Across

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2000

Since several of Peter Handke’s scandalously deconstructionist plays were published in English in 1969, his work has appeared regularly in the United States, with translations now numbering more than a dozen. Considering the widespread reluctance of American publishers to venture into the marketing of avant-garde literature from Europe, Handke’s track record is clearly remarkable, especially as it has been achieved by an author whose sparse reconstruction of reality is as daunting to established tastes as was once his dissection of hollow linguistic conventions. That his work has been able to enlist for almost fifteen years the devoted services of the immensely gifted translator Ralph Manheim has undoubtedly helped to strengthen Handke’s reputation in this country as the best-known postmodern writer of the German-speaking world.

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Across (published in Germany in 1983 as Der Chinese des Schmerzes), appearing in English only one year after Handke’s Slow Homecoming, must be read as a further attempt by the author to advance his heroes beyond their tainted existence as historical beings to a higher world of timeless harmony “Child Story,” the last of the three interrelated prose narratives that constitute Slow Homecoming, concludes with the narrator and his adolescent daughter painting over the swastikas which some benighted perpetrator of history had painted onto the birdhouses of a nearby forest. Yet these malignant symbols of Germany’s unique historical guilt cannot simply be erased by the strokes of a brush. Across takes the logical, though troublesome, next step by involving its protagonist in a kind of preventive murder against the murderous movers of time.

“The Viewer Is Diverted,” the first of three dialectically arranged stages in the development of the hero, provides a slow, deliberate, and at times laboriously minute exposition. Andreas Loser—the first-person narrator, who insists that his family name does not refer to the English meaning of the word but must be traced back to an Austrian dialect term meaning “to listen”—belongs to Handke’s growing portrait gallery of meticulous and passionate observers. Wife and children Loser has left some time ago. He now lives like a hermit in a drab apartment in an inconspicuous suburb of Salzburg. As a devoted amateur archaeologist, he has learned that finding something is actually less important and less rewarding than to look “for what was missing, for what had vanished irretrievably—whether carried or merely rotted away—but was still present as a vacuum, as empty space or empty form.” Playfully he calls himself a thresholdologist, one who during an archaeological excavation concentrates on finding the thresholds from which the whole layout of a site can frequently be deduced. All through the story, the threshold serves Loser as the symbol for the one spot in the vacuum of the times from which the reconstruction of reality must proceed. His continuing preoccupation with the topography of Salzburg and its vicinity is intended to provide him with a more than accidental, merely historical entry to his life and world. Yet the threshold from which the surroundings could be viewed as a transhistorical configuration has so far eluded his intense scrutiny. The objects, though clearly outlined, remain curiously disassociated from one another: “In one corner of my room a ball of dust lit by the floor lamp moved about, and in the sky a vapor trail drawn by a blinking metallic pencil flashed in the sun. At the bottom of the canal, clumps of moss drifted about. Out in the bog, a herd of deer jumped across a drainage ditch.”

The results of his archaeological digs into past and present Loser writes up at his desk, in front of four carefully selected objects. Three of them are to remind him of the indestructible peace of primordial forms, of existence as “calm, radiant sea.” The fourth object, on the other hand, is a troublesome presence and a much more telling indicator of Loser’s true state of mind. An egg-shaped lump of clay that Loser retrieved from a thornbush on an island in the Mediterranean turns out to be the puzzling home of an insect in black armor. Only once has the furtive creature sortied forth to allow the startled archaeologist a glimpse of his most unsettling companion.

Loser, too, has recently been lured from the safe haven of his hermit’s existence. Jostled by a pedestrian in one of the crowded streets of the inner city, he responds, to his own surprise, instinctively and with unexpected force by pushing back so violently that the other falls to the ground. Though completely unrepentant about his outburst of aggression, Loser realizes that a number of contradictory feelings have left him “in suspense, or in a state of ’in-decision.’” He takes a leave of absence from his school in order to have the time to confront himself, as he seems poised on the threshold of new things to come.

One evening, on the way home from an extended walk, just at the moment when the peace of night has melted the boundaries which usually separate objects and subjects so painfully from one another, the calm of Loser’s soul is cruelly disturbed by a row of election posters that clutter the harmony of the landscape with their strident impostor faces. Mechanically he kicks the first of the wooden signboards, only to find it, quite literally, unanchored in reality. Quickly and effortlessly he disposes of the whole row of intruders by throwing them into an adjacent canal, where they sink instantly. Walking on without remorse, Loser, nevertheless, cannot avoid asking himself: “Was this a case of wanting to commit murder?” For the moment, he still shies away from acknowledging such momentous implications. Only too soon, however, another event will bring to an end all further evasions.

The title of the next segment, “The Viewer Takes Action,” sets the tone for the inevitable climax. A few days later, Loser walks to his monthly card game at a friend’s house. The soothing timelessness of the game’s orderly pursuits has become for him the longed-for ideal of all communal interactions and almost the only social activity in which he still participates voluntarily, even eagerly. On his way, Loser strays into one of the few enclaves of nature in the city and loses himself in the prehistorical starkness of its nightly life. Once again, he is rudely awakened from his contemplation, this time by the noxious sight of a freshly painted swastika on a beech tree. Sensing the defacer’s presence nearby, Loser picks up a stone to pursue this satanic propagator of a symbol which for Loser represents “the cause of all my melancholy—of all melancholy, ill humor, and false laughter in this country.” He quickly hunts down the spoiler of natural peace and, propelled by “an unaccustomed impersonal strength,” slays him with one well-aimed throw. Unconcerned about the legality or even the morality of his act, Loser quickly disposes of the disgustingly anonymous man and immediately regains his composure, smacking his lips aloud as he “experienced a sense of triumph at having killed.”

