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Romantic Teuton:
Slobodan Milosevic's Favorite Novelist Goes Postmodern

by Michael McDonald

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos
by Peter Handke; Krishna Winston, trans.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 480 pp., $30

If you've been tapping your foot impatiently for the next "great" postmodernist novel—hierarchies being bad, the quote marks are de rigueur—brace yourself: The wait is over! The book is Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, the author is the Austrian writer Peter Handke, and midwife to the enterprise is Krishna Winston, who translated the novel, which appeared in German in 2002 as Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos.

Bildverlust, as Mark Twain noted in his famous essay "The Awful German Language," is one of those "compound words constructed by the [German] writer on the spot and not to be found in any dictionary." It means something like "image-loss." It's a concept central to Handke's concerns here, but a word guaranteed to leave the prospective book buyer nonplussed. Hence, one assumes, its elimination from the English title.

Readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD may be familiar with Handke from his public engagements during and following the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Throughout the 1990s, Handke added his voice to those on the hard left who maintained that Europe and America had contrived the"so-called humanitarian intervention" in the Balkans for the benefit of Western bankers.

"Everybody says Sept. 11 is a magic date," Handke has declared:

And I say: And what happened on March 24? Ah!Nobody knows that on March 24, 1999, in the middle of Europe, an independent, sovereign State was attacked by awful bombs without any law, where such and such number of people—let's not quibble over numbers—civilians, children died for nothing and nothing. What happened on March 24, 1999? That should be written in neon letters above Europe. Every evening…What happened? These shifty Europeans who today want nothing but money and disco and video and Internet, they should learn: What happened on March 24,1999? What happened? A line was crossed that has thrown the world into the negative.

Handke damned the NATO bombing campaign to end Serbian ethnic cleansing, damned the trials of Serbian war criminals in the Hague, and damned what he termed the "Fourth Reich" of Western journalists who reported on such things as Serbian ethnic cleansing and Serbian war criminals. Praise he reserved for Slobodan Milosevic—"a man who defended his people"—at whose funeral Handke spoke in 2006.

But the considerable reputation Handke commands has less to do with politics than with his undeniable talent as a writer. Handke has a keen ear for exposing the clichés that cloud people's thinking. And when he's in form, his ability to describe nature scenes is such that it has reminded many a Continental critic of the magnificent landscape scenes limned in classic German prose by the 19th-century Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter.

From the start of his career in the 1960s, Handke has been seen as one of the most important German-speaking writers active today. Indeed, when in 2004 the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a list of the 50 greatest German novels of the 20th century, an early Handke, The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970), was on it. Many,myself included, also find his slim memoir of the life and suicide of his mother, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), to be a minor masterpiece. Now in his mid-sixties, he has received every important German-language literary prize.

Handke's early novels and plays tend to be slimmed-down, angst-ridden, and highly experimental affairs. He once stated that his "primary literary intent is the destruction of predetermined systems and concepts of reality." In other words, out with linear plots, mimetic narrative and a concern with social insights into human nature, and in with the irrationality of human consciousness, the instability of language, and a relentless focus on the act of writing itself.

While in his twenties, Handke proudly proclaimed that he wanted nothing to do with politics. The title of a 1967 essay, "Ich bin ein Bewohner des Elfenbeinturms" ("I Live in an Ivory Tower") seemed to say it all. Butif your starting point is that human language is incapable of portraying reality truthfully, you will be suspicious, to say the least, of those who believe otherwise. And suspicion is apt to grow into hostility if you begin to believe that the powers that be are relying upon a dictatorial "discursive regime" to bound debate and channel perceptions.

In retrospect, Handke's political radicalization was all but complete by the end of the 1980s, a decade in which he delved into Heidegger and emerged ever more committed to demonstrating how language systems distort perception and how Reason is a mechanism of social repression.

But as if to prove, yet again, the time-honored truth that progressive politics makes for poor art, Handke's avid embrace of postmodernist "textual politics" caused his writing to suffer as he abandoned what little storytelling impulse he had previously displayed and began to churn out disorienting meta-fictions designed to focus his readers' attention on objects themselves he-World perspective, one thing is equally clear: Boy, are they boring!

Which brings us to Crossing the Sierra de Gredos. What is it about? Charitably considered, the novel is something of a picaresque questing tale. The protagonist, an unnamed female banker who lives on the outskirts of a great, unnamed north-western river port city in Europe, has decided to under-take a journey to the Sierra de Gredos mountains in Spain.

The woman banker, who goes by a number of different designations—the heroine, the adventurer, Odysseus in the shape of a woman—lives in what we are repeatedly told is "a transitional period" at some vague point in the not-too-distant future when the first manned spacecraft has landed on Mars and everyone speaks a single language, also unnamed, although my guess is that it can only be that most linear and conformity-inducing of tongues, English.

