Accepting the challenge

Peter Handke’s new novel is worth the effort

Chuck Twardy

This is a book not many people will want to read. At times it seems to go out of its way to unravel the narrative thread the reader gathers by familiar habit. Interrupting sentences to question (question? Yes, question) word choices is the least of its vexations.

Worse, the author has made himself disagreeable, at least in European cultural circles. A fierce critic of the U.S.-led campaign to halt Balkan genocide and ethnic cleansing, Peter Handke spoke last year at the funeral of former Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his war-crimes trial in The Hague. Handke had been nominated for the Heinrich Heine Prize for literature in 2006, but the offer was withdrawn when it became clear that the Dusseldorf city council, which must approve the 50,000-euro award, would decline. Handke responded to his critics with ill-tempered name-calling.

Still, it’s a pity few will read Crossing the Sierra de Gredos.

Over his long writing career, Handke has approached “accessible” rarely—for

instance, as screenwriter for the transcendent Wings of Desire, directed by his friend Wim Wenders. But the Austrian native is a poised and graceful writer, capable of startling evocations that reward the diligent, not to mention (no, not “not to mention”) patient, reader.

In Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, Handke frames an interior quest in the stage work of an outward odyssey. It is a familiar Handke device. In Repetition, the narrator searches for a lost brother with the aid of a dictionary in which the brother has circled certain words. The pharmacist of On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House tells his story to a narrator, then is struck dumb and takes a drive with a skier and a poet. Crossing the Sierra de Gredos plumbs both word meanings and the idea of storytelling. It is a metafiction in the long tradition of self-conscious narratives launched by the novel it self-consciously invokes, Don Quixote.

Like Cervantes’ muddled protagonist, the unnamed heroine of Crossing the Sierra de Gredos sets off on a journey, not from but to La Mancha. In place of Quixote’s imagined Dulcinea, Handke haunts his traveler with a lost lover. Sancho Panzas accompany the woman at times, but mostly her trip—by car, by bus, on foot—is accomplished alone, or in the company of strangers. Cervantes would have the reader believe his manuscript is a hired translation of an Arabic text he found. Handke sets his sojourner on a quest for an author, whom she has commissioned to tell the story of her trip to reach him. She carries with her an Arabic text once owned by her estranged daughter, and the author, or Handke, often cites Arabic as well as Spanish words.

Der Bildverlust oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos is the German title of Handke’s 2002 book. It means, roughly, “Image-loss, or By the Sierra de Gredos,” and images are as central to Handke’s tale as are words. The questing woman, a semifamous, often-interviewed banker, is nourished by remembered sights: “The image of the moment served not only as armor but also, whenever more was called for than peaceable disarming, as a weapon.” For Handke, this facility is a rarity, because the world, awash in media images, has lost the magic of mental or remembered images.

It is reasonable to infer that a life rich in images at least partly compensates for the unreliability of narratives. Cervantes’ metafiction demeaned the heroic chronicles that deranged his protagonist. Handke’s stab at the form highlights the subjective instability of both words and stories. Characters’ identities shift. Someone who might be her violent brother might be someone else, too. Charles V reprises his abdication and monastic retirement, or maybe it’s someone impersonating him. Who or what did something matters less than the doing.

Interviewed earlier this year in the Frankfurter Rundschau, Handke, acknowledging both socialist affinities and a fascination with capitalist exchange, rejected labels: “As soon as you pin a noun on me, it is false. ... I am not a writer, but I write, I wrote, I have written.” Handke plays this conjugation game in sentences strewn throughout Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, as if to suggest when ranks with who and what.

Of course, this might frustrate a reader accustomed to tidy disposition of time and characters and things. At first, it seems petulant, as if Handke just remembered he hadn’t done anything lately to annoy the reader. Then you find his frequency, and Handke’s musical prose lofts you, and who and what and when indeed are irrelevant, compared with the images that happen, happened, have happened.

In her journey, the banker visits a nightmarish town, Nuevo Bazar, in which “each person stalked around as his own hero.” Here, “omnipresent images of shopping, organized events, happenings, and other stimuli in the foreground” render all images impotent. Atop towers of books used for everything but reading, one hangs open: “In a village in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to recall ...”

This is the first line of Don Quixote, and Handke evokes it to counterpoint a frenzied world of frivolous imagery, violence and solipsism. It is our world. Fewer and fewer people read books. Newspapers, which fewer and fewer people read, have trimmed or eliminated coverage devoted to books. What space remains in this world for a book, like Quixote, or Sierra de Gredos, that challenges readers?

Is it pointless to expect readers to be challenged? Perhaps the experimental tradition that stretches from Cervantes through Joyce to writers such as Barth or Handke amounts to little more than the collective amusements of an elite minority, first aristocratic, later tenured. Perhaps this century will see its end at last, supplanted by mediated, interactive amusements that make everyone and no one an artist.

Perhaps. And maybe we’ll Wii at windmills.

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos

*** 1/2

Peter Handke

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30

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