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.
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...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)