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.