The artistry of Peter Handke’s language may well be unsurpassed among contemporary writers in German. His prose is at once serpentine and spare, dreamlike and exacting. In his latest novel translated into English, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, the Austrian author richly demonstrates his literary gifts, and the translator, Krishna Winston, sensitively renders the mesmerizing beauty of his style. In this book, as in much of Handke’s previous work, the most stirring passages disclose the inherent strangeness of the world. Take, for example, his description of a dragonfly hovering before the eyes of the novel’s female protagonist, in which he captures the vicissitudes of perception:
It looked as though only the spindly body were floating
there, with the oversized head in front, blue-black, a
yellow circle in the middle, filling the dragonfly face, and
eyeing her, the human being, even though this yellow did
not actually mark its eyes: deep yellow, coming closer to
her from minute to minute and ultimately drawing her into
the dragonfly planet with this alien gaze.
Handke first received public attention in 1966, when he was in his early twenties, for his irreverent remarks at a Princeton University conference on Gruppe 47, the leading West German literary movement of the postwar era. He assailed the circle of mainly middle-aged authors, among them Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, for pressing literature into the service of social criticism. In his early works—notably Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1970), Wunschloses Unglück (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972), and Die linkshändige Frau (The Left-Handed Woman, 1976)—Handke shunned political engagement and sought instead to register his characters’ inchoate sensations, thoughts, and emotions.
For so introspective a writer, it may seem incongruous that Handke recently set off a political tempest in German literary and intellectual circles. During the Bosnian war in the ’90s, Handke—who is of Slovenian descent and has long been drawn, in his travels and in his fiction, to the Balkans— defended Serbia against what he portrayed as the mendacity of Western journalists. His reluctance to acknowledge Serbian atrocities in the wake of the Srebrenica massacre provoked uproar in the German press. Controversy erupted anew in 2006, when he delivered a eulogy at Milosevic’s funeral. Shortly thereafter, politicians in Düsseldorf threatened to veto a jury’s decision to grant Handke the city’s prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize. He refused the award before the city council could revoke it.
Undoubtedly, the opprobrium that Handke has attracted in recent years has colored his critical reception. In 2000, in the New York Review of Books, J. S. Marcus wrote, “If we resist Milosevic, then we resist this Handke and reapproach even the best of his previous work with that resistance in mind.” With his new novel, the novelist has returned to his seemingly apolitical, ruminative aesthetic. And yet the themes of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos elicit distinct connections between his artistic views and the attitudes toward the contemporary world that he expressed so vehemently in his recent political stances.
The story involves a female banker who embarks on an excursion across the Spanish mountain range of the Sierra de Gredos. She has commissioned a famous author to write an account of her journey, and her ultimate destination is his home in La Mancha—the native region of Cervantes’s knight-errant in Don Quixote, which is quoted in an epigraph and serves as a model for Handke’s modern treatment of the medieval quest tale. As the story unfolds, the reader is privy to dialogues between the protagonist and the author, in which they discuss how to narrate the events and how to alter and disguise various elements. This reflexive device enables Handke to suggest the elusiveness of truth, a long-running motif of his work.
The nameless protagonist instructs the author to impart her biographical particulars frugally and obliquely. Thus only a fragmentary, indistinct portrait emerges: She is tremendously successful, lives in an undisclosed “northwestern riverport city,” was born somewhere in East Germany, has Arabic and Slavic ancestors, led an itinerant childhood in the care of vagabond grandparents after her parents died in an unspecified accident, has a daughter who has vanished and a brother who was incarcerated for an unrevealed act of terrorism. Throughout the tale, she remains a spectral figure.
Early on, however, Handke does convey a critical feature of her character: her exceptionally keen sensitivity to “images,” ephemeral impressions that yield “her most powerful sense of being alive.” Often, the sounds, sights, and smells of distant places from her childhood travels cascade over her: “The coppersmiths’ street in Cairo echoed with the sound of hammers on metal; smoke and clouds of metal filings eddied from the workshops, open to the street, and she saw and smelled the billows.” Visions flare up before her “like lightning or meteors.” These sudden, unbidden flashes invigorate her: “They ennobled the day for her. They ratified the present for her.”
The motif of the image (Bild) is the thematic fulcrum of the novel. Curiously, the English translation retains only the second part of the original title, Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos, meaning “The Loss of the Image or Through the Sierra de Gredos.” A key passage in the book illuminates the significance of the title, arguing that the potency of images has been lost in a contemporary culture flooded with “synthetic, mass-produced, artificial” stimuli.
