Saturday, July 05, 2008

"I am beginning to despise the young writers": Peter Handke in Kosovo

As translations of Peter Handke's recent novels are unlikely to appear very soon, reissues will have to do. Next year NYRB Classics publishes Short Letter, Long Farewell (1971) and the trilogy Slow Homecoming (1979-81). I hope this leads to the reissue of his three best novels - Across, Repetition and The Afternoon of a Writer, all published in German between 1983 and 1987 and all out of print in English.

However distracting the recent fuss over Handke's defence of Serbia and disappointing the quality of last year's Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, both emphasise why he remains a writer worth following. Like his fellow countryman Bernhard, he walks in his own direction. Maybe Jonathan Littell does too - we have to be patient for next year's The Kindly Ones - but his recent condemnation of Handke suggests otherwise.
When a family is sitting it its house in Foca and suddenly someone bursts in with a machine gun, chains up the daughter to the radiator and rapes her in front of her family, this is no laughing matter. Okay, you might say, the world is like this. But you don't have to go up to these criminals and start shaking their hands. This is obscene and yet it is precisely what Peter Handke has done. He should keep his mouth shut. He might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy.
Where is the evidence for Peter Handke shaking hands with this criminal? If true and done with prior knowledge of the crime, it would be shocking and unforgivable. But it's also no laughing matter to make things up. And if Littell is using the handshake as a metaphor for Handke's heresy, then why "precisely" ("genau" in the German)?

One only has to read this recent interview with Tommaso Di Francesco to recognise that Handke's concern is to go beyond the thought-limits set by NATO bombers and to find out what is happening on the ground.
Handke: I was in Kosovo in April and I have been there four other times recently. I remained truly struck by what I saw in the enclaves of Velika Hoca, a village with a large Orthodox church, and then in Orahovac. They are two enclaves near each other and there one understands how the Serbs are living, how they spend their time, robbed of every possession, forced to go out only at four in the morning, terrorised all the time. [...] During my "winter trips", I have been many times in hotels which house refugees, in Negotin, Fruska Gora, Bor, Nis. I have written a long report asking among other things for the journalists to tell the story of the Serbian refugees. When you enter one of those hotels you see people seated crosslegged on the ground, the whole day in a daze, until they resort to drink. With the old women who strive to keep their dignity and that of the children around them. They are waiting to die or to flee, living like the emigrants of the last century in America. And despite this there are some young people who paint, to eat and to describe existentially what they have become. If I were a journalist I would live for months with those people, like Ryszard Kapuscinski did. No-one’s doing that. In Germany there are study grants in some cities for young writers who as guests describe their experience for a year. I have made this proposal: let's send them for a month to be among the Serbian refugees. Not a single writer has put himself forward, they prefer to get a prize of two thousand Euros for talking about cookery. I am beginning to despise the young writers.
Remember: "He should keep his mouth shut". The interview inevitably turns to the scandal that enveloped Handke in 2006.
Di Francesco: You have been accused of having put a red rose on Milosevic's grave and of having approved of the Srebrenica massacre, haven't you?

Handke: It’s a complete fabrication. The Paris Tribunal has found the Nouvel Observateur guilty of defamation for these claims: they had alleged that I had declared I was only happy when close to Milosevic. Those who know me know that I hate all men of power. [...] As for Srebrenica they have made a mockery of my words. I have condemned the crimes committed by the Serbs, however I recalled that it is all incomprehensible if one does not take into account the earlier slaughters ... perpetrated by the Bosnian Muslim forces led by the Srebrenica leader Naser Oric in the villages around Srebrenica: Kravica, Bratunac. These deeds were authorised by President Izetbegovic. It was a brutal interethnic and interreligious war to be denounced as much as possible.
Again, "He should keep his mouth shut". Elsewhere Handke remains accused of denying the Srebrenica massacre, now apparently it's "approving"! As Di Francesco says, it's all very Kafkaesque.

Littell's comments are all the more perplexing as he has deep knowledge of the work of Blanchot, himself often caricatured as an anti-Semite.

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