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DON JUAN by Peter Handke


His Own Version

by Peter Handke and translated by Krishna Winston

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-14231-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A slim, odd volume in which the Austrian novelist (Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, 2007, etc.) spins a story about storytelling.

The German-language original from 2004 receives an English-language translation, but the anonymous narrator of this tale fails to translate Don Juan’s exploits into a compelling account. And perhaps that’s part of the point, for despite the subtitle “His Own Version,” the voice throughout is that of a chef whose country French inn is all but shuttered until it receives as its guest (or fugitive) a breathless Don Juan, on the run from a motorcycle couple whose lovemaking had apparently been interrupted by his voyeurism. This Don Juan is not the figure of literary history, but a contemporary version (or almost contemporary, as one reference to a Walkman instead of an iPod suggests). Don Juan stays at the inn exactly a week, and on each day relates to the innkeeper what had happened on that day of the previous week—a different adventure, a different woman, a different country. Or does he? The narrator himself has no gift for narration, and Don Juan doesn’t give him much with which to work. “Again he did not describe the woman to me—needless to say, she was ‘indescribably beautiful,’ ” says the narrator, who later refers to the “meager details” offered by the guest. “At least that is how I pictured it, without his offering any details,” admits the narrator in recounting another episode. So, instead of Don Juan’s own story, as promised by the subtitle, this is the narrator’s story, conjured by the barest of prompts from his subject. The reader might even suspect that this Don Juan doesn’t exist at all, for the narrator never quotes him directly. Instead, he provides a parenthetical hint as to the nature of his protagonist: “(I noticed how often in his story Don Juan used the indefinite pronoun ‘one’ instead of ‘I,’ as if it were self-evident that what he experienced was applicable to everyone.)”

Whether you call it “postmodern” or “meta-fiction,” there isn’t much here.