One of the last German films to win an international following was Wim Wenders’s 1987 fantasy Wings of Desire, about an angel, played by Bruno Ganz, who longs to be mortal; he sees everything but feels nothing. The film is remarkable for its muted black-and-white images of West Berlin, which shows up on screen as a blank, almost abstract, cityscape (the Potsdamer Platz, then in the shadow of the wall, appears, memorably, as a vacant lot), and for its stern, incantatory dialogue.
Wings of Desire was co-written, we are told, by Wenders and the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke; but the story and the effect of the images, like the dialogue, bear the mark of Handke, generally regarded at the time as the premier prose stylist in the German language, and one of post-war Europe’s most recognizable literary figures.
At the end of the film, Ganz’s angel finally gets his wish and becomes merely human—unlike Lucifer, he is redeemed by his fall, and the film is submerged in a haze of color. Handke has lately taken his own fall: he has put himself at the center of a resounding controversy by forsaking his gray world of detachment and longing to take up the cause of Serb nationalism. In two extended episodes over the last four years, he has browbeaten German- speaking Europe on a variety of related subjects with essays, interviews, scurrilous remarks, bizarre gestures; a major play, first performed last spring, called The Journey in the Dugout Canoe, or The Piece about the Film about the War; and, now, with a book about the war in Kosovo, called Questioning Through Tears. His conversion has left people confused, or enraged, or simply dispirited. Everything about Handke has become open to question, from his sincerity and his sanity to the scope of his vast, once highly praised, body of work.
Peter Handke lives near Paris; but he comes from Carinthia, in the south of Austria—one of Western Europe’s more remote and inward-looking regions (and, as it happens, Jörg Haider’s political base). He was born in 1942, when Austria was known as the Ostmark, a southeastern province of the Third Reich. His mother was an ethnic Slovene from a village called Griffen, north of the Drau River—called the Drava after it flows on into Slovenia and Croatia. The Drau has come to be an inner frontier in Austria, with Carinthia’s once-sizable Slovenian minority confined more or less to the villages and a few small towns between the river and the Slovenian border. Griffen itself went from being “Slovenian” to being “German” in the years after Handke’s birth. Both Handke’s father and his stepfather, who married his mother when she was pregnant with Handke, were German soldiers.
Carinthia is a dramatic, fragmented place, with high mountains and alpine lakes. Handke himself comes from a wide valley wedged between the mountains, and somehow remote from them. He grew up in Griffen and, for a time, in a bombed-out East Berlin, where his stepfather’s family lived. He has often referred to his youth in Carinthia, and to returning there as an adult; and he seems to have grown up in some kind of linguistic, familial, and topographical gap, in a world characterized by what was missing.
He became famous, indeed infamous, as a very young man for exquisite, absurdist dramas he called Sprechstücke, or speech-pieces, which defied just about every theatrical convention by doing away with ac-tion, character, and conversation; they played on stage as anonymous, threatening rants, and were scandals when they opened in Germany in the 1960s. Kaspar, the best known of these dramas, was Handke’s retelling of the story of Kaspar Hauser, a teenager found wandering the streets of nineteenth-century Nuremberg, who seemed to live in isolation and could only utter the sentence “I want to be a cavalry officer like my father once was.” Handke’s Kaspar—his lone sentence changed to “I want to be someone like somebody else once was”—is forced into adopting his fellow actors’ language, becoming, in the logic of the play, an instrument of their tyranny.
Handke went on to publish dozens of books, including volumes of poetry and several translations, as well as to write several screenplays, and he even directed a few films himself; but he came to be most admired for his autobiographical prose pieces of the Seventies and Eighties, in particular, for A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, about the suicide of his mother, published in 1972, not long after her death, and Repetition, his 1986 novel about an Austro-Slovenian writer’s walk through Slovenia.
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is Handke’s masterpiece, a short, concentrated, mysteriously exhaustive portrait of his mother, from whom history and circumstance have removed most traces of an identity; as a character, she is weirdly, poignantly, blank. Born into a seemingly feudal world of peasants and landowners (Handke depicts his mother’s father as a kind of freed serf), she led a life in which a few pleasant experiences overlapped with the larger experience of National Socialism:
Demonstrations, torchlight parades, mass meetings. Buildings decorated with the new national emblem, SALUTED; forest and mountain peaks DECKED THEMSELVES OUT; the historic events were represented to the rural population as a drama of nature.
