Peter Handke’s reputation as the eccentric genius and enfant terrible of Austrian literature began with the publication of his 1968 play Kaspar, in which he shows the legendary nineteenth century foundling Kaspar Hauser as being manipulated by “prompters” who profess to teach him language skills as a path to becoming an individual. In reality, however, they turn him into a conformist puppet, indistinguishable from the Kaspar clones who populate the stage as the curtain closes. Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, nearly forty years later, picks up the theme of manipulation and de-individualization, but focuses on images rather than on language as the tools of manipulation.
The role of the villainous prompters and insinuators in Kaspar is assumed by the contemporary media in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, a switch that stems from the attacks on Handke by scholars, politicians, and journalists for the past decade, prompted by Handke’s defense of former Serbian leader Slobodan Miloevi (1941-2006), who was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for Serbian atrocities committed in Kosovo. Handke, who has Slavic roots himself, still insists that the media selectively demonized the Serbian president while at the same time making light of similar atrocities committed by Croats and other ethnic groups of the disintegrating former Yugoslavia. His high-profile participation in Miloevi’s funeral did nothing to alleviate the media attacks, seriously damaging his reputation as an author and causing German politicians to revoke the award of the prestigious Heinrich Heine Prize in 2006 after the decision by the awarding committee created a storm of controversy in the European media. Handke, perennially rumored to be on the short list for the Nobel Prize, has resigned himself to not being a viable candidate for this honor any longer because of the media-fueled controversy about his pro-Serbian and anti-NATO sentiments.
While the Serbian war and the subsequent controversy are not directly addressed in Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, the main thematic focus of the novel, the central importance of images for human existence, is already indicated in the German title, Der Bildverlust: Oder, Durch die Sierra de Gredos. Bildverlust means “loss of images,” and the publisher has done the readers no service by leaving out the main title and reducing it to the more adventurous-sounding subtitle. Indeed, the novel does not deal primarily with the journey of the protagonist across the Spanish mountain range but with her loss and potential reconstruction of autonomous individual images that she had been using as a defense against her enemies and the vicissitudes of her personal life. The American reader will expect a travel-adventure plotthe subtitle of the novel is a thinly disguised allusion to the popular Western and Near Eastern novels of Karl May (1842-1912), such as Durch die Wüste (1892; through the desert) and Durchs wilde Kurdistan (1892; through wild Kurdistan)and will be disappointed, although it is possible to extract such a travel-adventure story from the 472 pages of this complex postmodernist work.
Such a reduction reveals the story of a nameless, highly successful female banker of Slavic descent, who finds her emotional life in tatters, quite in contrast to her public image as it is portrayed in the media. She is alone, her daughter having run away; her brother has just been released from prison for alleged (as yet nonviolent, as she asserts) terrorist activities; and the father of her child has left her some time ago during or after an earlier walking tour across the Sierra de Gredos. To set the story right, she has hired a well-known Spanish writer, who lives in the La Mancha region in Spain, to write her autobiography and has made an appointment to meet him at his home, after retracing her earlier walking tour from Valladolid to La Mancha across the Sierra de Gredos.
After flying to Valladolid from her present domicile in northwestern Europewalking to the airportshe then proceeds first by SUV, then by bus, and finally on foot to her destination, which she reaches after stopping in several places, most of which cannot be found on a map of Spain but are characterized by a decreasing attachment to contemporary Western material/commercial values and an...
(The entire section is 1790 words.)