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?


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)]

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at
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4 Responses to Peter Handke’s Yugoslavia Work

  1. a friend directed me here (and i’m glad he did). he and i are trying to make sense, via Handke’s writing, of his political statements regarding Yugoslavia and his outright support of Milosevic – trying to delve beyond the post-Nobel anti-Handke rhetoric. what i gather from the post is that Slovenia, and Yugoslavia as a whole, represented a place where Handke could test and expand on his ideas (and ideals). fair to say? whether or not that’s entirely accurate, how did a person ‘without a worldview’ end up going as far as he did?


    • Scott Abbott says:

      last thought first: I think what he meant by that is a dominating worldview, the worldview of a German during the Third Reich, for instance, or the worldviews driving the three nationalist leaders (Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic) who lead their countries into the vicious civil war, or something like that. and your first thought: yes, that was a multicultural republic (with its own problems, to be sure) that connected Belgrade and Zagreb, for instance, with The Highway of Brotherhood and Unity.


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