Peter Handke’s “That beautiful ‘And so on'” — Part V

V

 

The Play of the Film of the War

1:30 a.m., 1 June 1998
I’m sitting in my room in the Hotel Višegrad, looking out onto the Drina and the Turkish bridge, still lit by floodlamps. The bridge’s eleven arches are reflected in the silky black river. A nightingale calls from across the river. I’ve never heard a nightingale; but it can be nothing else. Unmistakable. It calls again, and then again. It’s indescribably romantic. I’m alone in my room.

From the terrace below there is an occasional burst of laughter from Peter, Zlatko, Thomas, and Žarko, who are still talking with the two women from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the younger one from Spain, the older from France. We argued for hours about the role of organizations like theirs in Yugoslavia.

How long have you been in Yugoslavia? Peter asked the French woman.

For a year-and-a-half, she answered.

Do you speak Serbo-Croatian? Peter asked.

No, she answered. I’ve been too busy to learn. The first town I was in was under attack for nine months. I worked through an interpreter.

You are here to tell the people how to run their country and you don’t understand their language! Peter exclaimed. You can’t bother to learn their language?

Who are you? the woman asked. What are you doing here? What gives you the moral right to judge what I’m doing?

Go home, Peter said.

Fuck you, the woman said.

Go home.

Fuck you.

The night air had chilled, and the French woman was shivering. Peter took his coat from the back of his chair and draped it around her shoulders. There, he said, that will help.

Fuck you, she said, and pulled the coat around herself.

(From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books)

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Voyage by Dugout or The Play of the Film of the War features a casting call by two filmmakers, an American (essentially John Ford) and a Spaniard (Luis Buñel, in effect), who want to make a film of the war in Yugoslavia approximately a decade after it has occurred. The directors discuss narrative strategy, listen to the war stories of a local historian, of an ex-journalist, of three “internationals,” and others, and finally decide not to make the film. The final conversation between the filmmakers turns to the need for good translators: “During mutual insanity and hatred,” the John Ford character argues, “one side often laughs deep within itself. But the laughter never breaks the surface. Let’s have translators, for both sides – maybe exactly the same laughter exists inside the other.” The Buñel character agrees that “such a translator would be the antithesis of the Inquisition,”, and then comments on the kind of (hi)story being constructed by the international “community”: “And this latter-day apocryphal horde, our patron, needs a single guilty person for this story and has itself taken the role of the hero.”

History, the telling of history, flawed and sensationalist accounts of this Yugoslavian history – one of the characters unfurls Mark Danner’s series of articles in the New York Review of Books (dissected in the play as simplistic and bombastic) – is the center around which Handke’s violent and sweet and troubling fantasy of a play circles.

June 9, 1999, the day of the play’s premiere, was also the day NATO representatives announced that their seventy-eight-day bombing of Yugoslavia would cease. Claus Peymann directed the play, his last production at the Burgtheater after thirteen high-profile years. In early March, in protest of ecclesiastical and government support for NATO intervention in the war, Handke had renounced his membership in the Catholic Church and had returned the ten thousand Marks awarded him in 1973 for Germany’s Büchner Prize. There had been rumors that Handke would withdraw his play in protest of the bombing and there were rumors that protestors would disturb the premiere. The play opened as scheduled, to a packed house, to a largely appreciative audience.

Most of Europe’s newspapers reviewed the play the next morning, including four in Berlin, three in Vienna, two each in Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg, and Paris’s Le Monde, which featured the review on its front page. The reviews, like recent criticism of Handke’s work, varied widely, but one German headline expressed a unanimous sentiment: “THERE WAS NO SCANDAL.”

Although Peter Handke can be blunt, as he was when he told an obtuse critic to shove his Betroffenheit / dismay up his ass in a nationally televised discussion after one of his readings of A Journey to the Rivers, the virulence of the attacks on him for his writing about Yugoslavia is still puzzling. Not until the war in Yugoslavia and Handke’s written pleas for a more complex, more self-ironic, more peaceful rhetoric did he become, in the European press, a “Serbenfreund,” a Serb lover, a pariah like the pariah people.

If one were to ask Handke if he is indeed a lover of Serbs, he would likely point out that the question is racist and then answer yes. The question that ought to be raised is whether Peter Handke is a nationalist – is he the kind of nationalist who would vilify Croats, Slovenians, Bosnians, or Kosovars, who would stir up hatred, welcome war, and condone genocide? Here, the record is clear. Peter Handke has spent a lifetime attacking the kinds of ideological absolutisms that produce nationalism, hate, and war.

It is a relief, Handke writes in Phantasien der Wiederholung, to be released from such domination: “We, after the world wars: the wonderful knowledge that we are not masters (‘You are the caretaker of a meager garden,’ Vergil).” Handke finds it morally liberating to be rid of words like “masters”; but beyond that he wants to construct new metaphors, fruitful ways of thinking – and thus, I suppose, the Vergil quotation that defines us as humble gardeners. Repeatedly Handke has attempted to unmask truth as what Nietzsche called a “mobile army of metaphors,” for awareness of truth as arbitrary construction undermines the rulers whose truth claims are enforced by violence: “The night of this century, during which I searched my face obsessively for the features of a despot or a conqueror, has ended for me.”

Voyage by Dugout works on the same levels as the previous work, attacking “truth” as assumed by various accounts (including film, newspapers, histories, and the play itself) and creating the kinds of self-conscious myths or Märchen Handke feels we need to order our productively multivalent societies. The planned film will draw dialectically on John (Ford) O’Hara’s penchant for legends and stories and little historical lies and on Luis (Buñuel) Machado’s “bull-tickling craziness.”

At the end of the play, after the appearance of the dugout, a mobile, dialectical site for a multifarious Volk (“The Balkans! Other countries have a castle or a temple as a holy site. Our sacred site is the dugout”), O’Hara and Machado decide not to make their film. O’Hara refuses on the grounds that a tragic film makes no sense. Machado says he won’t make the film because his films have always been about society, and “society no longer exists . . . it’s a single commercial and moral horde . . . people have forgotten what it means to stand up for oneself while allowing the other a place to stand.”

Not allowing the other a place to stand is the mark of a violent nationalism. In Peter Handke’s play, however, even the most despicable characters, the aggressive mountain-bike riding Internationals, the shrill and certain European-Americans who have come to judge and punish Yugoslavia, are given succor by the Greek they have attacked so viciously – “To the Second International: Are you cold? You’re shivering! (He puts his coat around her shoulders.) Who is the child there in your locket?” (99) As he has since his earliest texts, Handke here stands up for the Serbs while allowing Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovar Albanians, and even the obnoxious Internationals a place to stand.

A final incident, extraneous to the play, will further illustrate Peter Handke’s unrelentingly dialectical thinking, a two-edged gesture none of his critics to date have been able or willing to reproduce. When Günter Grass, with whom Handke has repeatedly crossed pens, spoke out publicly in favor of NATO intervention in Yugoslavia (the same intervention that led to Handke’s leaving the Catholic Church and returning his literary prize), Serbs in Belgrade announced that that they would collect Grass’s books and send them back to the German Nobel- Prize winner. Handke urged them to forego this action, to keep reading Grass’s self-critical, dialectical literary works while opposing his political statement. The action of a nationalist?

 

Postscript

6 June 1999, Vienna
In the city center, I stumble onto a Sunday-evening demonstration against NATO and for Yugoslavia. “NATO – fascistik, NATO – fascistik!” the crowd of maybe 2000 chants.

Back in my room, unable to sleep, I turn back to my translation of Peter’ s new play. I wish Žarko were here to compare notes. How did he translate “Fertigsatzpisse”? Pissing your finished, your modular sentences? Sentential piss?

