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.

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 http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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