His return to the charmed circle of the card players strikes Loser initially as quite unproblematic. Still, a surprising fatigue hints at the turmoil within him. When after the game the friends part ways, Loser cannot return home. He descends into the bleak underworld of the nightly city. Even when finally back in the safe precincts of his apartment, he no longer finds the solid presence of his beloved objects truly therapeutic. Loser, having trapped himself in a historical act, suddenly feels excluded from the pacifying sway of nature’s unchanging objectivity. For historical man, and Loser has involuntarily reentered that creature’s precarious realm, any victory over time can only be guaranteed by the tenuous human power of memory. To extend memory beyond the narrow bounds of human life, to build memory as a threshold to permanence, Loser’s historical act must strive not to be forgotten. Loser, consequently, sets out to find an appropriate witness to his deed.

“The Viewer Seeks a Witness” contains some of the most baffling turns in the hero’s erratic course toward personal renewal. At first, Loser is completely paralyzed by a sensory confusion which distorts the sounds and forms of his daily life. Even his body feels strangely out of reach. To emphasize the significance of Loser’s predicament, Handke makes sure that the reader is aware of the time during which these events take place. The murder was committed on the Wednesday of Holy Week. Loser’s subsequent travails reach their greatest intensity on the following Friday and Saturday. By integrating the fate of his hero into the mythical sequence of death and resurrection—Loser is not a Christian and therefore does not view the Easter events in their historical uniqueness—Handke points the way toward a resolution of the conflict between the necessary course of nature and the accidental course of history by appealing to the predictable recurrences of archetypal myths.

Rejuvenated, Loser embarks on a series of excursions that take him in quick succession to the airport of Salzburg, the old age home of his senile mother, Vergil’s birthplace in northern Italy, and to a former vacationing spot on the island of Sardinia. What these erratic journeys apparently have in common is Loser’s desire to see and measure himself in the eyes of others. Yet none of the forced encounters can solve the enigma of his identity until, back in Salzburg, he recognizes his face in the tilted mirror of a supermarket as resembling that of his son. Convinced that his son represents his own future in history, Loser returns to his family to make the adolescent boy the witness of his burdensome act. An epilogue shows Loser on a small bridge near his apartment as he watches in solemn joy the people who pass him on their way home from work. The threshold has apparently been located. “Peace, mischief, quietness, gravity, slowness, and patience” flow from it. The story of Loser’s future can begin.

From the moment Handke stepped into the literary limelight with his spectacularly successful play Publikumsbeschimpfung (1966; Offending the Audience, 1969), his career as a writer has often been summarized with the help of this programmatic title as representing one continuous assault on public sensibilities. The shrill antics of the enfant terrible have long since given way to a no less consciously chosen posture of magisterial aloofness, yet a cold and annihilating fury can still be sensed behind the mask of calm composure. Nevertheless, when allowed to lower his guard, Handke, as always, is eager to transpose objects and events of everyday life into a realm of serene enchantment. Where the reader is invited to touch with Loser the petal of a hibiscus, to join the peaceful circle of his card-playing friends, or to stand with him ankle-deep in the muck of Sardinia’s Lago di Barratz, nothing else seems to matter, and the perception of reality becomes its own reward.

Yet there remains the central, the unassimilable fact of the remorseless murder. Even if one does not judge the deed by the common standards of law and morality, the question of why and to what end Handke insists on the sinister occurrence still needs to be answered. Does Handke really suggest that it is a necessary step in Loser’s ascent to ever new heights of perceptual maturity? If so, should the price not be considered inhumanly high? Loser’s search for a witness at least indicates that such a deed must have ramifications that lead beyond the good conscience of any individual. The epilogue, nevertheless, shows the hero as splendidly isolated as before. The renewed composure appears to be the achievement not of remembrance but of forgetfulness. That Handke views the events as prologue to a story, rather than the story itself, leaves him with many tantalizing options. For the moment, however, the reader takes leave of Loser more disturbed than captivated by his regained peace of mind.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 90

Best Sellers. XLVI, October, 1986, p. 248.

Enright, D.J. “Special Subjects,” in The New York Review of Books. XXXIII (August 14, 1986), pp. 37-38.

Booklist. LXXXII, June 15, 1986, p. 1498.

Graver, Lawrence. “Personal Growth Through Murder,” in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (July 27, 1986), p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, April 15, 1986, p. 566.

Labanyi, Peter. “Thresholds,” in The Times Literary Supplement. October 5, 1984, p. 1136.

Los Angeles Times. June 25, 1986, V, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, April 25, 1986, p. 67.

Schlueter, June. The Plays and Novels of Peter Handke, 1981.

Sharp, Francis Michael. “Der Chinese des Schmerzes,” in World Literature Today. LVIII (Summer, 1984), p. 405.

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