberger can't quite commit to it as fully as he'd really need to; his narrator's healthy skepticism extends too far into the groups' own explanations; you'd think those at least would be fuller and more convincing.
       More problematic is all the back and forth and (lack of) focus. The protagonist goes with the flow, but at times the flow is very slow indeed; much of his time in Iceland is very limitedly eventful, and though parts of this are amusing in their own right, they're an odd mix with the rest of the story. It's disappointing, because many of the bits are there: Guðjónsson really is Dylan-obsessed to a degree that's hard to imagine, and has an impressive collection of everything Dylan (and, as it turns out, everything Kutzenberger, too -- a nice touch), but the too laid-back narrator is, too much of the time, too willing only to do as he is told, and not take pro-active steps or sniff around much on his own. (Admittedly, when he does, his success is also limited.) For much too much of the novel, things happen to the narrator, rather than him actually doing much of anything. So also, typically, one of the unfortunate occurrences after his arrival in Rif, involving a calf, can be put down pretty much to his inaction (whereby he pleads ignorance; he's not much one for taking on the least bit of responsibility).
       Jokerman is also literally all over the place -- Austria, Iceland, and Washington DC being prominent locales -- with Kutzenberger oddly focused on the uneventful: the travel, the lodgings, the people he bumps into. Among the most amusing chapters and sections is a very brief one -- all of two sentences long -- which covers the entire period from 2017 to 2020, when the story picks up again: he writes that, "as important as this time in Vienna was for me", he doesn't want to write about it: "I don't like it when the personal is made public". Of course, all the rest of his story is personal too -- indeed, often embarrassingly confessional -- ; so also his first novel was similarly based on the personal (and there's overlap with some of what happens here, too).
       In fact, among the interesting but also ultimately somewhat underdeveloped (if often addressed) themes of the novel is that between the written word and reality: literature and actual events, especially in these times, and especially in the warped-reality world Trump projects and has created. So Hillary Clinton notes, for example, that after the 2016 election, even Dylan's words lost meaning: "everyone just looks to the tweets of the president; there aren't any other texts in the world". And no one less than Salman Rushdie offers wise words:

On the other hand, the real catastrophe isn't when reality becomes literature. It's when literature become reality.
       The disaster of Trump is, so Rushdie:
We need the tension between reality and fiction. However, if Trump does away with the anchor of reality, then we can't draw the bow of stories any longer. That's why Trump isn't the king of authors and story-tellers, but their death. That's why he has to go, as Guðjónsson recognized so well.
       It's a neat variation on the usual way the fiction/reality contrast/overlap is developed in works of (would-be) fiction, and using Dylan -- into whose often baffling lyrics it's easy to read all sort of meaning -- isn't half-bad either. But Jokerman is baggy in all the wrong ways and places, the temptation to wallow in his (more or less) failures making for a protagonist-narrator who too often comes across more as bystander to a story happening elsewhere -- even as his (for long stretches quite uneventful) experiences completely dominate the story. Such a self-deprecating approach with which the author treats his fictional alter-ego can work in a low-key narrative, but given that he makes the stakes of the highest possible order here -- nothing less than world-changing -- it falls rather flat.
       There's some decent fun here, but it feels more like a novel that never really finds its way, Kutzenberger playing around with some good and fun ideas, but getting carried away at too many times with the wrong or incidental ones. It does come together to a decent resolution, both action- and idea-wise, but bogs down some along the relatively long way there.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 August 2020

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Jokerman: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Stefan Kutzenberger was born in 1971.

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© 2020-2022 the complete review

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