“We were kind of excited,” my mother told me.
Handke fills out the story of his mother’s self-administered abortions, beatings at the hands of her husband, and the overdose of sleeping pills she has taken with the clichés and catch phrases of her time, interrupting himself with his own clichés to describe the act of writing. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is about necessity and futility, about the incompleteness, the inadequacy, of language, of grieving, of filial love, and finally of identity itself. Handke’s concurrent stories of his mother’s miserable marriage, twentieth-century European history, and his own desire to be a writer never fully merge; nor of course can they be separated. The book is strikingly original, and unbearably sad.
Repetition, often regarded as Handke’s best novel, is a companion piece of sorts, in which language (Slovenian) and circumstance (a walk through Slovenia) are used to create an identity for the Austro-Slovenian writer-narrator. Handke has described the two books as opposites. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams is concerned with the oppression of language. Handke’s mother, with no voice of her own, must rely on the cheerful, monstrously inappropriate banalities of her time. Repetition describes the regenerative powers of language—Handke’s narrator travels through Slovenia with the help of a turn-of-the-century German-Slovenian dictionary. The predominant atmosphere in both books, however, is one of detachment; in Repetition, the descriptions of the Slovenian countryside are almost cartographic.
His work may be set almost anywhere in Europe and America, but there is remarkably little of the world in that work; the landscapes and cityscapes are undifferentiated, reduced, often, to abstract visual sensations. In Wings of Desire, we remember we are in the Potsdamer Platz because an old man called Homer wanders around, saying, “I can’t find the Potsdamer Platz!”
Handke’s prose doesn’t translate well into English, but in German it has remarkable power, a sort of full-throated subtlety—he would seem to combine the directness of a writer like Hemingway with the astringency and ease of Don DeLillo, though he has his own, invariably alienating purpose. The important distinction in Handke’s work is between the writer, or the writer’s surrogate, and everything else; indeed one is so separate from the other that Handke can at times sound like an idiot savant whose talent is writing.
Before the wars of the 1990s, Handke’s relationship to Yugoslavia had been longstanding, and sentimental. He had written his first novel, The Hornets—an account of village life written in the manner of Alain Robbe-Grillet—while staying on the Croatian island of Krk; and he later became fascinated by Slovenia, especially by the Karst, the wind-swept limestone plateau above Trieste.
Handke may have been drawn to Slovenia for more than personal reasons. Modern-day Slovenia—once part of the so-called “hereditary lands” of the Habsburgs, and virtually subjugated for six centuries—is like a world unto itself. The language is distinct from other South Slav languages, and the landscape is remarkably varied. The Latin, the Slavic, and the Germanic overlap in Slovenia, and in traveling there, one has the impression of a composite European setting, of a Slavic Scandinavia on the Mediterranean coast; of an abstraction. Slovenia is stirringly vague—a correlative of sorts for the best of Handke’s work.
Handke knew the Slovenian fairy tale about an imaginary place called “the Ninth Country,” whose chief characteristic, in the version I have heard, would seem to be its dream quality; “the Ninth Country” is a sort of never-never-land, and he began to use it to describe Slovenia itself. Repetition is based on the story of his Austrian uncle, Gregor. In the book, the narrator, a middle-aged novelist called Filip Kobal, recalls a trip he made as a young man in search of his brother Gregor, who had left Austria for Slovenia in the 1930s and then disappeared while fighting for the Germans in World War II:
In one of his letters from the front, Gregor speaks of the legendary country, which in the language of our Slovene forbears is called the “Ninth Country,” as the goal of our collective longings. “May we all meet again someday,” he wrote, “in the festive Easter vigil carriage on its way to the wedding of the Ninth King in the Ninth Country.”
In 1991, after Slovenia declared its independence, Handke published an angry lament in the culture section of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, later released as a short book called The Dreamer’s Farewell to the Ninth Country, vehemently dismissing the new state as the product of a kind of collective “egotism.” In an interview, Handke said, “[It was] as if Ihad lost my home [Heimat], which became a state, where there was really only a people and a landscape.”
