With Handke to the Balkans

2019-10-21 21.45.30.jpgTwenty-three years ago, I sat with anticipation in the Vienna Akademie Theater to hear the reading of Peter Handke’s “Eine winterliche Reise zu den Flüssen Donau, Sava, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit für Serbien”. The theater was packed. Having read Handke and admired his writing, it was hard not be excited. I was also anxious. I had begun to travel to Croatia and Serbia three years earlier, made friends, read, studied the Yugoslavia and sought to learn what had happened. The refugees and debates in Vienna were a steady reminder of the wars. My travels had made me weary of the same lazy and stereotypical reports prevalent in the media that provoked Handke to write his essay, published earlier in the Süddeutsche Zeitung. However, when I read the text in a book before the reading, I was disspointed and disturbed. He responded with sometimes simplistic explanaitions of the wars with his own version, no better and often much worse. For him, Serbia under sanctions, isolated and inward looking became a fantasy of the anti-West, how world could be. His unreflected nostaligia toward the old Yugoslavia made him  fall for Milošević’s false claim to be the true heir to the country. Even modest curiosity would prove that claim to be a sham. But this was not just the trap into which many unreflexives leftists fell, the trap anybody who claims the anti-imperialist label is good, anybody demonised by the West must be a hero. Instead, he visited Serbia and saw a false idyll of rural calm where people could not drive a car because gas was scarce and that was reduced the basics. He transformed the hardship into one that was both only caused by the West and that was at the same time transforming Serbia into an antithesis of the West. This was not the Serbia I had seen, a country humiliated by its leaders, isolated and drive to crime, full of people who could not effort to indulge in the Western phantasies of an authentic people, but who wanted to live.

If Alain Finkielkraut  found his pet nation among Croats, Handke found his among Serbs. However, these were not real Serbs, but a mythical people, as defined by the nationalist visions of Karadžić, Milošević and their intellectual forefathers. Handke accepted the claim of the ‘leaders’ to represent the nation and indulged in collectivities, in a way no self-respective intellecutal would have talke about ‘the Germans’ or ‘the French’.

Following his reading, any critical question he was asked he responded with an insult (“Stecken Sie sich Ihre Betroffenheit in den Arsch!”) so that I walked away from the performance as a second installment of Publikumsbeschimpfung,  Offending the Audience, his 1966 play. His insults gave insight into a person who did not want to understand, but rather to mis- or rather un-understand. He was provoked by the wars and the reporting in the West, but his response was not to understand or respond with emphathy, to challenge the Western view that too easily accepted the national lense. Instead, he response was to endorse the logic of the nationalism and orientialism, he liked the orient that did not exist and was convinient for war mongers and western commentators alike. He liked to provoke, but with it dehumanized those who suffered and sought to understand.

Few events have helped me more to contiune traveling, understanding and learning in and about Yugoslavia than that reading in March 1996, not for the insight, but for the deliberate willfull ignorance I experienced that night.

(Much of what makes Handke a shamful winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been written by writers with greater witt and skill than myself, such as Aleksandar Hemon, Saša Stanišić or Jagoda Marinić. )

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: