N.Y.R.B. / J.S. MARCUS=ORIGINAL
ORIGINAL J.S. MARCUS TEXT ON THE RIGHT...
Youappear in the name of goodness, yet you have never left behind theleast goodness in this country. Helpers? You’ve never helped yet. Thereis a kind of indifference more helpful than your humanitariangesticulating. Your right hand caresses some like Mother Teresa whileyour left hand raises the sword of a criminal court against the others.Puny devils of goodness. Humanitarian hyenas. Aloof and formal in theface of suffering – you officious and public humanitarians. Marscorporations masquerading as guardians of human rights. You claim to behumanitarian sheriffs – and the humanitarian sheriffs in the westerns,isn’t it true, Mr. O’Hara, were usually incompetent or secretlycorrupt. They were the villains.
Aren’t those prejudices, my son?
Lethim expresshis prejudices, John. Prejudices make good film plots.
Thewar has madethe people from here bad, worse than they are. You carpetbaggers havebecomebad with the war, like you really are. Deaf and blind – unfortunately,notspeechless, not speechless at all.
Thosewho wieldsentences as bludgeons have the power. In earlier despotic regimes,that wasthe politicians. Now it is you. And while the small peoples here foughtforscraps of earth, you conquered the whole world. In word and image thedespoticlords over reality, you power rangers. Internationals?Extraterrestrials.International court? Universal stingrays.
You’re notimagining an about face? We have to continue the way we began. Weare now prisoners of our initial opinion. We must continue morevigorously,more shrilly, and above all in a monotone – monotone – monotone. That’s theway it is. That’s thestate of affairs. It’strue: We’resick of what we do, so sick of it. And we’resick of each other. But what can we do? Should we suddenly say: Theotherones, the ones not from here, are also guilty? Guilty in a differentway?Impossible! That’s notthe point. We must continue as we began, in full voice and ifnecessary with empty hearts. That’s thewayit is. That’s the way it has to be. We are the language.
BELOW THE ORIGINAL J.S. MARCUS PIECE
volume 47, Number 14 · September 21, 2000
By J.S. Marcus
DieFahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stück zum Film vom Krieg[The Journey in theDugout Canoe, or The Piece about the Film about the War]
by Peter Handke
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 126 pp., DM32.00 (paper)
Unter Tränen fragend[Questioning Through Tears]
by Peter Handke
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 158 pp., DM36.00
OTHER BOOKS REFERRED TO IN THIS ESSAY
My Year in the No-Man's-Bay
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 468 pp., $30.00
A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Scott Abbott
Viking, 83 pp., $17.95
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 70 pp., (out of print)
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 225 pp., $18.95
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Michael Roloff, with an introduction by Tom Kuhn
Methuen, 308 pp., $17.95 (paper)
Abschied des Träumers vom Neunten Land[The Dreamer's Farewell to the Ninth Country]
by Peter Handke
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 50 pp., DM19.80
Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise[Summer Afterword to a Winter Journey]
by Peter Handke
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 92 pp., DM24.80
Der Himmel über Berlin: Ein Filmbuch[released in America as "Wings of Desire"]
by Wim Wenders, by Peter Handke
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 170 pp., DM29.00
Noch einmal vom Neunten Land[One More Time from the Ninth Country]
by Peter Handke, by Joze Horvat
Klagenfurt: Wieser Verlag, 110 pp., DM29.80
On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House
by Peter Handke, Translated from the German by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 185 pp., $23.00
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 seeseverything but feels nothing. The film is remarkable for its mutedblack-and-white images of West Berlin, which shows up on screen as ablank, almost abstract, cityscape (the Potsdamer Platz, then in theshadow of the wall, appears, memorably, as a vacant lot), and for itsstern, incantatory dialogue.
Wings of Desire was co-written, we are told, by Wenders andthe Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke; but the story andthe effect of the images, like the dialogue, bear the mark of Handke,generally regarded at the time as the premier prose stylist in theGerman language, and one of post-war Europe's most recognizableliterary figures.
At the end of the film, Ganz's angel finally gets his wish andbecomes merely human—unlike Lucifer, he is redeemed by his fall, andthe film is submerged in a haze of color. Handke has lately taken hisown fall: he has put himself at the center of a resounding controversyby forsaking his gray world of detachment and longing to take up thecause of Serb nationalism. In two extended episodes over the last fouryears, he has browbeaten German- speaking Europe on a variety ofrelated subjects with essays, interviews, scurrilous remarks, bizarregestures; 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 simplydispirited. Everything about Handke has become open to question, fromhis sincerity and his sanity to the scope of his vast, once highlypraised, body of work.
eter Handke lives near Paris; but he comes from Carinthia, inthe south of Austria—one of Western Europe's more remote andinward-looking regions (and, as it happens, Jörg Haider's politicalbase). He was born in 1942, when Austria was known as the Ostmark,a southeastern province of the Third Reich. His mother was an ethnicSlovene from a village called Griffen, north of the Drau River—calledthe Drava after it flows on into Slovenia and Croatia. The Drau hascome to be an inner frontier in Austria, with Carinthia's once-sizableSlovenian minority confined more or less to the villages and a fewsmall towns between the river and the Slovenian border. Griffen itselfwent from being "Slovenian" to being "German" in the years afterHandke's birth. Both Handke's father and his stepfather, who marriedhis mother when she was pregnant with Handke, were German soldiers.
Carinthia is a dramatic, fragmented place, with high mountains andalpine lakes. Handke himself comes from a wide valley wedged betweenthe 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 familylived. He has often referred to his youth in Carinthia, and toreturning there as an adult; and he seems to have grown up in some kindof linguistic, familial, and topographical gap, in a worldcharacterized by what was missing.
He became famous, indeed infamous, as a very young man for exquisite, absurdist dramas he calledSprechstücke,or speech-pieces, which defied just about every theatrical conventionby doing away with ac-tion, character, and conversation; they played onstage as anonymous, threatening rants, and were scandals when theyopened in Germany in the 1960s. Kaspar, the best known of thesedramas, was Handke's retelling of the story of Kaspar Hauser, ateenager found wandering the streets of nineteenth-century Nuremberg,who seemed to live in isolation and could only utter the sentence "Iwant to be a cavalry officer like my father once was." Handke'sKaspar—his lone sentence changed to "I want to be someone like somebodyelse once was"—is forced into adopting his fellow actors' language,becoming, in the logic of the play, an instrument of their tyranny.
andke went on to publish dozens of books, including volumes ofpoetry and several translations, as well as to write severalscreenplays, and he even directed a few films himself; but he came tobe most admired for his autobiographical prose pieces of the Seventiesand 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 whomhistory and circumstance have removed most traces of an identity; as acharacter, she is weirdly, poignantly, blank. Born into a seeminglyfeudal world of peasants and landowners (Handke depicts his mother'sfather as a kind of freed serf), she led a life in which a few pleasantexperiences overlapped with the larger experience of National Socialism:
Demonstrations, torchlight parades, mass meetings.Buildings decorated with the new national emblem, SALUTED; forest andmountain peaks DECKED THEMSELVES OUT; the historic events wererepresented to the rural population as a drama of nature.
"We were kind of excited," my mother told me.
Handkefills out the story of his mother's self-administered abortions,beatings at the hands of her husband, and the overdose of sleepingpills she has taken with the clichés and catch phrases of her time,interrupting himself with his own clichés to describe the act ofwriting. A Sorrow Beyond Dreamsis about necessity and futility,about the incompleteness, the inadequacy, of language, of grieving, offilial love, and finally of identity itself. Handke's concurrentstories of his mother's miserable marriage, twentieth-century Europeanhistory, and his own desire to be a writer never fully merge; nor ofcourse can they be separated. The book is strikingly original, andunbearably sad.
Repetition, often regarded as Handke's best novel, is acompanion piece of sorts, in which language (Slovenian) andcircumstance (a walk through Slovenia) are used to create an identityfor the Austro-Slovenian writer-narrator. Handke has described the twobooks as opposites. A Sorrow Beyond Dreamsis concerned with theoppression of language. Handke's mother, with no voice of her own, mustrely on the cheerful, monstrously inappropriate banalities of her time. Repetition describesthe regenerative powers of language—Handke's narrator travels throughSlovenia with the help of a turn-of-the-century German-Sloveniandictionary. The predominant atmosphere in both books, however, is oneof detachment; in Repetition, the descriptions of the Slovenian countryside are almost cartographic.
His work may be set almost anywhere in Europe and America, but thereis remarkably little of the world in that work; the landscapes andcityscapes are undifferentiated, reduced, often, to abstract visualsensations. In Wings of Desire, we remember we are in thePotsdamer 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 ithas remarkable power, a sort of full-throated subtlety—he would seem tocombine the directness of a writer like Hemingway with the astringencyand ease of Don DeLillo, though he has his own, invariably alienatingpurpose. The important distinction in Handke's work is between thewriter, or the writer's surrogate, and everything else; indeed one isso separate from the other that Handke can at times sound like an idiotsavant whose talent is writing.
Beforethe wars of the 1990s, Handke's relationship to Yugoslavia had beenlongstanding, and sentimental. He had written his first novel, The Hornets—anaccount of village life written in the manner of AlainRobbe-Grillet—while staying on the Croatian island of Krk; and he laterbecame fascinated by Slovenia, especially by the Karst, the wind-sweptlimestone plateau above Trieste.
Handke may have been drawn to Slovenia for more than personalreasons. Modern-day Slovenia—once part of the so-called "hereditarylands" of the Habsburgs, and virtually subjugated for six centuries—islike a world unto itself. The language is distinct from other SouthSlav languages, and the landscape is remarkably varied. The Latin, theSlavic, and the Germanic overlap in Slovenia, and in traveling there,one has the impression of a composite European setting, of a SlavicScandinavia on the Mediterranean coast; of an abstraction. Slovenia isstirringly 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 haveheard, would seem to be its dream quality; "the Ninth Country" is asort of never-never-land, and he began to use it to describe Sloveniaitself. Repetition is based on the story of his Austrian uncle,Gregor. In the book, the narrator, a middle-aged novelist called FilipKobal, recalls a trip he made as a young man in search of his brotherGregor, who had left Austria for Slovenia in the 1930s and thendisappeared while fighting for the Germans in World War II:
In one of his letters from the front, Gregor speaks of thelegendary country, which in the language of our Slovene forbears iscalled the "Ninth Country," as the goal of our collective longings."May we all meet again someday," he wrote, "in the festive Easter vigilcarriage on its way to the wedding of the Ninth King in the NinthCountry."
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 ofcollective "egotism." In an interview, Handke said, "[It was] as ifIhad 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 itsferocity was surprising. He had come to be known as an apoliticalwriter, as an aesthete of sorts, an admirer of the refined prose ofAustria's great Biedermeier novelist Adalbert Stifter. As his interestin Slovenia grew, however, so did traditionally Romantic elements inhis writing. Handke's "Slovenia" was a mythical place, a part of thelarger, more remote myth of what Handke calls "the great Yugoslavia."After 1991, Handke was left without a myth; he had little use for asovereign Slovenian republic in which the object of people's collectivelonging was membership in the European Union, and the rest of "thegreat Yugoslavia" was at war with itself.
n January of 1996, after a month-long trip through Serbia, Handkepublished another essay. It was a curious piece of work—the urtext ofthe present scandal—published over a few weekends in the culturesection 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 goto Serbia, into the country of the so-called aggressors. But I was alsodrawn simply to see the country that of all the countries of Yugoslaviawas least known to me and, perhaps because of the news reports andopinions about it, had come to attract me most strongly (not leastbecause of the alienating rumors). Nearly all the photographs andreports of the last four years came from one side of the fronts orborders. When they occasionally came from the other side they seemed tome increasingly to be simple mirrorings of the usual coordinatedperspectives—distorted reflections in the very cells of our eyes andnot 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 isGermany's leading newsweekly. The book itself becomes a kind ofsustained, serious joke: we never leave Handke's sight, as he produceshis own rigorously distorted account.
In talking about his Slovenia essay, Handke characterized Sloveniannationalism as childishness: "…Every child probably wishes that hisvillage was a kingdom." In AJourney to the Rivers (Handke likesto call it a "tale"), the Serbia of late 1995—a country in the hands ofmafias, with a collapsed economy, and overwhelmed by hundreds ofthousands of refugees, a country in which acknowledged war criminalswere 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 ofsomething like a Volk") and muted pastoral descriptions ofSerbian landscapes. He does let himself occasionally be distracted bythe menacing detail. For instance, on the banks of the Drina—the borderbetween Serbia and Bosnia, and just downstream from the killing fieldsof Srebrenica—he finds a child's sandal.
As a matter of course, almost of technique, he churlishly attacksother commentators, such as the French "new philosopher" AlainFinkielkraut ("an incomprehensible chatterer for a Croatian state"). Hedismisses Joseph Brodsky—who, in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times,early and accurately diagnosed the nature of Serbia's motives—aswriting "with a rusty knife." He goes on to dismiss virtually allevents reported on during the wars as unbelievable, for no otherreason, it seems, than the fact that they have been reported. Here heis writing about the massacres at Srebrenica (the emphases are his):
Why such a thousandfold slaughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose?Andwhy, instead of an investigation into the causes ("psychopaths" doesn'tsuffice), 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 ofthe "alienating rumors" Handke refers to at the beginning of the essay,similar, as he suggests later, to claims of Bosnian Serb culpability inthe shelling of Sarajevo's marketplace.
eter Handke can be willfully obscure. His books are mildlyhallucinatory; 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 betweenthe living and the dead; each in its way could seem to be about thefutility of writing anything at all.) Perhaps A Journey to the Rivers wasan attempt to blur—and therefore somehow to distinguish between, orjust to compare—the messenger and the message; or an effort to defend,or otherwise give voice to, the seemingly indefensible Serbs. Perhapshe just wanted to be provocative, recalling his youthful attack in the1960s on the then middle-aged members of Gruppe 47, the postwar WestGerman writers' movement (associated with realistic, or morally minded,writers like Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass), for treating language asa 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 themassacres in Srebrenica and a few weeks after the signing of the DaytonPeace Accords. Many readers, and most critics, were unsympathetic toHandke's calculated outrageousness, and the essay was furiouslycondemned in Europe as a pro-Serb polemic and an attempt to excuse, oreven to deny, Serb war crimes. Almost immediately, the culture sectionsof German-language publications were filled with essays attackingHandke, belligerent interviews with Handke himself, and reviews ofthose interviews. The matter reached a high point in late March 1996,toward the end of a reading tour Handke was undertaking (his first inover twenty years), with an astonishing and disturbing televisedquestion-and-answer session in Vienna, in which he seemed to besimulating something like madness. When a questioner, apparently ajournalist 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 ofthe Yugoslav wars themselves retreated into the background. The scandalturned into a feud between intellectual ce-lebrities: the novelistPeter 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 wearingtight pants. Marcel Ophuls fiercely objected to Handke's position onthe Sarajevo marketplace massacres. Handke in turn accused him ofsenility.
As for Handke himself, the more we heard him say, the less he seemedto know. In reading his interviews, and in watching a video of hisappearance in Vienna, Ihad the impression that his grasp of events wasconfined to a radical skepticism of published reports, and that he nolonger seemed especially interested in the wars, or even in Serbiaitself. Handke's interest—or, rather, his obsession—seemed confined todefending, by any means, the dignity of his "text," in presenting hisstylized unreliability as a kind of higher reliability. That summer hereturned to Serbia, and this time he crossed the Drina and, aftertraveling 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.
f 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 ofwinter, in an unnamed Balkan town, in what amounts to an imaginaryfuture, "ten years after the last Balkan war." Two film directors, oneSpanish, one American, are meeting in the cocktail lounge of a hotelcalled the Acapulco. They are planning to make a movie about the war,and the play presents a parade of characters associated with that waras a surreal casting call, or lounge act, featuring, among others, warcriminals who recount their crimes, one of whom then commits suicide onstage. They shout violent, obscene threats, but somehow benignly—by thestandards of the play, almost comically: "Say the word 'neighbor' onemore time, and I'll cut your throat, or mine," one says.