Handke’s essay was treated as a “break” with Slovenia, and its ferocity was surprising. He had come to be known as an apolitical writer, as an aesthete of sorts, an admirer of the refined prose of Austria’s great Biedermeier novelist Adalbert Stifter. As his interest in Slovenia grew, however, so did traditionally Romantic elements in his writing. Handke’s “Slovenia” was a mythical place, a part of the larger, more remote myth of what Handke calls “the great Yugoslavia.” After 1991, Handke was left without a myth; he had little use for a sovereign Slovenian republic in which the object of people’s collective longing was membership in the European Union, and the rest of “the great Yugoslavia” was at war with itself.
In January of 1996, after a month-long trip through Serbia, Handke published another essay. It was a curious piece of work—the urtext of the present scandal—published over a few weekends in the culture section of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and released in March as a short book, A Winter Journey to the Rivers Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina, or Justice for Serbia. (The American edition, released the following year, was called A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.) Early in the book, Handke announces the reason for his trip:
It was principally because of the war that I wanted to go to Serbia, into the country of the so-called aggressors. But I was also drawn simply to see the country that of all the countries of Yugoslavia was least known to me and, perhaps because of the news reports and opinions about it, had come to attract me most strongly (not least because of the alienating rumors). Nearly all the photographs and reports of the last four years came from one side of the fronts or borders. When they occasionally came from the other side they seemed to me increasingly to be simple mirrorings of the usual coordinated perspectives—distorted reflections in the very cells of our eyes and not eyewitness accounts. I felt the need to go behind the mirror….
“I felt the need to go behind the mirror” is a pun. Mirror is Spiegel in German, and Der Spiegel is Germany’s leading newsweekly. The book itself becomes a kind of sustained, serious joke: we never leave Handke’s sight, as he produces his own rigorously distorted account.
In talking about his Slovenia essay, Handke characterized Slovenian nationalism as childishness: “…Every child probably wishes that his village was a kingdom.” In AJourney to the Rivers (Handke likes to call it a “tale”), the Serbia of late 1995—a country in the hands of mafias, with a collapsed economy, and overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of refugees, a country in which acknowledged war criminals were greeted as heroes—is turned into a vast, rather bucolic village. Handke alternates between reverential descriptions of the Serb people (in Serbia, he claims, he has discovered “for the first time a sense of something like a Volk“) and muted pastoral descriptions of Serbian landscapes. He does let himself occasionally be distracted by the menacing detail. For instance, on the banks of the Drina—the border between Serbia and Bosnia, and just downstream from the killing fields of Srebrenica—he finds a child’s sandal.
As a matter of course, almost of technique, he churlishly attacks other commentators, such as the French “new philosopher” Alain Finkielkraut (“an incomprehensible chatterer for a Croatian state”). He dismisses Joseph Brodsky—who, in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, early and accurately diagnosed the nature of Serbia’s motives—as writing “with a rusty knife.” He goes on to dismiss virtually all events reported on during the wars as unbelievable, for no other reason, it seems, than the fact that they have been reported. Here he is writing about the massacres at Srebrenica (the emphases are his):
Why such a thousandfold slaughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose? And why, instead of an investigation into the causes (“psychopaths” doesn’t suffice), again nothing but the sale of the naked, lascivious, market-driven facts and supposed facts?
We are meant to wonder if these “massacres” are not just another of the “alienating rumors” Handke refers to at the beginning of the essay, similar, as he suggests later, to claims of Bosnian Serb culpability in the shelling of Sarajevo’s marketplace.
Peter Handke can be willfully obscure. His books are mildly hallucinatory; and it is not always easy, and, if one is sympathetic, perhaps not important, to decide exactly what he means. (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams and Repetition, otherwise opposites, are both concerned with the maddening gap between the living and the dead; each in its way could seem to be about the futility of writing anything at all.) Perhaps A Journey to the Rivers was an attempt to blur—and therefore somehow to distinguish between, or just to compare—the messenger and the message; or an effort to defend, or otherwise give voice to, the seemingly indefensible Serbs. Perhaps he just wanted to be provocative, recalling his youthful attack in the 1960s on the then middle-aged members of Gruppe 47, the postwar West German writers’ movement (associated with realistic, or morally minded, writers like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass), for treating language as a means rather than as a kind of end, a trait which he characterized as “the impotence of description.” Certainly A Journey to the Rivers reads like a love letter to the Serbs and a hate letter to just about everybody else.