At 10:30 I watch a report on Peter done for Austrian TV (ÖRF2). Peter’s crime, the reporter and his commentators agree, is that he is a “Serbenfreund,” a friend of the Serbs. Not good to be a friend of the enemy. Peter should have known better, it’s an old story: Jap lover, Kraut lover, Jew lover, Nigger lover, Serb lover.

I turn off the sentential piss and return to Peter’ s play.

9 June 1999, before midnight, Žarko birthday, Vienna

I ought to go to bed, but I’m still reeling from the events of the day. Several hours ago NATO and the Yugoslav Parliament came to some kind of agreement ending the bombing after 78 days.

And, I’m just back from the world premiere of Peter’s “The Play of the Film of the War,” directed by Claus Peymann. I’ve seldom been this moved, this challenged, by a work of art.

The really bad guys of the play, three “Internationals” who know all the answers, who dictate all the terms, who can think only in absolutes, appear on the stage as follows: “Three mountainbike riders, preceded by the sound of squealing brakes, burst through the swinging door, covered with mud clear up to their helmets. They race through the hall, between tables and chairs, perilously close to the people sitting there.” American and European moralists, functionaries with no hint of self-irony or humor, absolutists who run the world because of their economic power – these sorry excuses for human beings were depicted this evening as mountainbike riders.

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“Žarko,” I said, “Don’ t you ever tell Peter I ride a mountainbike.”

“No, my friend,” he whispered, “I’d never do that.”

The play drew on several incidents from our trip, including when Peter put his coat around the shoulders of the OSCE woman in Višegrad. After the play, flushed with enthusiasm and insight, I told Peter how well he had integrated a real event into an imaginative play. “Brilliant to put her and her friends on mountainbikes!”

“Doktor Scott,” he chided, “Doktor Scott. Always on duty.”

(From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books)

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Peter Handke’s “That beautiful ‘And so on'” — Parts III and IV

III

A Summer’s Addendum to a Wintry Journey

29 May 1998, Višegrad, Republika Srpska

Was denkt in dir? Peter asks.

What? I ask, unable to hear him over the noise of Milka and her band. What is thinking in you?
Sorrow, I answer.
For two months in 1992 there was intense fighting here. Marauding

Muslims. Marauding Serbs. And now the town is devoid of Muslims. Since we crossed the border into the Republika Srpska, I have been imagining Muslims and Serbs lying in bed those 60 nights. Worrying, as they lay there, about possible futures. About a sudden end to possible futures.

Tonight we sit at a long linen-covered table in the dining room of a large resort hotel tucked back into the forested hills above the town. Guests of the Mayor of Višegrad.

Of the 20,000 inhabitants of Višegrad, he says, 2500 are refugees. Yes, there is high unemployment. The town’ s factories have shut down. There are, of course, no tourists. The hotel is a cavernous home to men convalescing from the war .

A young man limps into the dining room with two women, one his girlfriend perhaps, or sister, the other old enough to be his mother. They take a table. They talk some. They drink a bottle of wine. They don’t speak. The young man twirls his box of cigarettes between the table and his finger.

Milka, backed by an accordion, a keyboard, and drums (was there a drummer?), is a sultry lounge singer with a Serbian repertoire, traditional sad love songs sung in a middle-eastern quaver.

The town, the mayor explains, was 2/3 Muslim before the war. In 1992 the Muslims chased the Serbs out of the city. The Serbs retook the city through the grace of the Muslim Murad Šabanović, who captured the hydroelectric dam above the city and threatened to blow it up. The Muslim population fled the threat of flooding. The Yugoslav army arrived and dislodged the crazy terrorist. And the Serbs moved back in.

A small man with a dark beard pushes past a concerned waiter to crutch his way toward our table. He breaks into the conversation and with a sweaty palm shakes each of our hands. He pulls two photographs out of a coat pocket.

The waiter signals to Milka. She skips toward our table, cordless microphone in hand, armed with a vigorous Serbian song.

The small man holds out two worn photos. The first is a glossy celebrity shot of Radovan Karadžić. The second is a snapshot of a soldier. My brother, he says, killed in the war. My brother, killed in the war. My brother.

At pointblank range, Milka belts out “O Višegrad!” The convalescing soldier puts away his photos and retreats slowly on his crutches. Milka hits three quick high notes, kicks up a shapely heel, and dances away. (From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published later as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books)

 

In A Summer’s Addendum, the third of this series of essays about Yugoslavia’s disintegration, or better said, in response to that tragic process, Handke revisits many of the people and places of his Journey to the Rivers, retelling, refiguring, revising his initial account: “that I began to reconsider my published sentences was rather a consequence of a comment by Olga.” He travels finally into the Republika Srpska, to Višegrad and Srebrenica, and ends his account with questions: “And this is supposed to be a contemporary story? Who will read it these days – a story without villains who are enemies of humanity, without a stereotypical enemy?”

As examples, then, from a story without such enemies, a story rather of images that are the antithesis of such stereotypes, Bilder for an age that has lost, or given up, or sold, or propagandized its images (see, of course, Handke’s recent novel Der Bildverlust), I shall analyze a cluster of observations in A Summer’ s Addendum from one of the most notorious sites of the civil war.

In the silver-mining city of Srebrenica, that mountain-valley site of atrocity and revenge, Handke, traveling with Bocokić, Radaković and a librarian from Bajina Bašta, finds stark scenes he, as narrator, populates with wishful and then self-negating hallucinations.

Earlier, in Višegrad, the narrator’s fantasy had been of a woman wearing a scarf and a man in a fez who were welcomed into the crowd at a real soccer match, characters whose head-coverings are reminiscent of the passersby in Skopje. Now, while describing a ruined mosque below a mostly intact orthodox church (“. . . and far below it the remains of the mosque, part of a cupola, still recognizable even though, like all the other parts of the building, it had collapsed, the last fragment of form in the otherwise totally formless debris all around”), the narrator thinks it is time for the late-afternoon call to prayer and then hears, from the wreckage, along with the sound of the mountain stream that once flowed here, just such a call. The thought, of course, that fantasized sound, cannot stand in the face of present reality: “No, and twice no, neither the call nor the stream – had it once flowed here? – still existed. . . . Nothing but the ravine-filling cracking of plastic tarpaulins.”

Later he will suggest a world map with Srebrenica as its center, but for now this narrator so often accused of ignoring the realities of a vicious war begins a new series of “ands,” beautiful only by virtue of the fact that they continue a narrative that could end, suddenly, in despair: “And thrust my hand deep into the stinging nettles near the church, into the just blossoming and thus most sharply stinging ones, and then again.” And then, quickly, a real, if spare, image of hope, conjoined to the self-destructive anger by another “and”: “And on one steep slope, up in the clear-cut, a couple of people hoeing in such narrow, often single-rowed beds, that even all together they didn’t add up to anything close to a garden. . . .”

Thinking back on Srebrenica three paragraphs before the story ends, the narrator takes a page from Patricia Nelson Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest where she notes that “In thinking about American Indian history, it has become essential to follow the policy of cautious street crossers: Remember to look both ways.” What if, the narrator asks, we think of the Serbs and Muslims in Srebrenica as Indians and settlers, “but don’t the evil Indians in the westerns also appear up on the rocky cliffs, attacking and massacring the peaceful American wagon trains – and aren’t the Indians fighting for their freedom? And ‘very last question’: Will someone, sometime, soon, who?, also discover the Serbs of Bosnia as such Indians?” The Serbs/Indians did indeed massacre peaceful settlers (residents and refugees) in Srebrenica, and they also had been provoked. Can’t we look both ways? Peter Handke asks once again. Can’t our sentences be complicated by the conjunction “and”?

IV

Questioning while Weeping

30 May 1998, Višegrad

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Photo by Thomas Deichmann

 

We drive to a construction site on a hill overlooking the Drina and its Turkish bridge. Three stories high, typical orange-brick construction. A hundred people, perhaps, work at the site. A line of women and men unload a truck, passing orange tiles from hand to hand in a long chain. On the high roof men are interlocking the tiles in undulating rows. On the highest ridge are nailed a small evergreen tree, a ragged red, blue, and white Serbian flag, and an improvised rack from which hang three bottles of brandy and three new plastic-wrapped shirts.

