The renowned Austrian novelist looks back on a body of work and a terrible century in this elegiac tale, first published in German in 2008.
“Every country has its Samarkand and its Numancia.” So opens Handke’s (Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, 2007, etc.) novel, evoking the Thousand and One Nights, Cervantes, Machado, Borges. These fabled places of refuge on the far ends of the world are joined by a houseboat on the Morava River, a tributary of the Danube where the Slavic and German worlds meet and armies have long clashed. There, a storyteller gathers a group of “friends, associates, distant neighbors, collaborators of the former writer,” for whom, in the face of deep danger, he offers a multitiered, time-shifting tale that crosses borders and decades, one in which figures from other Handke novels make appearances, to say nothing of angels and demons. Some of Handke’s text is a kind of meditation on history; having come under much criticism a quarter-century ago for his defense of Serbia during the most recent round of Balkans wars, he places that region on the edges of Numantia and Samarkand, joining it to the fabulous: “Where had they begun, his and our Balkans? Long before the geographic and morphological border.” Some of it is a subtly defiant self-defense, begging the question of who turned out to be right: “A sad story?” the tale closes. “That remained to be seen.” And some is simply lovely, as when, in one of his guises, the narrator, passing across La Mancha—shades of Cervantes again—suddenly confronts his literary and actual past: “One after the other, his forebears came toward him in the early light, reached him, went by him.” All play a role in his life and story, he adds, one whose threads are still playing out even as Handke’s modern epic ends.
A sad story—perhaps, but one in which fantasy and history dance nimbly. Stellar.