AJourney to the Rivers appeared six months after the massacres in Srebrenica and a few weeks after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. Many readers, and most critics, were unsympathetic to Handke’s calculated outrageousness, and the essay was furiously condemned in Europe as a pro-Serb polemic and an attempt to excuse, or even to deny, Serb war crimes. Almost immediately, the culture sections of German-language publications were filled with essays attacking Handke, belligerent interviews with Handke himself, and reviews of those interviews. The matter reached a high point in late March 1996, toward the end of a reading tour Handke was undertaking (his first in over twenty years), with an astonishing and disturbing televised question-and-answer session in Vienna, in which he seemed to be simulating something like madness. When a questioner, apparently a journalist who had been to Sarajevo during the siege, testified to the “shock” he had felt there, Handke shouted, “Go home with your ‘shock’ and shove it up your ass.”
The remarkable thing in all of this was how quickly discussion of the Yugoslav wars themselves retreated into the background. The scandal turned into a feud between intellectual ce-lebrities: the novelist Peter Schneider wrote an attack on Handke’s essay in Der Spiegel, and Handke, in an interview in Die Zeit, accused Schneider of boasting that he liked to write while wearing tight pants. Marcel Ophuls fiercely objected to Handke’s position on the Sarajevo marketplace massacres. Handke in turn accused him of senility.
As for Handke himself, the more we heard him say, the less he seemed to know. In reading his interviews, and in watching a video of his appearance in Vienna, Ihad the impression that his grasp of events was confined to a radical skepticism of published reports, and that he no longer seemed especially interested in the wars, or even in Serbia itself. Handke’s interest—or, rather, his obsession—seemed confined to defending, by any means, the dignity of his “text,” in presenting his stylized unreliability as a kind of higher reliability. That summer he returned to Serbia, and this time he crossed the Drina and, after traveling in Bosnia, wrote another travel piece, A Summer Afterword to a Winter Journey, asking that his readers—once again—question the fact of the Srebrenica massacres.
If Handke sought to impugn the facts in A Journey to the Rivers and its “afterword,” in his recent play, The Journey in the Dugout Canoe, he does away with facts altogether. The action is set in the dead of winter, in an unnamed Balkan town, in what amounts to an imaginary future, “ten years after the last Balkan war.” Two film directors, one Spanish, one American, are meeting in the cocktail lounge of a hotel called the Acapulco. They are planning to make a movie about the war, and the play presents a parade of characters associated with that war as a surreal casting call, or lounge act, featuring, among others, war criminals who recount their crimes, one of whom then commits suicide on stage. They shout violent, obscene threats, but somehow benignly—by the standards of the play, almost comically: “Say the word ‘neighbor’ one more time, and I’ll cut your throat, or mine,” one says.
Three Western journalists appear, preposterously, as “mountain bikers,” and harass everyone with their gruesome and self-important accounts of atrocities. The centerpiece of the play is an inconclusive debate between the mountain bikers (who, in chorus, say things like “We are the market. We are the world. We are the power. We write the history.”) and a former journalist, called “the Greek,” now a disgraced, clownish figure, who advocates a new language for talking about the war, as opposed to the distortions of the journalists, whom he calls “common-sense dolls.” Eventually the mountain bikers—officiously referred to in the text as “the international ones”—collapse and are transformed into mere locals.
Just before the end of the play, there is an address from a previously minor character known as the “Fellfrau.” (Literally, Fellfrau means “fur woman,” connoting something primeval, though she, too, has a double identity: she is also known as “the beauty queen,” and describes herself as “the relative, the fiancée, the sister, the mother of a victim,” and would seem to be the girlfriend of one of the war criminals.) Her speech is an attempt to transform the hysterics and blunt satire into myth, Handke’s own, redemptive myth about Yugoslavia:
This is a dugout canoe. And once upon a time we traveled in this dugout canoe across the country…. The dugout canoe was before 007 and will remain long after him. It was before the Romans, then went under with the rise of their great empire and reemerged after they disappeared. There were only Romans in the interim. To them we owe all the great statues of the Gods of victory and commerce, which oppressed the dugout canoe…but then Emona and Sirmium fell and the dugout canoe rose up again from the moor of Ljubljana, glided along the Ljubljanica, made the great journey to the Danube, went over the mountains into the Drina, crossed over to the mountains of Montenegro, shot from there into the Macedonian-Albanian lake of Ochrid, turned around and stayed at anchor, without anchor, for centuries in the geographical center of the Balkans, in Sremska Mitrovica, at the wide quiet Sava, in the one-time Roman city of Sirmium. The mountain meadows with the beech and birch trees; the green mountain rivers and the quiet streams with the lone figures scattered on the banks: that is the Balkans! Where two butterflies dance with each other and appear as three: that is the Balkans! Other countries have a castle or a temple as a shrine. Our shrine is the dugout canoe. To stand on the river: this is peace. To stand on the rivers: that will be peace.