These are refugees from Sarajevo, the Mayor says. They have formed an organization and with a government grant of land, tools, and materials are building 158 apartments here. He introduces us to the president of the refugee group, a thin man, maybe 70 years old, bright-eyed and erect, who speaks an eager English as he shows us around.

Mr. Handke, he says, you are a writer. And I too am a writer. I write children’s books. We are colleagues. You are big and I am small. But we are colleagues.

Peter introduces Žarko and me as his translators. The president has eyes only for Peter.

We meet the young architect. She and her husband, she says, have moved into an abandoned Muslim house. Through third parties they are trying to exchange their house in Sarajevo for the one in Višegrad.

TV cameras arrive and Peter joins the chain to pass a few roof tiles for Serbian television. Then it’s time for lunch. We share cold cuts and tomatoes and plum brandy at a long table.

This is the Austrian writer Peter Handke, the President announces. He has come to visit our building. We will now hear words of wisdom from this great man. Mr. Handke, would you please honor us with words to remember on this proud occasion?

Peter stands and raises his cup of brandy. He looks at the President. He looks at the refugees along both sides of the table. He turns back to the President. He speaks words to remember: Jebi ga. Fuck it. The surprised refugees raise a boisterous cheer. Peter grins and raises his cup again. (From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books)

 

The fourth of Peter Handke’s essays on the language of this war, Questioning while

Weeping (the first half published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 5/6 June 1999) continues the Quixotic attempt to present simple images in complex sentences from a country Handke believes has been deformed, misrepresented, and caricatured by the world press and by Western press agents.

Like the earlier books, Questioning while Weeping attempts to present images (“images still exist? The loss of images is not yet absolute?”) from a Yugoslavia besieged “not only with cluster bombs and rockets but above all with ‘context’ and ‘idea.'” The first trip, while bombs are falling, is a quick one from Hungary to Belgrade and back, while the second one, also during the NATO bombardment, takes the author, Zlatko Bocokić, and Thomas Deichmann through Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia into Serbia, where they visit bombed factories and bridges and buildings, accompanied by a government spokesman.

The book’s title is drawn from an incident near the end of the second trip. An oncologist from a nearby hospital, a woman who has often traveled in the United States, joins the three travelers at their table and asks, with tears in her eyes, why her country is being bombed: “Are we really that guilty?” In a book about what Handke calls “verbal and iconic pornography,” about the loss of language (“’The first victim of war is truth’? No, it is language”), the oncologist’s calling into question and weeping, her critique and her sorrow, are gestures indicating her ability to experience conflicting impulses. But the real question for me, given the history of the reception of Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia work, given the author’s public persona, remains the question of a difficult dialectic upheld against a relentless political/cultural entropy. How will the author of the controversial Justice for Serbia, the famous writer greeted by Serbian television cameras when he arrives at the bombed Kragujevac auto assembly plant, the honored guest hosted by Yugoslavia’s minister of culture, preserve his beloved dialectic (“I am a dialectical writer”) in what now-predictable critics will call a piece of propaganda?

To loosen up his argument, Handke’s narrator employs the self-critical voice present, in one way or another, in each of his Yugoslavia texts. In Questioning while Weeping, a voice posts warnings after especially passionate passages: “Warning: Antirational Mysticism!”; “Warning: One-Sidedness!”; “Warning: Anti-American!”; “Warning: Paranoia!”; “Warning: Bellicosity and Anti-Civilization Affect!” The text thus parodies its critics and gently questions its own images.

Further, to avoid static images, the narrator presents double or triple, progressing or moving images. He describes sympathetically, for example, both the Croatian Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, at risk now in a largely Serbian town, and a Serbian Partisan, aged and poor, whose World-War-II comrades suffered under Croatian Catholic oppression. The narration moves from image to image to image by employing the familiar “and”—an “and” that connects and continues and complicates, an “and” that appears in the title of Tolstoy’s War and Peace owned by the old Partisan, and also in the Holy Trinity the author evokes during a mass: “Yes, it is true, the personage of God acts as ‘Father,’ as ‘Son,’ and as ‘Spirit.’” Hearing NATO bombers overhead one night while staying in the mountains, the narrator laments the loss of such conjunction: “In another time, this moment would have been a deeply peaceful ‘and’ of trinity: the rush of mountain streams, and the nightingales, and high above the nightly jetliners with passengers underway from Frankfurt, perhaps. . . .” Now, however, the machines of war break the peaceful pattern.

Once invoked, the “and” initiates a cascade of sentences as the narrative struggles to find images adequate to the damage done by the NATO bombers to the destroyed automobile assembly plant in Kragujevac: “And again, in Kragujevac. . . . And remarkably. . . . And in the center. . . . And ‘the 124 badly injured workers’. . . .”

Carefully, self-reflexively, the narrator expresses concern about himself as a constructed image, as a political tool for the Serbs:

. . . unexpected flashbulbs, video cameras: suddenly we are, unsuspecting till that moment, a delegacija. But why not, zašto da ne? (one of the most common enduring Yugoslavian phrases, along with nema problema): don’t wince, even as a “delegation” observe as well as possible, remember, witness! . . .

Then, as he sees the damage to the factory, especially to its tools, the narrator returns to thoughts he had in the Slovenia essay about things and reality and being (evoking a Heideggarian “the things were ready-to-hand – gingen einem zur Hand”):

“Strange too how the destruction of the tools, the workbenches, the hammers, the pliers, the vices, the measuring devices, the nails and screws (even the smallest items flattened and twisted) affected me more than that of the massive machines. It was as if, with these tools – wasn’t “tool” once an indication of becoming human? – the violent powers from

above had destroyed labor, that is, all collaboration and being (existing) for the entire

region for a long time to come.”

As Handke fights for phenomenological accuracy in his prose, he finds a loss of collaboration and being at the heart of these destroyed things.

NATO’s bombs have destroyed the tools of humanity, and by implication, the verbal bombs Handke has cited from Le Monde and the New York Review of Books have flattened and twisted the language of peace, asserting with clenched fists rather than questioning while weeping. Once again, Peter Handke ventures here into the narrative landscape of war and peace, acutely aware of his precarious position as possible propagandist, as producer of images that will tend to war or peace. Questioning while Weeping is the kind of self-reflective assertion Adorno called “determinate negativity,” and as such, in my opinion, the sentences of the essay can be trusted.

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Peter Handke’s “That Beautiful ‘And so on'” — Part Two

II

 

A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia

Translating Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia into English, I called Žarko to ask about the phrase: “Do we need a new Gavrilo Princip?” What kind of principle is this? I asked. Is it a term from business management? Gavrilo Princip, Žarko explained with a chuckle, was the young assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Later, with Žarko in his country, I struggled with a broader question: How to tell a new story about the old land of the southern Slavs (Yugo = south). After all, what do I know? A foreigner, in the country for a few days. A self-styled translator with no command of this language. I remember the translator in Ivo Andrić‘s The Bridge Over the Drina: “Then too there was that Shefko, who in his translation was obviously putting the worst possible construction on the old man’ s exalted phrases and who loved to stick his nose into everything and carry tales even when there was nothing in them, and was ever ready to give or to confirm an evil report.” (From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published in 2014 as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books])

The foreword to the American, Spanish, French, and Italian translations of Peter Handke’s Journey to the Rivers provides a glimpse into the colorful history of the essay’s reception:

“Dear foreign reader: this text, appearing on two weekends at the onset of 1996 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, caused some commotion in the European press. Immediately after publication of the first part, I was designated a terrorist in the Corriere della Sera, and Libération revealed that I was, first of all, amused that there were so few victims in the Slovenian war of 1991, and that I was exhibiting, second, “doubtful taste” in discussing the various ways of presenting this or that victim of the Yugoslavian wars in the western media. In Le Monde I was then called a “pro-Serbian advocate,” and in the Journal du Dimanche there was talk of “pro-Serbian agitation.” And so it continued until El País even read into my text a sanction of the Srebrenica massacre. – Dear French, Spanish, Italian, American reader: Now the text is translated, and I trust that you will read it as it is; I need not defend or take back a single word. I wrote about my journey through the country of Serbia exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar – of aesthetic veracity; that has always been the case in what I have written, from the beginning to the final period. Dear reader: that, and that alone, I offer here for your perusal.