Three Western journalists appear, preposterously, as "mountainbikers," and harass everyone with their gruesome and self-importantaccounts of atrocities. The centerpiece of the play is an inconclusivedebate between the mountain bikers (who, in chorus, say things like "Weare the market. We are the world. We are the power. We write thehistory.") and a former journalist, called "the Greek," now adisgraced, clownish figure, who advocates a new language for talkingabout the war, as opposed to the distortions of the journalists, whomhe calls "common-sense dolls." Eventually the mountainbikers—officiously referred to in the text as "the internationalones"—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 adouble identity: she is also known as "the beauty queen," and describesherself as "the relative, the fiancée, the sister, the mother of avictim," and would seem to be the girlfriend of one of the warcriminals.) Her speech is an attempt to transform the hysterics andblunt satire into myth, Handke's own, redemptive myth about Yugoslavia:
This is a dugout canoe. And once upon a time we traveled inthis dugout canoe across the country…. The dugout canoe was before 007and will remain long after him. It was before the Romans, then wentunder with the rise of their great empire and reemerged after theydisappeared. There were only Romans in the interim. To them we owe allthe great statues of the Gods of victory and commerce, which oppressedthe dugout canoe…but then Emona and Sirmium fell and the dugout canoerose up again from the moor of Ljubljana, glided along the Ljubljanica,made the great journey to the Danube, went over the mountains into theDrina, crossed over to the mountains of Montenegro, shot from thereinto the Macedonian-Albanian lake of Ochrid, turned around and stayedat anchor, without anchor, for centuries in the geographical center ofthe Balkans, in Sremska Mitrovica, at the wide quiet Sava, in theone-time Roman city of Sirmium. The mountain meadows with the beech andbirch trees; the green mountain rivers and the quiet streams with thelone figures scattered on the banks: that is the Balkans! Where twobutterflies dance with each other and appear as three: that is theBalkans! Other countries have a castle or a temple as a shrine. Ourshrine is the dugout canoe. To stand on the river: this is peace. Tostand on the rivers: that will be peace.
After reuniting Yugoslavia, liberating it, at least in theimagination, from the "Gods of victory and commerce," which is to say,from the West, from "Rome," from "007," from history itself, Handke hasa few of his characters try to leave the stage in a small dugout canoe,which tips over, slapstick style; then a "machine" with "steelfingers," like a deus ex machina from Hell, descends and eats them allup. The directors decide not to make their film. It is too early tomake a film about this story, they decide. The play ends on a note ofself-negation, with an apocalyptic murmur. "It is the time after thelast days of mankind," says the American.
he final scene—both flat and bracing, like the moments after wakingfrom a dream—construes the play as an apocalyptic fantasy: the stage isemptied; the destruction, total. Handke's "Balkan war" cannot beexplained or described, or even named; it will not be remembered ashistory, only as legend, as a ghost story. The rambling action (or lackof action; on stage, the play lasts well over three hours and, exceptfor the suicide and the entrances and exits, very little happens) wouldseem to dramatize the act of forgetting, the way the present eats awayat the past. Before 1996, Handke had a reputation as an aesthete, butalso as something of a nihilist. In his new play, he has aestheticizedthe Yugoslav conflict and, with a nihilist's diligence, turned it into,literally, nothing; what remains are his words to that effect. ("Whatwar?" asks the Fellfrau, the conscience of Handke's play, just beforeher dugout speech. "I don't know anything about a war.")
Handke kills off reality to tell his ghost story, and he has apurpose: he wants to turn the Bosnian Serb war criminal into a Balkaneveryman. 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 havethe impression the Yugoslav tragedy occurred because the West sentjournalists there to cover it.
Handke's journalists require a closer look. Two of the them readextended excerpts from their articles, which, as it turns out, arereworkings of two real articles. The first reveals himself to be "MarkWinner," a writer, he claims, for The New York Review, and afigure clearly based on Mark Danner, whose accounts of the Yugoslavwars have appeared in these pages. Winner reads his own description ofMuslim raids on a Serb village, but when we look at Handke's text, wefind a near sentence-by-sentence distortion of Mark Danner's account ofthe Muslim raid on a Serb village near the then-Muslim enclave ofSrebrenica in early 1993, 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 asort that are reminiscent of what high school students do withencyclopedia entries. An example: referring to the Bosnian militialeader 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 onthe day that the people from here celebrate two weeks later than we do,their special Christmas." Handke's second declamatory journalist is awoman called Lauren Wexler, who writes for The New Yorker, and whose article is a version of Lawrence Weschler's New Yorker pieceabout his visit to The Hague during the preliminary hearings of thefirst war crimes trial, which is remade into a triumphant partisanboast, with Weschler's references to "the Tribunal" turned intoWexler's "our tribunal."
