Peter Handke’s “That beautiful ‘And so on'” — Part 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(From Radaković and Abbott, “Translation,” unpublished manuscript [published as Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, punctum books)


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?



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’s 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.


“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)

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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