Peter Handke, April 1996″
At issue are the effects of rhetoric: Peter Handke’s own, that of the journalists he attacks, that of his critics. Handke claims his work is a self-reflexive, “slow, inquiring narration” in the service of peace and accuses specific journalists and newspapers of demagogy. His critics argue that his self-deluded inattention to the war promotes nationalism. In what follows I will trace a pattern in Handke’s Journey to the Rivers that makes it, on my reading, a model of dialectical rhetoric, of narrative, non-systematic philosophy, of “that beautiful And so on” in the service of peace.

The essay, whose double title – A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia (Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien) – indicates that this will be a travel narrative and a political essay, is divided into four parts with the simple titles: “Before the Trip,” “Part One of the Trip,” “Part Two of the Trip,” and “Epilogue.” “Before the Trip” and “Epilogue” contain most of the controversial accusations about the European press and its “coverage” of the wars in Yugoslavia, while the middle two sections contain most of the actual travel narrative.

In “Before the Trip,” written, like the rest of the essay, after the trip, Handke describes his preparations. He contacted the two Serbs who would accompany him. He saw, just before leaving, Emir Kusturica’s new film Underground, and found it an engaging combination of dreaming and actual history. He was surprised, then, to see the film reviewed by Alain Finkielkraut in Le Mond as pro-Serbian and terroristic. From what he sees as Finkielkraut’s misreading (which, by the way, foreshadows how Handke’s essay will be “read”), he turns to press reports of the wars in Yugoslavia. He cites European and especially German/Austrian complicity in the disintegration of Yugoslavia – a favoring of, acceptance of, and support of the breakaway republics of Slovenia and Croatia that, in his estimation, led to the war, or better said, made it likely. The political actions, Handke argues, have their basis in a bias against Serbia that European culture has promulgated for decades (he mentions, for example, the post-empire Austrian rhyme “Serbien muss sterbien” — Serbia must die) and that newspapers like Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung have played up. After questioning the “facts” as reported, he ends the opening section by asking: “Who will someday write this history differently, and even if only the nuances — which could do much to liberate the peoples from their mutual inflexible images?”

 

The essay’s second section begins with the trip to Belgrade. Žarko Radaković and Zlatko Bocokić meet Handke there. They walk through the city, visit a market in Zemun, drive to see Bocokić’s parents, drive to a monastery with the writer Milorad Pavić and meet that night with the writer Dragan Velikić.

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Photo of the Ottoman-era bridge over the Drina River by Thomas Deichmann

The travel narrative continues in the third section with a description of gasoline vending as the three men leave Belgrade to drive to the town of Bajina Bašta on the Drina River to visit Radaković’s ex-partner and daughter. There they hear about the war, they are snowed in, they cross a bridge briefly to the other side, they listen to heroic tales sung by a guslar, and they finally leave Serbia by way of Novi Sad. Before the section ends, Handke remembers a trip to Slovenia just a month earlier which confirmed his fears that the new state had lost the multi- cultural openness it once had as part of Yugoslavia.

In the epilog, Handke recounts a morning in Bajina Bašta when he walked alone to the bus station and then to the Drina River. While standing on the shore he asked questions about what really happened at Srebrenica and returned to his attack on the media in general and on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung specifically. The epilog ends with a suicide note left by an ex- partisan who shot himself in despair as his country began its civil war.

Although this summary is generally accurate, it is simply inadequate. Like the readings by Handke’s critics, it leaves out the multiple and conflicting voices the essay manages to incorporate. For a more careful reader, Handke’s essay asserts in the context of self-doubt, recognizes its own contingency in the face of justice, finds justice in contingency and multiplicity, and models honesty in complexity of style while attacking the dishonesty of simplistic journalism.

Peter Handke has long been interested in the possibilities of dialectical thinking. In his interview with Herbert Gamper, for example, he returned several times to the subject of Nietzsche and the dialectic: “I see [Nietzsche] not as a negator, but as a dramatic custodian of something that was always there, and yet naturally also as a very fruitful destroyer of that which did not deserve to be conserved. This dialectical relationship, these two things, make Nietzsche who he is”; “One can see in [Nietzsche] a model human existence: one who does not in any sense want to establish systems, who does not want to interpret the world according to a system. The fragmentary, halting style of writing and the few wonderfully painful poems . . . allow the reading of his works to be a joyful slow studying.” These statements about the purposefully paradoxical philosopher who argued for contingency and a will-to-power make explicit Handke’s sense for dialectic as an interplay between despair and hope, conservation and destruction, and as furthered by an anti-systematic, fragmentary, positive creation of meaning through language: “The law of art: glorification, but dialectical glorification (it is not the Golden Age, but rather the Dialectical Age)”; “Didactic, argumentative philosophy will always be foreign to me, as opposed to narrative philosophy.”

 

A recent attempt by an American philosopher to read Nietzsche as thinking after, even if still in the language of metaphysics, provides a helpful context for reading Handke as dialectician in A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia. In The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, Charles Scott looks at what he calls Nietzsche’s self- overcoming, an open process occasioned by questions about the values that structure his own discourse as well as the discourses of traditional morals: “In the discussion of the play of will to power and eternal return in Nietzsche’s writing — a play of metaphysical assertion, antimetaphysical assertion, and nonmetaphysical recoil in the process — we discern not only the conflictual directions that are methodically maintained, but also a middle-voiced recoiling function.” The middle voice, thinkable neither in the active nor the passive voices, is where, on Scott’s reading of Nietzsche, self-overcoming in metaphysics takes place: “It is the voice of differing, moving of itself, without the thought of transcendence.” Scott’s argument is complicated and fascinating and deserves further explication; but I sketch the gesture of his thought here as an example of what I think Handke means when he speaks of dialectical thinking. It is thought within polarities (like the metaphysical / antimetaphysical assertions Scott mentions) that nevertheless recoils at its own dualistic structure. It is a momentary break in the structure that allows difference and motion and play to reveal metaphysical thought’s repression of the always present play of conflictual forces. It is self-overcoming thought, as Scott writes, that calls into question the presumptive authority of its organizing ideas to make room not for its own truth but for other truths.

 

Handke’s essays on Yugoslavia are part of a series that includes the essays on tiredness, on the jukebox, and on the successful day. With these essays, Handke practices a literary form with a long history, a form whose peculiarities have been well described by Theodor Adorno in “The Essay as Form.” In the context of his ongoing attack on the dogmatic identity thinking of post-Enlightenment scientific thought, Adorno suggests the following ideas I see as pertinent to the form of Handke’s work: “[The essay, as a form] rebels against the doctrine, deeply rooted since Plato, that what is transient and ephemeral is unworthy of philosophy . . .”; “The customary objection that the essay is fragmentary and contingent itself postulates that totality is given, and with it the identity of subject and object, and acts as though one were in possession of the whole. . . . [The essay’s] weakness bears witness to the very nonidentity it had to express”; “This kind of learning remains vulnerable to error, as does the essay as form; it has to pay for its affinity with open intellectual experience with a lack of security that the norm of established thought fears like death”; “The daring, anticipatory, and not fully redeemed aspect of every essayistic detail attracts other such details as its negation; the untruth in which the essay knowingly entangles itself is the element in which its truth resides”.

