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.