Handke's manipulations attest, perhaps, to his sense of his ownlimitations as a writer: Handke's style is hermetic; he has no ear forthe way people actually talk or write, and, even by German standards,is remarkably humorless. He needed satire for this play, however, andhe 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 attackon European society during World War I. Kraus's main device was thequote, and something like a third of his play is made up of directquotations from contemporary newspapers. In A Journey to the Rivers andin his later remarks, Handke seems to have been setting himself up as alatter-day Kraus, whose pioneering critique of language often took theform of attacks on the press; indeed Handke alludes directly to Krausin his new play. But the difference between them is telling: Kraus onlyneeded to quote to make a point; Handke, in search of the same effect,misquotes.
he Journey in the Dugout Canoe had its première underdramatic circumstances, on June 9, 1999—the day the Yugoslav armyaccepted the United Nations' conditions for a cease-fire in Kosovo (theday the war effectively ended)—at Vienna's Burgtheater, German-speakingEurope's most prestigious theater. It was directed by Claus Peymann, alongtime friend and collaborator of both Handke and postwar Austria'sgreatest playwright, Thomas Bernhard. The newspapers—and not just theculture pages—had been full of stories about Handke for months. He wasat the Rambouillet conference, pledging solidarity with the Serbs.After the bombing started, he returned the money from his 1973 BüchnerPrize (the German language's highest literary award) and officiallyleft the Catholic Church, as protests against German and Vatican policytoward 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, castingdoubts on the accounts of expelled Kosovar Albanians. ("The refugees,the ones who have been driven out, all say the same thing word forword. Is that therefore believable?") In April the new play waspublished as a book; in May Handke's former girlfriend published anopen letter to him in an Austrian magazine in which she accused him ofbeating her up, and Germany's tabloid press ran the story. Peymann,after thirteen stormy years at the Burgtheater, was leaving to returnto his native Germany to take over the Berliner Ensemble, Brecht's oldtheater in East Berlin. Handke's new play was to be his last in Viennaand would have been of great interest, and controversy, even withoutthe Kosovo catastrophe, which transformed the première into a majornews 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 betweena 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 amysterious machine consume the cast, Peymann had the actors assemble ina mass grave on the lounge stage, and then float off into the wings,after which a crash and loud laughter were heard. The performancedramatized the failure of the play: Handke, and now Peymann, cannotcompete with the mere facts; they try, and fail, to extinguish theactual images of the Yugoslav wars and replace them with their own.
Die Fahrt im Einbaum could subsequently be seen later thatsummer in Belgrade, where a new theater complex was finished, andopened under the direction of Ljubi*sa Risti´c, the former Yugoslavia'sbest-known theater director, and, since 1995, the president of the JUL,or Yugoslav United Left, the vanguard political party controlled byMirjana Markovic, the wife of Slobodan Milosevic. The theaters openedwith a Peter Handke festival, under the auspices of the Yugoslavminister of culture.
Ljubi*sa Risti´c makes a brief appearance in Handke's newest book, Questioning Through Tears,two accounts of Handke's two trips by car through the former Yugoslaviaduring the NATO bombardments last spring—first to Belgrade, at thebeginning of the war; then, a few weeks later, through Serbia and theheavily bombed industrial towns of the south, and into Kosovo, to aformer 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 Risti´c, "the only meeting with apolitician—who actually isn't one." Handke tells us that Risti´c is atheater director who also happens to be the leader of a "leftist" partycalled the JUL; he does not mention that the party is part ofMilosevic's regime. He describes the "strange homelessness that comesfrom [Risti´c] on this war-night."