These fragments of Adorno’s essay read like descriptions of the formal experiments of Handke’s essays. We don’t, however, have to rely exclusively on Adorno or Scott for theory, for Handke’s essays are themselves self-reflexive essays on the essay. In the “Essay on the Successful Day,” for example, the narrator’s confident but botched description of Van Morrison’s “Coney Island” immediately follows an impatient request by the narrator’s interlocutor for a direct, certain description of an achieved day (in contrast to the indirect and halting nature of the essay up to that point):

 

“But with all your digressions, complications, and tergiversations, your way of breaking off every time you gain a bit of momentum, what becomes of your Line of Beauty and Grace, which, as you’ve hinted, stands for a successful day and, as you went on to assure us, would introduce your essay on the subject. When will you abandon your irresolute peripheral zigzags, your timorous attempt to define a concept that seems to be growing emptier than ever, and at last, with the help of coherent sentences, make the light, sharp incision that will carry us through the present muddle in medias res, in the hope that this obscure ‘successful day’ of yours may take on clarity and universal form.”

In response, the narrator suggests a double form that includes the form the interlocutor has rejected: “Isn’t it typical of people like us that this sort of song keeps breaking off, lapsing into stuttering, babbling, and silence, starting up again, going off on a sidetrack – yet in the end, as throughout, aiming at unity and wholeness? It is exactly this double form, this ongoing dialectic that aims at wholeness through fragments, that Handke’s detractors, along with most of his defenders, have missed.

While A Journey to the Rivers ends with a suicide note, the first part of the final paragraph is crucial. During the trip through Serbia, Handke writes, he noted only two things in his notebook: “‘Jebi ga!’, Fuck it, common curse” – and the section of the suicide’s farewell letter. These are the poles between which the entire essay moves: obscene aggression and fatal resignation. There are moments of both along the way, especially in the first and last sections of the essay; but for the most part, especially in the travel narrative, Handke describes what he calls, citing Hermann Lenz and Edmund Husserl, “third things,” things colored by the bi-polar aggressions and despairs of war, but also somehow independent from them, third things not unrelated to the “middle-voiced recoiling functions” Scott sees in Nietzsche’s thought. Because he fears he will be misread, Handke raises red flags for readers used to undialectical dualisms, for readers with appetites for shocking images rather than for quiet and peripheral “third things”: “And whoever is now thinking: ‘Aha, pro-Serbian!’ or ‘Aha, Yugophile,’ . . . need read no further”; “And whoever understands that not as retching, but as indifference, likewise need read no further”. Handke requires similar discipline of himself in his writing. Early in the essay, for example, a critical voice breaks in to ask: “What, are you trying to help minimize the Serbian crimes in Bosnia, in the Krajina, in Slavonia, by means of a media-critique that sidesteps the basic facts?” Handke, the narrator Handke, answers: “Steady. Patience. Justice. The problem – only mine? – is more complicated, complicated by several levels or stages of reality: and I am aiming, in my desire to clarify it, at something thoroughly real through which something like a meaningful whole can be surmised in all the mixed-up kinds of reality.” Near the essay’s end, S., Handke’s wife asks: “‘You aren’t going to question the massacre at Srebrenica too, are you?’” to which he answers: “‘No . . . But I want to ask how such a massacre is to be explained, carried out, it seems, under the eyes of a world-wide public.’” “Note well:” he writes, “this is absolutely not a case of ‘I accuse.’ I feel compelled only to justice. Or perhaps even only to questioning, to raising doubts.”

 

In the face of this self-critique, what does it mean when critics claim that Handke is denying the massacre at Srebrenica? It means, I think, that they are reading unfairly, taking statements out of their dialectic context. Alternately, perhaps, they mistrust his complicated sense for justice, they suppose his questions and denials are simply camouflage for an unbridled polemic, they feel that while claiming the opposite, Handke’s images are as inflexible as their own, that his history is as rigid as theirs.

It is possible, of course, that they are right. But when compared with the one-sided rhetoric of his critics, Handke’s text feels to me like a model of dialectic reasoning. Of the many examples I could give, one will have to suffice. Note the almost excruciating care Handke takes here to demonstrate his command of multiple sides of the issue, as well as his moral commitment to a justice that embraces both:

“Later, from the spring of 1992 on, when the first photographs, soon photo sequences or serial photos, were shown from the Bosnian war, there was a part of myself (repeatedly standing for “my whole”), which felt that the armed Bosnian Serbs, whether the army or individual killers, especially those on the hills and mountains around Sarajevo, were “enemies of humanity,” to slightly vary Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s phrase in reference to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. . . .

And in spite of that, almost coincidentally with the impotent impulses to violence of someone visually involved from afar, another part of me (that in fact never stood for my whole), did not want to trust this war and this war reporting. Didn’t want to? No, couldn’t. Because, namely, the roles of attacker and attacked, of the pure victims and the naked scoundrels, were all-too-rapidly determined and set down for the so-called world public.”

Of the two parts of himself, only the one shocked at Serb aggressions stands for all of him. There is no question, then, of absolving the Serbs of responsibility for their violence. And still, justice, in this situation, is broader than that initial and final response. It requires that other questions be asked as well.

What could be more reasonable? And what could be more conducive to peace? Why can’t journalists covering the wars in Yugoslavia, Handke asks, read and tell a more complicated story? “And with this kind of maturity, I thought, the son of a German, pull out of this history that repeats every century, out of this disastrous chain, pull out into another story.” Let others write the factual story of these wars, Handke writes: “Nothing against those – more than uncovering – discovering reporters on the scene (or better yet: involved in the scene and with the people there), praise for these other researchers in the field!”; “To record the evil facts, that’s good.” He, however, the son of a German and thus heir to a propensity for Wagnerian

totality, wants to write another story, an additional story.

The “and” that connects the paragraphs on the two parts of himself cited above and the proliferation of initial “ands” in sentences and paragraphs as the essay comes to a close, work formally to create the continuing motion of a dialectic. While this is not a new device for Handke (he employs it with similar intent in Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht, and Repetition ends with the admonition to the storyteller: “. . . take a deep breath, and start all over again with your all- appeasing ‘And then . . .’”), it is a crucial move in this essay that risks the untruths of obscene defiance and suicidal despair, that asserts that the “transient and ephemeral” are worthy of description during a war, that relies on density of texture in place of infallible argument for its truths. “The untruth[s] in which the essay knowingly entangles itself,” turning on the axis of the coordinating conjunction, are more truthful finally than the non-dialectical assertions with which politicians and journalists and pundits assail Serbs and the writer who asks the questions justice requires.

 

I’ll end my account of A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia with the essay’s final questions and assertions. Is this the writing of a benighted advocate of Blut und Boden, or of an essayist whose courageous play of ideas lays him open to error and to truth as well?

“But isn’t it, finally, irresponsible, I thought there at the Drina and continue to think it here, to offer the small sufferings in Serbia, the bit of freezing there, the bit of loneliness, the trivialities like snow flakes, caps, cream cheese, while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihać, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing? Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn’t obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden — which made the writing journey adventurous in a different way, dangerous, often very depressing (believe me), and I learned what “between Scylla and Charybdis” means. Didn’t the one who described the small deprivations (gaps between teeth) help to water down, to suppress, to conceal the great ones?

Finally, to be sure, I thought each time: but that’s not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.

So, now it’s time for the poetic? Yes, if it is understood as exactly the opposite of the nebulous. Or say, rather than “the poetic”: that which binds, that encompasses — the impulse to a common remembering, as the possibility for reconciliation of individuals, for the second, the common childhood.”

The common in the context of the uncommon. The binding, encompassing dialectical poetic in the context of undermining nationalisms and war. “That beautiful And so on.”

