Friday, March 16, 2007

Peter Handke: A Journey to the Rivers

Update: Antonia has a response on her blog. Check it out.

Note well: This is absolutely not a case of "I accuse." I feel compelled only to justice. Or perhaps even only to questioning?, to raising doubts.

This is Peter Handke doubting his way through his Journey to the Rivers, his controversial essay-cum-travelogue. (Not that I think any sensible person would compare him to Zola!) Also note the strange punctuation, even questioning is being questioned here!

Frankly the book left me utterly underwhelmed. Now I don't know much about Balkan history and what really happened there in the nineties but it is entirely plausible and even obvious that journalists and western observers were one-sided in their reportage. Also the way Serbia was compared to Germany or Milosevic to Hitler, it was again obvious that journalists were indulging in lazy shortcuts, so that they don't have to do the difficult and painstaking tasks of real analysis. So in this situation if a major writer takes up the task of reportage, it should be more than welcome. It's a pity then that Handke does such an incompetent job of it. First of he starts by abusing everybody in the press. He calls FAZ "a serb swallowing rag", hurls insults and makes fun of its editors, ridicules Spiegel by inventing puns on its name (it means mirror in English.) He is even harsher on French media and commentators. He says he used to like Le Monde once but now it has become "a demagogic snoop sheet," driven by "a lust for death." He doesn't like Bernard Henri Levi and Andre Glucksmann either. He calls them "new philosophers." He similarly invents adjectives for american reporters, even the noble prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky is not spared from his invectives.

After he is done with all the abusing and insulting he sets out on a trip to Yugoslavia. He doesn't go to war zones of course. He visits Belgrade, goes on to the banks of river Danube and wonders why can't he find any paranoia amongst the people? Why is there no sign of bombing? Of war mafia? Why is there so much peace and calm? He doesn't really question Srebrenica massacre but wonders how it could have happened and what was the motivation:
Why such a thousandfold slughtering? What was the motivation? For what purpose? And why, instead of an investigation into the causes ("psychopaths" doesn't suffice), again nothing but the sale of the naked, lascivious, market-driven facts and supposed facts? [Italics in original]

The last line explains the basic problem why Handke is so unsuitable for the task of presenting the Serbian side of the story -- his antipathy to "facts". There are no attempts at historical contextualization, no data supplied, no arguments given, just Mr. Doubt doubting everything, smelling media conspiracy in every single assertion but never supplying any argument from his side.

Also his lyrical descriptions of what he perceives as a bucolic paradise are very strange and unusual. You will feel he is describing things but only later you will understand that he is just describing his own impressions. He doesn't try to weave those impressions into a narrative or a sustained argument either, he just leaves them loose, fragmented and disconnected, completely bereft of any emotion or thought, thus leaving it open to question about how he really wants the reader to interpret it. Even his descriptions are mostly vague, as befits Mr. Doubt I guess.

For example these sample lines:
And now the Drina, broad, wintry black-green, steadily flowing mountain water that appeared still darker, even somber through the snow haze over both banks. A slow walk over the bridge, the librarian, the native, ready, it seemed, to turn back with each step, with an anxiety in his eyes close to naked fear. At the center, between the two countries, then, a kind of lantern was fastened to the rail, improvised and yet like a shrine at a Buddhist river, in my imagination a receptacle for candles, to hold a watch candle for the night. But when opened, the supposed lantern contained nothing but ashes, was prickly with cigarette butts.

Don't know what to do with the "the buddhist shrine" or "candles"! The entire book is filled with such passages.

In short, AVOID! I think Mr. Doubt should write more fiction rather than dabbling in reportage and politics. Or at least allow us to read his reportage as a piece of fiction and shut up about the press and the media.


Antonia said...

interesting that it is still so controversial.
actually he is right with his judgement on the german newspapers such as FAZ and Spiegel, the editors are shit really. They long lost their critical potential, everybody knows this who can think a bit straight and reads them from time to time.
when I am awake I write a bit of a defense.

Alok said...

okay, this post was written after mild alcohol abuse but it is more or less what I felt when I was sober. May be I should have removed Mr. Doubt thing!

also I don't know about his writing style, i found his descriptions a little strange and I don't even know if my observations about it were correct -- fragmented, unemotional, unsure, vague. something that may work in fiction but not in reportage. i don't know if there is a pattern there or if there is, it is similar to his fictional work?

Alok said...

Not really unemotional which is actually good for reportage but rather reluctance to be exact and clear...

Cheshire Cat said...

Great write-up! I share your distaste for Handke's "political" side... but you're really starting of on the wrong foot, you should start with Handke's poems or plays, or with novels like "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams" or "Repetition". You will be wowed, believe me.

Antonia said...

hi alok,
i wrote an objection in my blog....
see i dont attack you, only some points you raise that are in general being raised against him and that always annoy me. And cheshire is right regarding the other books, they really are nice.

KUBLA KHAN said...

alok: one likes writers who take sides. handke is clearly on the serbian side.that he mixes reportage and prejudice and sells it as fiction is a further testimony to his bias.
the massaccres committed against the bosnians are factual events, to doubt or cast an aspersion is to mock the sufferers and the dead.
no amount of poetry should vindicate such writing.
in the end, such writers and such writing is like sand that falls from sandals.
i think your post was an exact replica of what i felt too. well written.

Cheshire Cat said...

Also mild alcohol abuse is good, that makes you undiplomatic, and things become more interesting :)

Alok said...

cat: it was very mild but yeah enough to call him Mr. Doubt :)
Will pick up one of his other books on my next visit to the library.

kubla: thanks! and I agree with you. it is also interesting because we praise more or less the same virtue when it comes to evaluating fiction...

antonia: have added the link to your post, right at the top! thanks for taking time to write it.

Antonia said...

yup alok, thanks for adding.
it is so nicely controversial :)
so much excitement :)
I swear, you might like his other books more.

nico said...

What about 'Absence', 'Essay for tiredness' and 'The left handed woman'? Of course 'A sorrow beyond dreams' is a must. I. Bachmann said of that book that nothing should be said about it, that no one should write about it. What do you think?
I may be intruding, but thanks for this polemical exchange!

Szerelem said...

Hmmm....interesting post. Haven't read the book or anything by Handke so I really can't take a stand on this.
Though anyone with even a little bit of sense wouldn't like Henry-Levi :D
Have you read Ivo Andric's Bridge on the River Drina? It is a very sweeping epic(the central character is basically the river)and gives a nice sense of the history of the region.
Also in travelogues I read Robert Kaplans Balkan Ghosts and Eastward To Tartary and though they were both really good. He does a pretty good job of explaining the situation in the area and to try and understand why what happened, did happen. Though I think even the people living there dont really understand that. Thats the feeling I get when I speak to my friends from that area. It's still very messy.

Alok said...

szerelem: I have heard of Kaplan's book. I remember reading about it in a few places. This Drina river figures a lot in this book too. The premise of the book sounds very interesting. I have to start with some Kadare first too.

nico: my library has got only a few Handke books. Will see what I can find there. Will check soon.