The second piece is filled with turgid prattle. Handke writes about a deserter he sees near the Kosovo border:
Hecomes from the adjacent (?) Kosovo, for a short (?) vacation (?) hereat home (?), but it's as if he became scattered on the way, in searchof his troop—not only through his running does he seem this way, alsothrough his gaze, his stare, between consternation, dismay,endurance—and at the same time rejuvenescence adding to hisyouthfulness.
In a short preface Handke tells us that the book "is in almostdirect correspondence with my notes…." The effect, apparently, is meantto provide the reader with an eyewitness account ofliterature-in-the-making.
Questioning Through Tears turns out to be a highly selectiveaccount of what Handke sees as an apocalypse, or pre-apocalypse, withpungent or lyrical descriptions of Serb suffering, or lyrical accountsof resilient Serbness. In Srebrenica—"I am here for the fifth or sixthtime"—Handke attends a Serbian Orthodox service. "Mass: the womenstationed to the left of the wall of icons (or cabinets); the men (notat all less in number) to the right." Then the now familiar, and ratherexhausted, invectives against the "Super-information" of the"Superpowers."
As expected, Handke scarcely mentions the Kosovar refugees, whoseaccounts, he again complains, are all the same, "word for word, phrasefor phrase." He tellingly, and then con-fusingly, abbreviates severalproper nouns referring to NATOor to NATOinterests. NATO spokesman JamieShaw is "Mr. J.S.," then "killer spokesman X.Y." German chancellorGerhard Schröder is "S." However a woman working at a Belgrade kiosk,who gives Handke a comb, is "Svetlana Vrbaski." By the end, "J." comesto stand for Yugoslavia (Jugoslavien, and Jugoslavija).
The first victim of the war, Handke argues, is language itself—thecapital letters stand for a kind of interchangeable wordlessness. ButHandke's own believability is another victim. By now he is sodiscredited that we have no more reason to believe in, say, the bombedauto plant in the southern town of Kragujevac and its innocent victimsthan we do in the existence of Svetlana Vrbaski. We are imprisoned inHandke's imagination, and the only reality is the sound of Handketalking, narrating his own dream sequence.
n 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. Thebook is narrated by another autobiographical character, anAustro-Slovenian novelist, called Gregor (a favored name in the Handkeoeuvre, 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, Handkemeditation on his tendency to live in language rather than in theworld, not to mention in his own life; it is a sustained description ofestrangement and, again, of the necessity and futility of writing. Whatseems new, or newly emphasized, is an unequivocal affiliation withGerman Romantic literature. In a 1992 interview, Handke dismissedHölderlin as "ill with Germanness"; in his novel, Hölderlin becomesinstead a source of regeneration: reading his poems fills Gregor's"veins with new blood." The novel contains a few strange exaltations ofviolence, and tries to make connections between the mythical, theirrational, and the natural. In considering the landscape of his Parissuburb—the no-man's-bay of the title—Gregor observes:
Nothing would be more understandable than for a person togive up once and for all, coming to the conclusion that in thiscountry, tidied up by the Enlightenment, propped up by reason,systematically planned and unified by grammar, there is no room for aforest….
The book ends with a series of elegantly wrought descriptions of thewilderness outside Paris. Handke's narrator comes across as a hardenedRomantic, capable of expressing a near-Spenglerian contempt for"civilization" as a degraded form of "culture."
There had previously been a connection between Handke's dissociativestyle and his willful irrationality (he published a manifesto with hisfirst collected plays, saying as much), but in the novel we glimpsesomething beyond that. "I wished I would get sick," Gregor thinks,reflecting back on a spiritual crisis that some readers might describeas writer's block, "or that the Third World War would break out, sothat I would at least not be so alone with my very own war…."