[See the rest of the essay, complete with references, HERE, or watch for part III in the next post. The essay was originally published in The Works of Peter Handke, ed. David Coury (2007)]

 

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Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia Work

“That beautiful And so on”: Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia Work

In his 1991 plea for Slovenia to remain part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Peter Handke noted that he was born in a village in Austria’s Carinthia: “At that time, in the Second World War, the majority, no, the whole of the people was Austrian-Slovenian and communicated in the appropriate dialect. In her youth, my mother saw herself as being from that people, influenced above all by her oldest brother who was studying fruit growing on the other side of the border in Yugoslavian-Slovenian Maribor . . . but my father was a German soldier, and German became my language. . . .”

During the wars in Yugoslavia, I translated Peter Handke’s Eine winterliche Reise (1996) into what became A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (Viking, 1997). In 1998, I drove and hiked along the Drina River in central Yugoslavia with Handke, his Serbo- Croatian translator Žarko Radakovic ́, his Salzburg friend Zlatko Bokokic, and Thomas Deichmann, editor of Novo magazine, looking for signs of recovery after the war in Bosnia, struggling to comprehend those signs, to translate them into a language with which I could make sense of what I saw. Writing about “Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia Work” feels like a related attempt at understanding, at making sense of a world not my own. But while a translation and a journey have clear, determined beginnings (the first sentence of Eine winterliche Reise and the moment when Peter and Zlatko arrived in Zlatko’s little red Puegeot at the bus station in Sabac), where to begin this essay?

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Photo by Thomas Deichmann

Handke’s works have long referenced and/or reflected the Balkans and its reality. The Hornets / Die Hornissen (1966), Handke’s first novel, was written by a very young man on the Yugoslav island of Krk. Twenty years later, a young Austrian wanders through Slovenia in search of his lost brother in the novel Repetition (Die Wiederholung, 1986). In the following decade, Handke’s short prose pieces complied in Once Again For Thucydides / Noch einmal für Thukydides (written from 1987-1990) include several set in what was then already becoming the former Yugoslavia. One of these stories, originally published as “Once Again For Yugoslavia” / “Noch einmal für Yugoslavien” can perhaps best serve to introduce an essay about Peter Handke’s insistent and consistent argument for a Yugoslav state shared by diverse peoples, a state free of the destructive influence of U.S. and French and German and Vatican powerbrokers, free of war between Serbian and Croatian and Bosnian nationalists, a state fostered by complex and searching and self-questioning rhetoric, an impossible and beautiful state (of mind?)

Head Coverings in Skopje

A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as, for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said good-by to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). . . . A beauty in glasses walked past with a pale violet Borsalino hat and sauntered around the corner, followed by a very small woman with a towering cable-knit hat she had knitted herself, followed by an infant with a sombrero on its still open fontanel, carried by a girl with an oversized beret made in Hong Kong. A boy with a shawl around his neck and ears. An older boy with skier’s earmuffs, logo TRICOT. And so on. That beautiful And so on. That beautiful And so on.

“That beautiful And so on,” as it continues in Abschied des Träumers vom neunten Land. Eine Wirklichkeit die vergangen ist: Erinnerung an Slovenien (Departure of the Dreamer from the Ninth Land. A Reality that has Passed: Memory of Slovenia, 1991), in Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Save, Morawa, und Drina oder Gerechtichkeit für Serbien (A Journey to the Rivers or Justice for Serbia, 1996), in Sommerlicher Nachtrag zu einer winterlichen Reise (A Summer Addendum to a Wintry Journey, 1996), in Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder das Spiel zum Film vom Krieg (Voyage by Dugout or the Play of the Film of the War, 1999), and in Unter Tränen fragend (Questioning While Weeping, 2000), “that beautiful And so on” continued and revisited in Zarko Radaković’s and my responses to Handke’s conjunction-rich prose (our Repetitions and Translation), “that beautiful And so on” will guide the course of this essay.

Departure of the Dreamer from the Ninth Land

14 May, 1989. I sit on a balcony of the Gostilna Rozić, a pension in Bohinj, Slovenia, and watch the white-tailed swallows wheel around me. We are surrounded by mountains, but thick clouds and intermittent rain veil them completely this morning.

In Repetition, Filip Kobal rides a train through a tunnel between Villach, Austria and Jesenića, Yugoslavia, out of the political and cultural terrors of Europe into the fabled “Ninth Land” of Slovenia. We couldn’t exactly duplicate Kobal’s fictional trip in our rented Opel Kadett, but we counted it close enough to drive through a parallel tunnel.

Somehow we missed the tunnel and found ourselves driving along a lake shore. We turned back, then back again, sure of where we were because of correspondences between countryside and map, then suddenly, inexplicably, repeatedly lost. The tunnel was carefully marked on the map, as was the Autobahn leading to it; and the name “Karawanken Tunnel” stood in tiny red letters next to the marks that meant “mountains.” We could see the actual mountains. We could see the lake. We could drive through the streets of neighboring St. Jakob. But the map’ s promised 7.6-kilometer tunnel (“toll required”) was simply not there.

Finally Žarko asked an Austrian policeman for directions to the Karawanken Tunnel. The officer smiled so broadly that his thin moustache quivered. No such place, he said, not until the Yugoslavs finish their half. The map had brought us, anticipating the 1991 completion of the tunnel, to a place that did not yet exist. Thus was our desire to enter Yugoslavia deferred. (From Abbott and Radaković, Ponavljane/ Repetitions: Travels in a Novel(ist)’s Landscape)

In Strangers to Ourselves, Julia Kristeva writes that foreigners, who by definition have left the structures of origin behind, are in a position to create new forms of living. The risks of otherness allow for a sloughing off of inhibiting language and culture, of limiting familial and societal restrictions. The resulting openness makes possible adventures in politics, philosophy, sex, art, religion, and so on. The new structures, however, threaten to disturb the social order and engender fear in citizens native to a country or region.3 In reaction, natives force the foreigners to conform to new standards or to endure violence directed at the potential destroyers of values. If becoming a foreigner is so problematic, and if staying home is petrifying, what are possible alternatives? Or, to put the question in a way that hints at an answer: How can one survey the world differently and remain at home?

 

In response to the Slovenian declaration of independence (the first of Yugoslavia’s republics to do so), anticipating the subsequent disintegration of Yugoslavia, Peter Handke published an essay in the Süddeutsche Zeitung the last weekend of July, 1991 in which he argues against Slovenian independence with ideas about the Slovene people (Volk) that outraged many Slovenians.

Handke had earlier raised the question of belonging to a Volk in his tetralogy Langsame Heimkehr (Slow Return Home 1979). The narrator of the third volume, Kindergeschichte (Child Story 1981), choosing to raise a daughter in Paris, away from the German-speaking Volk that a few years earlier had made the word Volk as problematic as the word Führer, enrolls his daughter in a Jewish school. The Jews, he writes, are the only Volk to which he has ever wanted to belong. They qualify, the narrator explains, because they have remained a Volk without a national center. A similar dual quality – of being a Volk yet having no nation – has made Slovenia, Handke writes in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a place like none other in the world. There is no country “where I as a foreigner felt so at home as in the country of Slovenia.” To feel at home as a foreigner. And why did Slovenia qualify?

Handke’s first answer is an odd one in a political discussion. In Slovenia, he writes, things like a bridge or an orchard used to seem more real than elsewhere. What these Slovenian things had in common, he argues, is a “certain hearty insignificance” (“eine gewisse herzhafte Unscheinbarkeit . . . eine Allerwelthaftigkeit”). And what created this “hearty insignificance” that made things more present than usual? Handke argues that it was the appearance of standing outside history. Because Slovenia was part of the larger nation of Yugoslavia, as Slovenia it was absent from history. But because it was Slovenia, because Croatia was Croatia, and the same for Montenegro and Serbia and the other states making up Yugoslavia, the country as a whole had a balanced unity productively different from the destructive nationalism Handke saw in his own nation of Austria. In response to earlier discussions by Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and others about a “central Europe” in which the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, and similar countries would join in some sort of “natural” loose grouping that would split Yugoslavia into southern Balkan and northern European nations, Handke worries in this essay that that would drag Slovenia into history and put the quiet, unseemly things and people of the country into a political context that dissolves productive presence into absence and jolts productive absence into destructive presence.

