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.


  1. handke certainly never denied srebrenice. all one needs do is read "sommerlicher nachtrag" where he has a surrogate serbian exclaim over and over, at the site: "I don't want to be a Serbian". of course that book has not been translated into english. handke, personally, is guilt of a lot of things, but really not as a writer. littel seems to be another, like handke, who hogs the spotlight. in this case as an ignoramus. well, handke did visit milosevic in prison and his work benefited while m. was in power; and ph has from early on sought the company of the powerful, be they princes or heads of austrian government; and he hinmself as a writer is or at least used to be driven to be numero uno, one benefit of this drive being som e very great works - walk about the villages, the art of asking, the hour we did not know each other - to mention three of the later great plays. forthcoming also, in english, are his magnificent tour de force "don juan, as told by himself" and his "moravian nights". it's wonderful that the nyrb books is putting some earlier ones back into print, perhaps the nyrb is trying to make amends for their midnighties l. marcus condemnation of all of handke's work on the occasion of his defense of the serbians as being the exclusive murderers in that part of the world. this is all of a primitiveness that i become more and more convinced there is no escaping the dark ages. here are some links to sites that deal with handke's work and person:

    and 12 sub-sites [the drama lecture]
    [pertaining to scriptmania matters]

    [dem handke auf die schliche/ prosa, a book of mine about Handke] [the current American Scholar caused controversy about Handke, reviews, detailed of Coury/Pilipp's THE WORKS OF PETER HANDKE] [some handke material, too, the Milosevic controversy summarized]

  2. Thanks for your careful thinking. I visited Foca with my friend Zarko Radakovic and with Peter Handke, whose work we were both translating. We stayed in a hotel housing refugies, a hotel infamous for its role in the systematic rapes that were perpetrated there. Peter knows what happened in Foca and Srebrenica and Kosovo and has worked for more than a decade to find the right words and narrative structures to make some sense of it. And then comes the lynch mob.

  3. Thanks for the excellent news Michael. Do you have anymore details on publisher, timescales?

    And thanks Scott. Good to discover your blog at last.

  4. Anonymous11:51 am

    Handke never denied Srebrenica. For example the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" (SZ) in 2006:

    "Ausdrücklich bezeichnet er das Massaker serbischer Kräfte an Muslimen vom Juli 1995 in Srebrenica als „das schlimmste Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit, das in Europa nach dem Krieg begangen wurde“. Srebrenica, schreibt der Schriftsteller, sei eine „abscheuliche Rache der serbischen Streitkräfte“ gewesen."

    Handke told, that Srebrenica was the "worst crime against the humanity which was committed after the war in Europe". He mentioned, that it was a "abominable revenge of the Serbian forces" (translated from me).

    Link to SZ:



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