After reuniting Yugoslavia, liberating it, at least in the imagination, from the “Gods of victory and commerce,” which is to say, from the West, from “Rome,” from “007,” from history itself, Handke has a few of his characters try to leave the stage in a small dugout canoe, which tips over, slapstick style; then a “machine” with “steel fingers,” like a deus ex machina from Hell, descends and eats them all up. The directors decide not to make their film. It is too early to make a film about this story, they decide. The play ends on a note of self-negation, with an apocalyptic murmur. “It is the time after the last days of mankind,” says the American.
The final scene—both flat and bracing, like the moments after waking from a dream—construes the play as an apocalyptic fantasy: the stage is emptied; the destruction, total. Handke’s “Balkan war” cannot be explained or described, or even named; it will not be remembered as history, only as legend, as a ghost story. The rambling action (or lack of action; on stage, the play lasts well over three hours and, except for the suicide and the entrances and exits, very little happens) would seem to dramatize the act of forgetting, the way the present eats away at the past. Before 1996, Handke had a reputation as an aesthete, but also as something of a nihilist. In his new play, he has aestheticized the Yugoslav conflict and, with a nihilist’s diligence, turned it into, literally, nothing; what remains are his words to that effect. (“What war?” asks the Fellfrau, the conscience of Handke’s play, just before her dugout speech. “I don’t know anything about a war.”)
Handke kills off reality to tell his ghost story, and he has a purpose: he wants to turn the Bosnian Serb war criminal into a Balkan everyman. He is so insistent on the higher, eternal (ahistorical) innocence of his war criminals (whose outbursts begin to seem bratty, childlike), and on the specific evils of his journalists, that we have the impression the Yugoslav tragedy occurred because the West sent journalists there to cover it.
Handke’s journalists require a closer look. Two of the them read extended excerpts from their articles, which, as it turns out, are reworkings of two real articles. The first reveals himself to be “Mark Winner,” a writer, he claims, for The New York Review, and a figure clearly based on Mark Danner, whose accounts of the Yugoslav wars have appeared in these pages. Winner reads his own description of Muslim raids on a Serb village, but when we look at Handke’s text, we find a near sentence-by-sentence distortion of Mark Danner’s account of the Muslim raid on a Serb village near the then-Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in early 1993,1 in which Danner cites passages from a book by Chuck Sudetic, Blood and Vengeance.
Handke, simply running the two together, comes up with changes of a sort that are reminiscent of what high school students do with encyclopedia entries. An example: referring to the Bosnian militia leader Naser Oric and his attacks on Serb civilians, Danner writes, “The climactic battle in Oric’s campaign came on January 7, 1993….” Handke has Winner say, “The climax of the commander’s success came on the day that the people from here celebrate two weeks later than we do, their special Christmas.” Handke’s second declamatory journalist is a woman called Lauren Wexler, who writes for The New Yorker, and whose article is a version of Lawrence Weschler’s New Yorker piece about his visit to The Hague during the preliminary hearings of the first war crimes trial, which is remade into a triumphant partisan boast, with Weschler’s references to “the Tribunal” turned into Wexler’s “our tribunal.”2
Handke’s manipulations attest, perhaps, to his sense of his own limitations as a writer: Handke’s style is hermetic; he has no ear for the way people actually talk or write, and, even by German standards, is remarkably humorless. He needed satire for this play, however, and he achieves it primitively, through defacement.
In his magnum opus, the play The Last Days of Mankind (1926), Karl Kraus, the great Viennese satirist, wrote a darkly comedic attack on European society during World War I. Kraus’s main device was the quote, and something like a third of his play is made up of direct quotations from contemporary newspapers. In A Journey to the Rivers and in his later remarks, Handke seems to have been setting himself up as a latter-day Kraus, whose pioneering critique of language often took the form of attacks on the press; indeed Handke alludes directly to Kraus in his new play. But the difference between them is telling: Kraus only needed to quote to make a point; Handke, in search of the same effect, misquotes.