 

To put it in another way, language enables us to recognize things we might not otherwise see. It can open or expand our horizons. A second language continues that opening. But as a language names and defines it also sets limits and closes off possibilities, becoming what Nietzsche called the “prison house of language.” Nationalism of the kind Handke decries here is fostered by language that tends toward an exclusive, limiting worldview in which the things and people in that nation grow more alike and less different and the things outside national boundaries grow more different and less alike. In the process, the other is sacrificed for the same. Even material things like church towers become nationalized, and the Catholic towers of Slovenia no longer share a landscape with southern minarets.

Handke understands the political reality of the Serbian domination of this historically disparate set of countries, and still he argues against dissolving the federation. With all its problems, the multiethnic state has produced people who know how to live as foreigners in their own country. Handke could give many examples – the blind Slovenian photographer Evgan Bavcar, or the Croatian painter Julija Knifer whose “meanders” wander over gallery and museum walls in Paris and Cologne; but a Serb, someone from the dominant group, is his best example. And that, he contends as this essay continues, is “my dear comrade and translator Žarko Radakovic.” Intellectuals like Radakovic, Handke writes, are indistinguishable from intellectuals in international cities like Paris or New York, cities whose diversity allows foreigners to feel at home and natives to be foreigners. If I mention a hike I took, Handke writes, Radakovic “will immediately serve up his new greater and lesser Serbian theory ‘On Hiking along Rivers’ and will soon prepare an international anthology – contributions from George Steiner, Jean Baudrillard, Reinhold Messner.” Greater and lesser Serbia – the ironic phrase models “that beautiful And so on,” that ability to move back and forth in an ongoing dialectic, a dialectic most possible, most probable, Handke argues in this essay about the looming disintegration of Yugoslavia, in a multiethnic state.

 

According to Kristeva, we will never be able to live at peace with the strangers around us if we are unable to recognize and tolerate the otherness in ourselves. In Kristeva’s world it is Freud who awakens us to ourselves as strangers. For Handke it used to be Slovenia as a Yugoslavian state that encouraged foreigners to live as natives and natives as foreigners. After Slovenia’s independence, that political space disappears.

Handke told André Müller that the only thing he had actually achieved in his life that has made him proud is “to have avoided a worldview.” And speaking with Žarko Radakovic, he described his writing as an attempt “to make the world appear in its richness and in its peace. . . . Nothing else.” This attempt to describe (and thus create) a rich and peaceful world, to find adequate, alternative, and peaceable ways to represent a country distorted by the rhetoric of statesmen and journalists, is a constant in the texts that follow Departure of the Dreamer.

[See the rest of the essay HERE, or watch for part II in the next post. The essay was originally published in The Works of Peter Handke, ed. David Coury (2007)]

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External Expert for the Nobel Prize Committee Discusses the Choice of Peter Handke

Henrik Petersen wrote yesterday in the German magazine Der Spiegel about the decision to award the Nobel Prize. I’ll link to the piece HERE. Because Petersen writes in German, here some especially interesting passages in my translation:

Is Handke’s confrontation with the fascist Germany of his parents’ generation in books like Slow Return HomeThe Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Across, and Repetition ‘political’? Many would answer this question affirmatively. Themes like memory, conscience, sorrow, and anger are dealt with, and in fact by a writer who is not only a German speaking Austrian but also a member of a family that belongs to a Slovenian minority in Austria. . . .

From his beginnings as a writer Handke has spoken out unequivocally for peace and against war, and he has maintained a fundamentally anti-nationalist stance. . . .

In contrast to many who have spoken about Handke in recent days, I will turn to his texts to seek answers and in doing so will disclose the anti-fascist position that runs through his entire oeuvre. . . . The author deals self-critically with the idea that inherited ideologies are occupy his language and his worldview. . . .

Regarding the Balkan question, Handke performed a kind of kamikase maneuver, evidently knowing full well the risks. His driving theme was that in the German and Austrian reports of the wars in Yugoslavia the Serbian side was ignored. The ways Handke articulated his critique were precarious, awkward, and led at times to absurd comparisons. These texts are problematical in various respects and can only be cited with qualification, for all statements are closely intertwined with arguments that Handke hopes will be understood as a whole. . . .

[I’ll note here that Handke has called himself a dialectical writer, meaning that a statement/thesis is often followed by an antithesis that leads to a third thought or synthesis. At editor at Viking noted that my translation of A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia had many sentences that began with the word “And” and asked me to rephrase. I explained the dialectical nature of the work and the necessity of “and” rather than “or” and so the book appeared as a dialectical exploration rather than a one-sided diatribe. That complicated form is difficult, however, for uncritical or lazy readers, and a boon for enemies.]

In 2007 Handke won a lawsuit against the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur that, after his attendance at the funeral of Slobodan Milosevic, had claimed the act showed his approval of a genocide. This failed, however, to keep the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter from publishing an article a few days ago in which the Danish writer Carsten Jensen describes Handke as “a public advocate for genocide and cleansing.” Jensen also boasts that he has never read one of Handke’s books.

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Photo by G. Cvorovic. From an interview with Handke after the Nobel Prize announcement, available HERE.

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My Translation of Peter Handke’s Justice for Serbia

I’ll admit from that start that my books have never sold well. Lyn and I just received our annual royalty checks from Texas A&M University Press for our book about the meanings of barbed wire: The Perfect Fence. $36 each. Sam and I still haven’t paid off the $500 advance we got from Torrey House Press for our Wild Rides & Wildflowers (we’re helping them, we claim, keep their status as a non-profit). Zarko’s and my books, Repetitions and Vampires & A Perfect Dictionary haven’t earned a penny (we are fully committed to the open source mission of punctum books). And so on.

But now Peter Handke has won the Nobel Prize and the flood of protests regarding his statements about the former Yugoslavia have raised the selling price of my translation for Viking: A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. By how much?

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This means, I think, that people want to read it before commenting on it. Which is always a good idea.

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More on Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize

A response to Aleksandar Hemon’s opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times:

Aleksandar Hemon’s explosive denunciation of Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize saddens me. I traveled with Handke in Serbia and Bosnia and witnessed sites of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica, Višegrad, and Goražde. I translated Handke’s thoughtful A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia.

Hemon’s accusations of genocide denial and “unabated” support for “the butcher of the Balkans” and of “immoral delusions” have no basis in Handke’s written work, yet Hemon writes with heated certainty that Handke’s work “should dissolve like a body in acid. . . .”

I prefer Handke’s self-critique in A Journey to the Rivers: “But isn’t it, finally, irresponsible . . . to offer the small sufferings in Serbia . . . while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihać. . . . Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn’t obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden. . . .” What kind of writing, Handke asks himself, will “liberate the peoples from their mutual inflexible images?” “[T]hat which binds,” he answers, “that encompasses—the impulse to a common remembering.” And, I answer, the work of Peter Handke.

 

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Translating and Traveling with a Genocide Denier

I have and I did and he wasn’t/isn’t.

Essay developing………

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Peter Handke: That Beautiful “And So On”

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Peter Handke grew up in Griffen, Austria, a linguistically mixed community whose Catholic church featured stations of the cross with captions in Slovenian. His mother spoke both Slovenian and German. Handke has translated books of poetry by Gustav Janus and a novel by Florjan Lipus’ from the Slovenian. Other translations from French, Greek (Euripedes’ Helena), and English (Shakespeare and Walker Percy) are testaments to Handke’s cosmopolitan curiosity.