Handke scatters countless details throughout the book about the woman banker. We learn, inter alia, that she was born in eastern Germany into a Serbian-Arab family; that she has a daughter who has disappeared; that she has a brother who was imprisoned as a "terrorist" (quote marks, in the original, meant to highlight the arrant nonsense of such a designation).

We are also told that the woman banker has many enemies as a result of her work as a "world champion of global finance" (again set off in quotes in the book to demonstrate yet another journalistic cliché). But she is "never afraid of anything." Oh, and by the way, in her youth she starred in a film set in the Middle Ages.

Do the details of the heroine's life ever coalesce to form a convincing, fully imagined character? No. Does it matter? Not to Handke. The protagonist, as well as all the characters she encounters in her journey, exists merely as a mouthpiece for his worldview.

In this regard, undoubtedly the two most important things we learn about the woman banker are, first, that "what she was aiming for was a sense of life independent of society and all systems" and, second, that "she had been one of the pioneers of new ways of life."

How she had pioneered a new way of life is never clearly stated. But it seems to have something to do with her ability to receive powerful,unmediated images of places she has visited that protect her from the usual cant one finds in society, and provide her with a powerful sense of being alive. (Think of a blending of Joycean "epiphanies" and Proust's notion of "involuntary memory." Postmodernist writers are nothing if not shameless about ripping off the ideas of their precursors.)

What kinds of images? Well, any kind. As the protagonist explains, the images just turn up randomly to protect her: "Poof! A deserted sandy playground by a canal in Ghent… Poof! The diminutive library along the city wall of Avila…" And so on. Many of the protective images seem to be the product of her visits to the Sierra de Gredos.

And so the purpose of the journey is to replenish her stock of images? Well, yes and no. In the rest of the world the types of images that she is living off are dying out—so much so that it has become a "problem of epochal proportions."

Fortunately for humanity, the protagonist is an altruist. "Over the years she had often felt the urge to spread the word of her remarkable and memorable encounters with the shooting images, or image showers… She had to reveal what she knew…

The moment had come to tell the world!" And so she has signed a contract with an author living in La Mancha, "to write a book about her undertakings and her adventures"—which, of course, turns out to be the book in the reader's hands.

Why not just write the book herself? That would be too simple. Plus, by hiring an author to write the book for her, both the woman banker and the author can address the reader directly and thereby gum up the narrative drive in an exquisitely postmodernist fashion.

For example, the protagonist can explicitly tell the author (and us): "Do not be afraid to let something contradictory appear now and then in these pages." And so when it does, the reader knows not to worry about it. The author in La Mancha can then write sentences such as these: "She climbed down, down, down, for an hour? For two? For a half day?" "She stayed in Hondareda… How long? For hours? Days?" It doesn't matter.

You might think having two narrators was confusing enough. But there's always room for more. Various characters from reporters and journalists to stonemasons and hotel clerks grab the narrative limelight. Handke himself also feels the need to intrude now and then, over both of their heads, addressing the Reader directly as "Dear Reader" or inserting small rants and then concluding with "End of Message."

And why not, if it helps one to understand how Handke thinks writing is a fraud?

Thrown into the mix are his usual animad versions against clichés—some of which, for example, when he attacks expressions such as "without adoubt" (when there should be doubt) or the word "dialogue" which the protagonist hears "constantly crackling from all channels," are not half bad. but then, as usual, he goes over the precipice by inveighing against historians who issue books in "the carefully cultivated tone of historical objectivity" and journalists who believe "eye witness accounts" and think that "reporting" means that events can happen only "this way and no other way. "Some of the great writers of the last century may have been journalists—Hemingway, Orwell, Koestler, Silone—but to Handke, reporting is nothing other than a swindle.

As the woman banker's quest continues, she travels through mountain sand towns, village fairs, and hotels, all described in a flat,film-treatment way that makes each scene seem like a one dimensional potemkin construction lacking depth. And at each such location, new cartoon characters are introduced to recite half-baked stories. But one would be wrong to view Handke's novel as little more than a postmodernist reworking of scenes in Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Cervantes. There is a political edge to the tale which becomes clearer as the heroine makes her way to the Sierra de Gredos.

For there she discovers "a tribe" of refugees that the rest of the world is about to wage war with. These people are refugees from all over the world. They have had it with the flashy, corrupting images they have been fed and they have decided to go it alone. They have made a deliberate choice to be separate. And you will not be surprised to learn that they have constructed a true Marxist utopia where "the brutal distinction between sinister winners and wretched losers" no longer obtains.

Needless to say, this group has aroused worldwide an dignation with its new "existential experiment." As a result, the rest of the world now seems intent on wiping the enclave "off the face of the earth." War will soon be declared, disguised as "peace operations" or perhaps as "love action."

In sum, Handke has surpassed himself, having written a Chomskyite fairytale for the remnants is entangle themselves from power's omnivorous fugees face war which,just as in the Balkans, will be waged under the guise of "human rights."

Krishna Winston was undoubtedly right in dropping Bildverlust from the English title. Would that she could have also eliminated word "book-loss" to describe the precious little that remained.
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