The Journey in the Dugout Canoe had its première under dramatic circumstances, on June 9, 1999—the day the Yugoslav army accepted the United Nations’ conditions for a cease-fire in Kosovo (the day the war effectively ended)—at Vienna’s Burgtheater, German-speaking Europe’s most prestigious theater. It was directed by Claus Peymann, a longtime friend and collaborator of both Handke and postwar Austria’s greatest playwright, Thomas Bernhard. The newspapers—and not just the culture pages—had been full of stories about Handke for months. He was at the Rambouillet conference, pledging solidarity with the Serbs. After the bombing started, he returned the money from his 1973 Büchner Prize (the German language’s highest literary award) and officially left the Catholic Church, as protests against German and Vatican policy toward Yugoslavia.
Eventually he went to a besieged Serbia, writing yet another travel piece—the basis of his new book—for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He gave a long, preposterous interview to an Austrian tabloid, casting doubts on the accounts of expelled Kosovar Albanians. (“The refugees, the ones who have been driven out, all say the same thing word for word. Is that therefore believable?”) In April the new play was published as a book; in May Handke’s former girlfriend published an open letter to him in an Austrian magazine in which she accused him of beating her up, and Germany’s tabloid press ran the story. Peymann, after thirteen stormy years at the Burgtheater, was leaving to return to his native Germany to take over the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht’s old theater in East Berlin. Handke’s new play was to be his last in Vienna and would have been of great interest, and controversy, even without the Kosovo catastrophe, which transformed the première into a major news story.
The Burgtheater production turned out to be an anticlimax—pompous, and boring. Peymann littered the stage with morbid theatrical effects, like the snow-covered graveyard used as a backdrop, or the duet between a gusla (an ancient-looking, single-string Balkan instrument, which, in A Journey to the Rivers, Handke describes as “Homeric”) and a chain saw. Instead of having a mysterious machine consume the cast, Peymann had the actors assemble in a mass grave on the lounge stage, and then float off into the wings, after which a crash and loud laughter were heard. The performance dramatized the failure of the play: Handke, and now Peymann, cannot compete with the mere facts; they try, and fail, to extinguish the actual images of the Yugoslav wars and replace them with their own.
Die Fahrt im Einbaum could subsequently be seen later that summer in Belgrade, where a new theater complex was finished, and opened under the direction of Ljubiša Ristić, the former Yugoslavia’s best-known theater director, and, since 1995, the president of the JUL, or Yugoslav United Left, the vanguard political party controlled by Mirjana Markovic, the wife of Slobodan Milosevic. The theaters opened with a Peter Handke festival, under the auspices of the Yugoslav minister of culture.
Ljubiša Ristić makes a brief appearance in Handke’s newest book, Questioning Through Tears, two accounts of Handke’s two trips by car through the former Yugoslavia during the NATO bombardments last spring—first to Belgrade, at the beginning of the war; then, a few weeks later, through Serbia and the heavily bombed industrial towns of the south, and into Kosovo, to a former ski resort.
The first piece, in contrast to Handke’s contemporaneous outbursts, has passages that seem solemn, as though the war had calmed him down. In Belgrade Handke runs into Ristiå«c, “the only meeting with a politician—who actually isn’t one.” Handke tells us that Ristiå«c is a theater director who also happens to be the leader of a “leftist” party called the JUL; he does not mention that the party is part of Milosevic’s regime. He describes the “strange homelessness that comes from [Ristiå«c] on this war-night.”
The second piece is filled with turgid prattle. Handke writes about a deserter he sees near the Kosovo border:
He comes from the adjacent (?) Kosovo, for a short (?) vacation (?) here at home (?), but it’s as if he became scattered on the way, in search of his troop—not only through his running does he seem this way, also through his gaze, his stare, between consternation, dismay, endurance—and at the same time rejuvenescence adding to his youthfulness.
In a short preface Handke tells us that the book “is in almost direct correspondence with my notes….” The effect, apparently, is meant to provide the reader with an eyewitness account of literature-in-the-making.
Questioning Through Tears turns out to be a highly selective account of what Handke sees as an apocalypse, or pre-apocalypse, with pungent or lyrical descriptions of Serb suffering, or lyrical accounts of resilient Serbness. In Srebrenica—“I am here for the fifth or sixth time”—Handke attends a Serbian Orthodox service. “Mass: the women stationed to the left of the wall of icons (or cabinets); the men (not at all less in number) to the right.” Then the now familiar, and rather exhausted, invectives against the “Super-information” of the “Superpowers.”
As expected, Handke scarcely mentions the Kosovar refugees, whose accounts, he again complains, are all the same, “word for word, phrase for phrase.” He tellingly, and then con-fusingly, abbreviates several proper nouns referring to NATOor to NATOinterests. NATO spokesman Jamie Shaw is “Mr. J.S.,” then “killer spokesman X.Y.” German chancellor Gerhard Schröder is “S.” However a woman working at a Belgrade kiosk, who gives Handke a comb, is “Svetlana Vrbaski.” By the end, “J.” comes to stand for Yugoslavia (Jugoslavien, and Jugoslavija).
The first victim of the war, Handke argues, is language itself—the capital letters stand for a kind of interchangeable wordlessness. But Handke’s own believability is another victim. By now he is so discredited that we have no more reason to believe in, say, the bombed auto plant in the southern town of Kragujevac and its innocent victims than we do in the existence of Svetlana Vrbaski. We are imprisoned in Handke’s imagination, and the only reality is the sound of Handke talking, narrating his own dream sequence.
In 1994, Handke published a much-awaited novel called My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, his longest book to date—over 1,000 pages in the German edition. The book is narrated by another autobiographical character, an Austro-Slovenian novelist, called Gregor (a favored name in the Handke oeuvre, recalling both Kafka’s Gregor Samsa and Handke’s uncle), who has a failed marriage and other failed relationships.
The book turns out to be a predictable, if highly elaborate, Handke meditation on his tendency to live in language rather than in the world, not to mention in his own life; it is a sustained description of estrangement and, again, of the necessity and futility of writing. What seems new, or newly emphasized, is an unequivocal affiliation with German Romantic literature. In a 1992 interview, Handke dismissed Hölderlin as “ill with Germanness”; in his novel, Hölderlin becomes instead a source of regeneration: reading his poems fills Gregor’s “veins with new blood.” The novel contains a few strange exaltations of violence, and tries to make connections between the mythical, the irrational, and the natural. In considering the landscape of his Paris suburb—the no-man’s-bay of the title—Gregor observes:
Nothing would be more understandable than for a person to give up once and for all, coming to the conclusion that in this country, tidied up by the Enlightenment, propped up by reason, systematically planned and unified by grammar, there is no room for a forest….
The book ends with a series of elegantly wrought descriptions of the wilderness outside Paris. Handke’s narrator comes across as a hardened Romantic, capable of expressing a near-Spenglerian contempt for “civilization” as a degraded form of “culture.”
There had previously been a connection between Handke’s dissociative style and his willful irrationality (he published a manifesto with his first collected plays, saying as much), but in the novel we glimpse something beyond that. “I wished I would get sick,” Gregor thinks, reflecting back on a spiritual crisis that some readers might describe as writer’s block, “or that the Third World War would break out, so that I would at least not be so alone with my very own war….”
After 1991, Handke needed a new myth, and he discovered it in Serbia, which world opinion, in his view, had thrown off the map and turned into a sort of non-place. (“I have always felt drawn to failures and the down-and-out—as if they were in the right,” muses Gregor.) By taking up the Serb cause, Handke has finally found Gregor’s “world war,” with which he can continue feeling separated from the rest of humanity, but this time with someone to keep him company.
In Handke’s essays and interviews and outbursts, and in The Journey in the Dugout Canoe—which all seem of a piece, a Serbenwerk—there is a strong element of exaggeration, but with this new book his identification with the Serbs has become simply genuine. It would seem that he has never come back from Serbia, that he has disappeared into some colorful, bloody Balkan wonderland.
Many German cultural figures have vigorously attacked Handke, notably Günter Grass and Jürgen Habermas, but he has his loyalists. Elfriede Jelinek and Peter Turrinni, Austria’s leading resident playwrights, have publicly defended him. (Jelinek called The Journey in the Dugout Canoe “partly infuriating, partly magnificent”). And in picking up the culture pages of the major German-language papers—which had so routinely criticized Handke over the past few years—one has occasionally sensed a thaw, particularly in two articles by Thomas Wirtz in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany’s paper of record. Last June Wirtz published an article with the headline “A Peace Offering to Peter Handke,” which served to dignify Handke’s recent work by comparing him to the early German Romantics Friedrich Schlegel and Clemens Brentano, who started out as literary revolutionaries and ended up as defenders of an arch-conservative Catholicism. Wirtz—mysteriously, and controversially—calls his new book “a penance for all previous remarks,” and praises Handke’s “eloquent silence.”
The Romantic sensibility changed, as the nineteenth century passed, from an idea about art and the artist to an idea about society and how it should be ruled—the “inner ideal,” as Isaiah Berlin calls it, turned outward. There is indeed something about Handke now that calls to mind Berlin’s phrase “Romanticism in its inflamed state,” which he used to describe the shared origins of fascism, National Socialism, and totalitarian communism, each of which, it could be said, have found a place in Milosevic’s grab-bag ideology.
In 1934, Klaus Mann, then living in exile, sent a letter to his one-time friend and literary idol Gottfried Benn, the best of the serious Weimar-era writers to convert to National Socialism. Mann, claiming to have been long aware of Benn’s “increasingly grim irrationalism,” observed: “Today it seems almost a law of nature that strong irrational sympathies lead to political reaction if you don’t watch out like the devil.”
Benn responded with a notorious essay, “Answer to the Literary Immigrants,” which took the form of an open letter to Mann, defending the “new vision of the birth of mankind” by way of dismissing Mann and other exiles as “amateurs of civilization” and “troubadours of Western progress,” epithets, it seems to me, that Handke could have put in the mouth of his Greek journalist, or used during one of his interviews. Benn quickly fell out of favor with the Nazi regime, but his initial enthusiasm was put to use. Goebbels had Benn’s essay widely reprinted, and even had it read on the radio.
Last fall, Die Zeit carried a lead article in the culture section by Handke, a commentary on Anselm Kiefer, whose mournful, monochromatic landscapes and neo-Romantic evocation of myth might seem to share something with Handke’s work; Handke describes Kiefer’s paintings, admiringly, as “dangerous,” as “painting from prehistory.” The editors put a photograph of Handke on the front page—a gray-hued, Avedon-like mug shot—in which he looks a little dangerous himself, or else just petulant, like a misbehaving, unrepentant rock star.
Soon afterward Handke was back in Belgrade, to celebrate the millennium and to pick up a Serbian literary prize named after Vuk Karadzic, the nineteenth-century reformer of the Serb language and collector of Serb epic poems. The most famous of these poems is “The Downfall of the Serbian Empire,” about the battle of Kosovo, in 1389, in which the Serbian emperor Lazar makes his dramatic choice between the mythical “empire of heaven” (and of martyrdom) and the merely temporal “empire of the earth”; he chooses—as Handke, in his way, has chosen—the empire of heaven.
In 1997, between A Journey to the Rivers and The Journey in the Dugout Canoe, Handke published a short novel called On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, which will appear in the US this fall. (Interestingly, Handke’s American publisher neglects to include AJourney to the Rivers in the list of his translated work.) The book is a fairy tale, once removed. An unnamed pharmacist, from an anonymous postwar suburb of Salzburg, recounts a story to an unnamed, impassive narrator. One night, while wandering through a forest, the pharmacist was hit over the head and rendered mute; he soon found himself magically driving across an imaginary Europe with an unnamed poet and an unnamed Olympic ski champion. They had hallucinatory, near-murderous adventures in a Balkan-like village, improbably called Santa Fe. Afterward, the pharmacist returned home an unchanged man, except, he tells the narrator, now “my feet are bigger; I had to buy new shoes.”
There are many allusions to Yugoslavia in the novel, and it is tempting to think of the pharmacist’s story as Handke’s reflection on his own “journey.” Yet the book does not accommodate such speculation; its blank reverie is a mere track record of the imagination at work, another dream sequence, framed, this time inside Handke’s familiar, gray fantasy of detachment.
Perhaps one day Peter Handke will explain himself in, say, a novel about an Austro-Slovenian writer who masquerades as a Serb nationalist. Until then his Serbenwerk endures as a celebration of irrationality. The reader retreats from it, from the tyranny of its impressions, its raving subjectivity. Handke has let himself become an instrument of the Milosevic regime, a state writer. If we resist Milosevic, then we resist this Handke and reapproach even the best of his previous work with that resistance in mind.
September 21, 2000