Multicultural Yugoslavia drew Handke early to its mix of languages and cultures and his work has often reflected Yugoslav connections. The novel Repetition, for instance, features a young character who crosses the border in search of traces of his brother, who fled Austria to avoid conscription in the German army during WWII. (Zarko Radakovic and I followed traces of this young protagonist from Austria through Slovenia in our own book Repetitions — punctum books.) When Yugoslavia began to break apart in response to nationalist provocations by Milosevic (Serbia), Tudjman (Croatia), and Izetbegovic (Bosnia/Herzegovina), it broke Handke’s heart.

Handke’s book of travel essays, Once Again for Thucydides, includes several scenes in Yugoslavia, including this one in Skopje that beautifully illustrates the author’s love of interwoven and interdependent cultures (my translation, published by Conjunctions).

Head Coverings in Skopje

A possible minor epic: of the various head coverings of the passersby in large cities, as, for example, in Skopje in Macedonia/Yugoslavia on December 10, 1987. There were even, right in the metropolis, those “Passe-Montagne” or mountain-climbing caps, covering the nose below and the forehead above and leaving only the eyes uncovered, and among them the bicycle-cart drivers with black little Moslem caps glued to their skulls, while next to them at the edge of the street an old man said goodby to his daughter or niece from Titograd/Montenegro or Vipava/Slovenia, multiple steep gables in his hood, an Islamic window and capital ornament (his daughter or niece cried). It was snowing in southernmost Yugoslavia and thawing at the same time. And then a man passed by with a white, crocheted forage cap shot through with oriental patterns under the dripping snow, followed by a blond girl with a thick bright stocking cap (topped by a tassel), followed immediately by a bespectacled man with a beret, a dark blue stem on top, followed by the beret of a long-legged soldier and by a pair of peaked police caps with concave surfaces. A man walked past then with a fur cap, earlaps turned up, in the midst of swarms of women wearing black cloths over their heads. After that a man with a checked fez — slung over his ear, in magpie black and white, Parzival’s half-brother, piebald Feirefiz. His companion carried a leather-and-fur cap, and after them came a child with a black-and-white ear band. The child was followed by a man with a salt-and-pepper hat, a black-market magnate suavely making his way along the Macedonian bazaar street in the slushy snow. The troop of soldiers then, with the Tito-star on the prows of their caps. After them a man with a brown-wool Tyrolean hat, front brim turned down, the back brim turned straight up, a silver badge on the side. A little girl hopping by with a bright deerskin hood, lined. A man with a whitish-gray shepherd’s hat wound by a red band. A fat woman with a linen-white cook’s scarf, fringed in the back. A young man with a multi-layered leather cap, each layer a different color. A man pushed a cart and had a plastic cap over his ears, his chin wrapped in a Palestinian scarf. One man walked along then with a rose-patterned cap, and gradually even the bareheaded passersby seemed to be equipped with head coverings — hair itself a covering. Child, carried, with a night cap, intersected by woman with slanted, broadly sweeping movie hat: there was no keeping up with the variety. A beauty in glasses walked past with a pale violet Borsalino hat and sauntered around the corner, followed by a very small woman with a towering cable-knit hat she had knitted herself, followed by an infant with a sombrero on its still open fontanel, carried by a girl with an oversized beret made in Hongkong. A boy with a shawl around his neck and ears. An older boy with skier’s earmuffs, logo TRICOT. And so on.  That beautiful And so on. That beautiful And so on.

 

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Zarko Radakovic Reacts to the Nobel Prize Award

This morning Belgrade’s Politika published Zarko’s first thoughts about the prize awarded to his friend Peter Handke. Here a modified Google-Translate version of the piece:

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Photo by Corinne Belz

Did I suspect that this time Peter Handke would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature? I probably did. Because why would I come in for lunch at noon in the southern part of Cologne that day, knowing that there was a television set on the wall that had been broadcasting current news for years, “like on a conveyor belt”.

As I waited for the ordered food, I stared at the screen and the latest news from the war in Syria; I also saw the latest cultural news from the corner of my eye: “The 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Peter Handke.” At first, I almost didn’t react. The excitement began only after the food arrived; noodles were falling out of my mouth, my hands were shaking all at once; I didn’t feel hungry anymore.

And just as I was about to interrupt my lunch, I saw the first message on the phone display: Paul Ingendaj, Literary Editor of the FAZ daily, a friend, wrote to me briefly: “Great decision by the Nobel Committee in Stockholm; congratulations to Handke, but also to you. ”

And I became aware of what was happening: it was not a dream. Yes, I reached for the phone, and immediately called Handke; but could not be reached at that moment. Instead of Peter, another friend came forward: Norbert Wehr, the publisher of probably the most reputable German journal for world literature Das Schreibheft, for which only a few years ago Peter Handke and I put together a topic on Serbian literature. Congratulations again to Peter, but also to me, and I returned the compliment, because both Norbert and I have done much in defense of Handke’s writings against the threatening political and ideological discourse.

In the wake of all the wide-spread controversy over the role of writers in the production and confirmation of historical facts, there was an increased need for a defense of literature and art. Knowing that “times for poetry are bleak”, as they are for the reception of art at the worst of times, Peter Handke most consistently stayed at his business, writing and translating the most valuable literature of his era.

Is it possible that the age for “clean things” has finally come, I asked Norbert in an interview (which, of course, also had to do with the terrorist’s last assassination at the Hale synagogue). I will not continue to dine. China’s favorite soup will go unnoticed. I’ll pay, get out, and try to call Handke again on the move. After several unsuccessful attempts, on the way home, I decided to send at least a short message to a writer whom I have been translating and writing about for four decades. And I wrote on the move: “I feel happy, but also exhausted, as after a difficult and protracted battle in which literature won.”

It is truly impossible not to remember today all the trouble that writer Peter Handke has experienced in trying to combat the dirty political discourse involved in the arts. By no means do I claim that art is a world “neither in heaven nor on earth”. But no writer, especially this one, can ever, nor should ever be a functionary in a particular ideological, political, or economic system. A great writer is always a resistance to a general, established, and especially unverified opinion.

Peter Handke is – undoubtedly, despite all his involvement in the evaluation of his artistic oeuvre, and independent of his own repertoire in his literary work – undoubtedly one of the greatest writers of today. To say, however, even today, after the Nobel Committee’s decision, that he was “a great writer but a bad politician”,  seems like a futile attempt to shift the focus to a field that has nothing to do with the writing business.

These were the words of some critics who, on the day of the award, gave this writer an attempt to address his value and even the jury’s decision. Because Peter Handke has long since deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature (just as Tolstoy, Ibsen, Strindberg, Proust, V. Wolff, Joyce, Kafka, Borges, Nabokov and many others deserved it).

And then came the burst of calls from friends from all sides, those who knew well about my obsessions with my heroes, including Peter Handke. My walk home was interrupted by shorter or longer calls: Branko Cegec, Nenad Jovanovic, Miroslav Kirin, Marjan Cakarevic, Sanja Nikolic, Branko Novakovic, Zermial Civikov. Perhaps the favorite words were from a translator of some of Handke’s books and my co-author, American Scott Abbott.

And again several unsuccessful attempts to summon the writer. In the evening, I heard on the news that in the middle of a meeting with reporters, he went outside and wandered around the forest in the suburbs for a long, four hours. The same trajectories described in all his books, in the book The Afternoon of the Writer, for example, in the books My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, Image Loss, The Moravian Night, The Great Fall and, of course, The Fruit Thief. It was not only the author’s consistent distancing from all noise but also measures to protect the literary world, a condition for the continuation of “pure creation”, and for the salvation of the following reading. For Peter Handke, I am sure that even this award will not interfere with his magnificent work. Two new books have already been announced.

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