The Moravian Night by Peter Handke

The Moravian Night: A Story BY Peter Handke. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 320 pages. $27.
The cover of The Moravian Night: A Story

Peter Handke is an acclaimed and prolific author of novels, plays, essays, and poems. A cultural icon of postwar Germany and Austria, he garnered an early reputation as a provocateur with works like Offending the Audience (1966) and Self-Accusation (1966). Handke was internationally acclaimed as a gifted prose stylist, with ruminative, extended sentences that had what John Updike called a “knifelike clarity of evocation.” Later in his career, Handke became embroiled in controversy as he became an outspoken supporter of Serbia during the Yugoslav wars, downplayed the fact that Serbian paramilitaries committed genocide during the conflict, and spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Serbia who had been on trial for war crimes. Handke voiced his support for Serbia as the last bastion of an idealized Yugoslavia in A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (1997), a polemical travelogue in which Handke denounced the “evil facts” of Western news media during the Yugoslav wars and presented blinkered and quixotic views of Serbian life. His scant references to high-profile atrocities—particularly the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995—provoked a vehement outcry that continues to this day. He became an outcast in European intellectual circles, depicting bucolic scenes in a country isolated by sanctions.

His new novel, The Moravian Night, is in some senses a return to form. But as the novel progresses, Handke’s beliefs about the Balkans, and more generally his feelings that a swathe of European traditions have been lost, begin to show through. In the book, a former writer invites acquaintances to his houseboat anchored on the Morava river near the Balkan village of Porodin, a locale described as “one of the last enclaves in Europe.” With the accompaniment of a “frog chorus” singing from nearby reed beds, and the assistance of a surprise guest—an “unknown woman” who later becomes integral to the story—the ex-author recounts his travels in the Balkans, Spain, Germany, and Austria. He is occasionally interrupted by audience members who cast doubt on his story. They pose questions and recite their own passages, fragmenting the narration as their host weaves together a medley of events from his peripatetic life.

From Porodin to the Spanish steppe, and from the floodplains east of Vienna to the immigrant settlement of “New Samarkand,” the former writer’s journey takes place in outlying areas, as he steers clear of any big city. He begins with a bus ride through a war-ravaged Balkans, taking in the landscape with an inquiring gaze that focuses on peripheral details. He notices the irrigation ditches along a major highway, “clogged here and there with rusting machine and car parts, tangles of rags and plastic bags, animal cadavers either rotting or reduced to skeletons . . . and, above all the rubble of houses.” He’s also keenly attuned to sound; for example, the clamorous rain drumming on metal containers in a delta freight depot, a racket that is “massive and frenetic” and “in many pitches, up and down the scale.” The European landscape here is indeterminate—made up of hinterlands, backwoods, fallow stretches, and zonal areas. The author is drawn to rugged terrain like the foothills of Germany’s Harz mountains, a topography where “subterranean limestone and dripstone caves” evoke the geomorphic features back in the Balkans.

As the book progresses, the narration takes an increasingly introspective turn. On the Adriatic island Handke calls “Cordura,” the former author revisits old haunts and encounters the lover he abandoned while composing his first novel. Later, in the “paternal landscape” of Germany, the storyteller confronts his fatherless past. He visits the grave of his estranged “progenitor,” only to find that the maintenance contract has expired and the grave has been emptied, leaving “a perfectly flat rectangle” of gravel in its place. In these sardonic episodes, there are clear shades of Handke’s own life: He wrote his first book on the Adriatic Island of Krk and his affection for the “Balkan” identity of his Slovenian-Austrian mother contrasts sharply with his estrangement from his German roots—represented by a biological father he never knew and a stepfather he reputedly shunned.

Handke toys with his past to create a mordant self-portrait, using textual ambiguities and fantastical tropes to distort any sense of real autobiography. A violent outburst on the Old Road, where the former writer assaults his lover—the “unknown woman” who joins him on the boat—exemplifies this tone. The Old Road is a phantasmagoria; a nocturnal hike where the author crosses paths with spectral figures resembling absent relatives as well as his nemesis, a hack journalist. When he conveys this story, the listeners on the Morava question the true nature of these encounters, but the implication of the violence is clear—their host is a bit of a misanthrope.

The author in The Moravian Night bears clear resemblance to Handke in other ways, too. This “abdicated writer” was once described “as bringing a breath of fresh air to literature.” And, like Handke, he embodies the ignominy of an allegiance to a lost cause: the “pipe dream . . . of a large unified country in the Balkans.” But the narrator voices an impressionistic view of the former Yugoslavia. Handke’s literary persona—that of the abdicated writer—is still obstinate in his support for a “disbanded” Balkan country. His houseboat is painted with its “ominous colors” and is anchored in what is presumably a “Serbian” enclave at Porodin. Yet Serbia and the former Yugoslavia are never mentioned by name and even the precise identity of “the Balkans” is hazy. For the former writer, a Balkan aura is present at every stage of the European tour, arising from inconspicuous details in the landscape like “a torn blue and white plastic bag” flapping in the wind on the Spanish steppe or a tipped-over sawhorse half-buried in debris next to his family home in Austria. In these descriptions, “the Balkans” are less a geographic appellation than a repository for the storyteller’s reveries. “Balkans: the tiger-striped falcon’s feather next to the dead roebuck that had broken its neck falling off a limestone cliff in Germany’s Harz Mountains,” writes Handke, satirizing his romanticized portrayal of Serbia with the detailed evocations of natural landscapes that drive the narration on the Morava.

As the former writer wanders around the backwaters of Europe, absorbing the atmosphere and relating the small incidents of his surroundings, he becomes an inspired storyteller. In a passage in which he crosses the estate of the dramatist Ferdinand Raimund, the connection between journeying and narrating is made explicit. He tells his listeners that the spiritus loci “loosened his tongue, involved him in a dialogue,” and how this conversation with Raimund was sparked by “timeless objects along the road, such as a crudely knocked-together bench” or “a chair of indefinable style.” Even after he has left the estate and is on his way to the snow mountain—the Schneeberg—he remains under Raimund’s influence so that beyond every bend and boulder they continue a “chaotic, stammered exchange.”

Of course, there is a risk that these peripatetic dialogues will sound garbled. The storyteller who babbles and tells an opaque tale is ever-present in The Moravian Night: From disarticulate speeches by shape-shifting old women, to perplexing encounters with “noise-sufferers” and clandestine musicians, to a poignant account of a medium in New Samarkand. “Where others perhaps heard voices, he heard sounds” writes Handke, before elaborating; “And translating these sounds, simultaneously, into words, sentences, auditory and visual images, made him in the eyes of the people of New Samarkand a medium, or simply an oracle.”

By way of his “abdicated” position, the former writer becomes an oracular storyteller for his audience on the Morava, moving beyond his tarnished authorial identity. The success of The Moravian Night in reconciling Handke’s poetics with his blinkered politics is less clear: Rather than ask for forgiveness, he presents something more abstract. Handke’s interest lies in the process of translating the world from knowing and perceiving into expression. The resulting novel is both more enigmatic and—paradoxically—direct.

Thomas Dylan Eaton has contributed essays, interviews, and fiction to publications including Afterall Journal, Artforum, the White Review, and Ambit magazine. His art/essay "Between Villages: The Way Things Go in the Ubagu" is forthcoming in Salvage #5.