After 1991, Handke needed a new myth, and he discovered it inSerbia, which world opinion, in his view, had thrown off the map andturned into a sort of non-place. ("I have always felt drawn to failuresand the down-and-out—as if they were in the right," muses Gregor.) Bytaking up the Serb cause, Handke has finally found Gregor's "worldwar," with which he can continue feeling separated from the rest ofhumanity, 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—thereis a strong element of exaggeration, but with this new book hisidentification with the Serbs has become simply genuine. It would seemthat he has never come back from Serbia, that he has disappeared intosome 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 residentplaywrights, have publicly defended him. (Jelinek called The Journey in the Dugout Canoe "partlyinfuriating, partly magnificent"). And in picking up the culture pagesof the major German-language papers—which had so routinely criticizedHandke 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 withthe headline "A Peace Offering to Peter Handke," which served todignify Handke's recent work by comparing him to the early GermanRomantics Friedrich Schlegel and Clemens Brentano, who started out asliterary revolutionaries and ended up as defenders of anarch-conservative Catholicism. Wirtz—mysteriously, andcontroversially—calls his new book "a penance for all previousremarks," and praises Handke's "eloquent silence."
he Romantic sensibility changed, as the nineteenth century passed,from an idea about art and the artist to an idea about society and howit should be ruled—the "inner ideal," as Isaiah Berlin calls it, turnedoutward. There is indeed something about Handke now that calls to mindBerlin's phrase "Romanticism in its inflamed state," which he used todescribe the shared origins of fascism, National Socialism, andtotalitarian communism, each of which, it could be said, have found aplace in Milosevic's grab-bag ideology.
In 1934, Klaus Mann, then living in exile, sent a letter to hisone-time friend and literary idol Gottfried Benn, the best of theserious Weimar-era writers to convert to National Socialism. Mann,claiming to have been long aware of Benn's "increasingly grimirrationalism," observed: "Today it seems almost a law of nature thatstrong irrational sympathies lead to political reaction if you don'twatch out like the devil."
Benn responded with a notorious essay, "Answer to the LiteraryImmigrants," which took the form of an open letter to Mann, defendingthe "new vision of the birth of mankind" by way of dismissing Mann andother exiles as "amateurs of civilization" and "troubadours of Westernprogress," epithets, it seems to me, that Handke could have put in themouth of his Greek journalist, or used during one of his interviews.Benn quickly fell out of favor with the Nazi regime, but his initialenthusiasm 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 culturesection by Handke, a commentary on Anselm Kiefer, whose mournful,monochromatic landscapes and neo-Romantic evocation of myth might seemto share something with Handke's work; Handke describes Kiefer'spaintings, 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, orelse just petulant, like a misbehaving, unrepentant rock star.
Soon afterward Handke was back in Belgrade, to celebrate themillennium and to pick up a Serbian literary prize named after VukKaradzic, the nineteenth-century reformer of the Serb language andcollector of Serb epic poems. The most famous of these poems is "TheDownfall of the Serbian Empire," about the battle of Kosovo, in 1389,in which the Serbian emperor Lazar makes his dramatic choice betweenthe mythical "empire of heaven" (and of martyrdom) and the merelytemporal "empire of the earth"; he chooses—as Handke, in his way, haschosen—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 inthe list of his translated work.) The book is a fairy tale, onceremoved. An unnamed pharmacist, from an anonymous postwar suburb ofSalzburg, recounts a story to an unnamed, impassive narrator. Onenight, while wandering through a forest, the pharmacist was hit overthe head and rendered mute; he soon found himself magically drivingacross an imaginary Europe with an unnamed poet and an unnamed Olympicski champion. They had hallucinatory, near-murderous adventures in aBalkan-like village, improbably called Santa Fe. Afterward, thepharmacist returned home an unchanged man, except, he tells thenarrator, now "my feet are bigger; I had to buy new shoes."
There are many allusions to Yugoslavia in the novel, and it istempting to think of the pharmacist's story as Handke's reflection onhis 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 novelabout an Austro-Slovenian writer who masquerades as a Serb nationalist.Until then his Serbenwerk endures as a celebration ofirrationality. The reader retreats from it, from the tyranny of itsimpressions, its raving subjectivity. Handke has let himself become aninstrument of the Milosevic regime, a state writer. If we resistMilosevic, then we resist this Handke and reapproach even the best ofhis previous work with that resistance in mind.
 See "Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster," The New York Review, December 18, 1997, pp. 71-72; Handke, Die Fahrt im Einbaum, p. 84.
 See "Inventing Peace," The New Yorker, November 20, 1995, pp. 56ff; Handke, Die Fahrt im Einbaum, pp. 88-89.