Category: Fiction

Jakob Hein
Herr Jensen steigt aus
[Mr Jensen quits]

Review

Jakob Hein, known for his autobiographically inspired books about growing up in the GDR, has produced a high-class work of literary fiction in Mr Jensen quits. Over the course of 130 or so pages he describes how his protagonist, Mr Jensen, reaches a turning point in his life when he loses his job, and with it, his place in a society that defines itself primarily in terms of achievement and success. Jensen's social marginalization, which turns into self-imposed exile, unfolds in eighteen short chapters, all with matter-of-fact headings that summarize the essence and tenor of what is to follow. From “Mr Jensen Is Summoned”(chapter I) to “Mr Jensen Throws in the Towel” (chapter XVIII), the novel tells the exemplary, yet unique story of a person who finds himself suddenly unemployed.

In addition to illustrating one of western society's serious failings, the fate of Mr Jensen (whose forename is tellingly withheld) draws on the tradition of literary outcasts such as Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten or Kafka's Josef K. Excluded from society, these melancholy heroes respond at first with helpless astonishment, then increasing resignation. Thus Mr Jensen's disillusionment leads to his gradual withdrawal from society, which Hein describes in mournful, muted and yet comic terms, without sentimentality but with genuine empathy for his stoical hero.

Mr Jensen is one of the “quiet citizens” that Danish writer Herman Bang wrote of. A postman in his early thirties, he has no qualifications or ambitions to speak of and is happy with his uneventful life. Society disregards him. As an outsider with no particular interests or special talents, he goes unnoticed, and indeed life “outside the spotlight” is what suits him best. He has no real friends, let alone a wife or girlfriend, and instead takes comfort in the notion that there “must surely be a secret hunting ground where women go to graze at night”. Of course, to find this mysterious place would, like all important steps in life, require more energy and determination that he possesses.

Mr Jensen is not someone who ever sets anything in motion. His life “simply happens”; he always needs someone to push him, or pull him, along. He started working for the post office when a school friend landed him a temporary job, and he somehow ended up staying. Work lends a structure to Mr Jensen's life, filling him with quiet satisfaction. As a postman, he has delivered the mail to the same neighbourhood for over a decade and his route is determined by a carefully devised system, the “Jensen Approach”. The job is his life, even though he knows that he could probably do something more “meaningful” with his brain. “Delivering mail was undoubtedly wrong for him, which in itself was soothing, for it allowed him to reflect on [...] what might eventually be right [...].”

Jensen's seemingly paradoxical reasoning is characteristic of his outlook on life: guileless, yet acutely perceptive. Even the most trivial of decisions require his full attention, and he approaches the world, and in particular human society, with a simple, persuasive logic. Small wonder, then, that he cannot understand why he has been made redundant as part of a new “redundancy prevention programme”, even though his work has always met with his employers' approval.

The redundancy programme costs Jensen his job and his footing in life. When the job centre foists a host of nonsensical courses on him, such as the disturbingly entitled “Fit for Gastro” scheme, he takes the ground-breaking decision to act, in order to minimize the danger of other people forcing him to engage in something else. Since losing his job he has spent a large proportion of time in front of the television, and decides that this is where his real talent lies. Over the next few weeks he analyses and evaluates chat shows with characteristic meticulousness, robbing himself of sleep and eventually reaching the crushing realization that he has nothing in common with the norms that the programmes convey.

Stopping work on the doomed project, he throws his television and four newly purchased video recorders out of the window: “Mr Jensen was filled with a sensation of calm [...] he had decided in favour of a different life.” From that moment on, he cuts himself off from the “mock” world propagated by the media and refuses to read the papers, listen to the radio or watch TV. “All that mattered was the day in question and the fact that he was free.” But this freedom also proves illusory, for he soon has the feeling that the “system” is watching him and hounding him for being the only one to deviate from its rules. At the same time, he sees it as his responsibility to warn his fellow citizens about the unnerving developments occurring in society and so he organizes a night-time demonstration in which he is the only participant. Naturally, no one sees the protest and it has no effect at all.

As resignation sets in, Mr Jensen retires to his armchair and stares into space: “It was his final small triumph over the mock world outside.” But his triumph is short-lived. Three men and a woman, presumably from social services, force their way into his apartment and try to remove him on the basis that he is a danger to himself and others. Mr Jensen succeeds in convincing them that he is harmless. Alone again, he unscrews his nameplate from the door. He has long since removed his letterbox so as not to be bothered by the outside world, and now, with his nameplate gone, the last sign of his existence disappears. With this final act of self-determination, or self-destruction, Mr Jensen escapes the normative pressures of society for once and for all.

Gentle, humorous and empathetic, Mr Jensen Quits evokes the sneaking process of isolation that eventually leads to the complete obliteration of a man who endearingly fails to conform. Jakob Hein's wonderful new novel is at once social satire, a critique of modern society and a moving yet disturbing literary tale.
Anne-Bitt Gerecke

By Anne-Bitt Gerecke, 09.10.2006

Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer