The Stranger in Love

Peter Handke in the garden of Bartenstein Castle, Schrozberg, Germany, 1999
Isolde Ohlbaum/laif/Redux
Peter Handke in the garden of Bartenstein Castle, Schrozberg, Germany, 1999

The Moravian Night might seem like the inevitable English title for Peter Handke’s 2008 novel Die morawische Nacht, but it is actually rather misleading. Moravia is the eastern region of the Czech Republic, whose largest city is Brno; Mähren in German, it is called Moravia in English (and Latin) after the Slavic name of its major river, the Morava. But Handke’s title does not use the word mährische, and in fact it is not Moravia that he is writing about in this book. Instead, he is referring to a different Morava River, far to the south, in the heartland of Serbia. It is on this river that the story begins and ends; here is where the unnamed protagonist of the book, known only as “the former writer,” has taken up quarters on a houseboat.

To most American readers, the difference between two Central European rivers with the same name might seem unimportant. But in this case, it is crucial to recognize that Handke is writing about Serbia and not Moravia. For Handke, one of the German-speaking world’s leading writers since the 1960s, is now perhaps even more widely known as an apologist for the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević. Starting in 1995, when he traveled to Serbia in the last days of the Yugoslav civil war, Handke has written and spoken voluminously in defense of the Serbs, who are generally—and in his view, unjustly—regarded as the instigators of a genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Moravian Night ranges widely over the continent of Europe, as the former writer travels from the Balkans to Spain and back, but at its core is a defense of his highly idiosyncratic vision of what Serbia, and the Balkans in general, mean or ought to mean.

It is still mysterious just why Handke decided to cast himself as the Western world’s most vociferous defender of Serbia’s actions during the Yugoslav war. At the time Milošević died, in 2006, the deposed Serb leader was in prison in The Hague, where he was being tried for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This did not deter Handke from attending Milošević’s burial, back home in Serbia, and even delivering a speech, in which he mused: “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.

The willed ignorance of this endorsement—“I don’t know the truth”—is the keynote of Handke’s writings on the subject, starting with his controversial 1996 book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. (The original German title of this brief text names four rivers, including the Morava.) Here Handke records…

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