Displaying a strong affinity to German Romanticism, Handke seeks to inaugurate a new attunement with the world. The heroine embodies the poetic impulse that animates the novel. During her journey, she sheds her everyday role as a “queen of finance” and succumbs to the allure of images. The chronicle of her expedition frames an abundance of impressionistic descriptions, circuitous expositions, and protracted hallucinations that resists coherent synopsis. This profusion testifies to Handke’s experimental exuberance and his pleasure in random senselessness. Taken individually, the bizarre daydreams and disquisitions often typify Handke’s stylistic intensity. Ultimately, however, the sheer quantity of eccentric gestures—deployed over nearly five hundred pages—risks testing the patience of readers and even numbing them, thus undermining his objective of renewing receptivity to images.
Handke’s interminable, labyrinthine accounts of the strange Sierra cultures that the adventurer encounters at several “waystations” of her odyssey can be particularly wearying. However, his depictions of these isolated, alien societies also contain some of his most inventive, captivating flourishes. The Sierra inhabitants reject modern Western conventions. The Hondarederos, for example, secluded in a mountain basin, abolish the notion of sequential time, measured by clocks and calendars, and develop a new form of temporal expression in sync with the variegated, sensual experience of the present: “at blackberry time,” “at the time of your lips,” “at night-wind time.”
The protagonist’s perception of these unfamiliar ways is enhanced by her susceptibility to atmospheric details. Handke juxtaposes her heightened consciousness of “fleeting images” and “scraps of words” with a contrary state of mind personified by a character called “the reporter,” whom she meets on her trek. Committed exclusively to “hard facts,” the reporter records his observations of the region from a rationalist perspective in which “dreams [have] no place.” Preserving an ethnographic distance, he presents the Sierra peoples as atavistic dwellers in “upside-down and constantly back-pedaling worlds.”
The reporter and the protagonist illustrate their divergent points of view in their judgments of the Hondarederos. Whereas the reporter sees them as “refugees from the world,” the heroine senses in them “an enthusiasm, a joy in existence, and gratitude.” The reporter notes their tendency to carry out “a series of . . . graceful actions and movements” followed by unexpected clumsiness, “trips, slips, blunders,” and concludes that the breakdown of their equanimity reveals the “swindle that the Hondarederos want to put over on us . . . with their plan for a New Life.” The protagonist, however, is moved to see their sudden stumbles as signs of the precariousness of their “dance of survival on the lightest of feet.”
The reporter’s objective disposition and resistance to “the disjointed interior worlds of images” are antithetical to the heroine’s proclivity for faint intimations and disconnected glimpses. To stock up on such illuminations is, in fact, the chief purpose of her adventure. She abandons her lucrative financial career with the mission of “founding a new kind of bank—an image bank.” And as she traverses the Sierra de Gredos, she gathers impressions for the very book in the reader’s hands, as an antidote to Bildverlust, the atrophied awareness of images from which contemporary existence suffers.
Just as the protagonist demonstrates the mode of perception that the novel celebrates, the reporter exemplifies an outlook that Handke repudiates. With this character, Handke satirizes all that he abhors about Western narrow-mindedness toward other cultures—a reductive attitude to which he is undoubtedly acutely alert, having grown up in Austria’s Carinthia region as a member of the Slovenian minority, which has often been a target of anti-Slavic sentiment. Handke’s portrayal of the reporter recalls his excoriations of Western journalists in Serbia for what he viewed as their one-sided demonizing of the Serbs and their impermeability to the subtler currents of feeling that he discerned on his visits to the country. The echoes of the author’s unreserved suspicion of the Western media in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos lend the novel its political edge.
The elevation of subjective experience and the contempt for rational observation are also visible in Handke’s writings on and statements about Serbia, in which he persistently implies that the intimacy of his encounters with the country trumps the reported facts. Crossing the Sierra de Gredos seeks to resuscitate what the author deems to be a declining sense of the present, a waning capacity for imagination and wonder. It does so with only limited success, while reflecting the convictions that contributed to Handke’s spectacular plunge from public favor.
Ross Benjamin is a translator of German literature and a writer living in Brooklyn. He is currently at work on a translation of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion, to be published next spring by Archipelago Books.