Peter Handke is widely regarded as one of Germany’s most important writers. Since 1966, he has compiled an impressive list of writing credits, including novels, short- story collections, plays, poems, essays, and screenplays. With director Wim Wenders, he coauthored several screenplays, including the excellent Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire, 1987), in which the viewer is able to see the otherwise invisible guardian angels commiserating with mortals too wrapped up in their personal problems to appreciate the beauty surrounding them. On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House has a surrealistic mood similar to that of Wings of Desire.
Handke has often been compared to Franz Kafka. Like Kafka, Handke seems to be describing a reality invisible to the naked eye but all too real to the unconscious mind. As in many of Kafka’s prose works, the principal character in On a Dark Night—a small-town middle-aged pharmacist—seems to be caught up in a dream. He seems to be trying to get somewhere but has only a vague notion of where he is or where he is going. As in many dreams, the dominant mood is one of bewilderment and frustration. Although nothing very dramatic ever happens during this dream journey, the pharmacist—who reminds the novel’s narrator of such celebrities as Gary Cooper, Pedro Armendariz, Stan Laurel, Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton, Edward G. Robinson, Ernest Borgnine, and even some of the “silent unapproachable” female stars—feels entirely changed by the end. Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner, the pharmacist insists on recounting his adventure to the narrator, who tries to structure and make sense of it; so this is a story within a story, or what one reviewer calls a Rahmenerzählung.
The setting of the novel has the same haunted look and feel of Wings of Desire. A defeated and demoralized nation is reemerging from its ruins, but people are confused about their national identity. The international-style architecture rising from the rubble of the past is cold and forbidding, purely functional and commercially motivated; it expresses nothing about the people it confines and overshadows. The town of Taxham, near Salzburg, where the pharmacist has lived and worked all his life, is becoming cut off from the world by a Gordian knot of freeways, an enormous airport, and new housing developments where streets twist and turn and end up leading into cul de sacs or back to where they started. Outsiders rarely visit Taxham anymore because it is so hard to get to, and townspeople rarely leave the town anymore because it is so hard to find the way out.
Handke seems more interested in describing architecture and landscapes than in describing people. Backgrounds and settings are more important than the characters. This is understandable, since the characters are superfluous and lack empowerment. As in Wings of Desire, the characters in Handke’s novel are lonely, anonymous little people, so insignificant in their dehumanized environment they might almost be invisible. The pharmacist often sees people who look familiar, even like celebrities, but is never able to pin the correct names on them. In a significant passage (which applies to many of his works) Handke writes:
I don’t know why I’ve always had this reluctance to describe people—their faces, their bodies, especially particular features—and why I read such descriptions, no matter how skillfully done, with distaste, as if they were unseemly.
The fact that characters are not given names emphasizes their insignificance. The hero, a pharmacist of the old school, still insists on filling prescriptions by combining the various ingredients himself rather than merely counting pills out of bottles. He is married but totally estranged from his wife. They live together but occupy opposite ends of the house and avoid each other.
The pharmacist is so old-fashioned that he takes a medieval interest in the medicinal properties of wild plants, which grow in profusion because there are so many open spaces left over from the havoc of World War II. He is particularly interested in mushrooms. He eats them at home and even brings them along to be cooked for his dinner when he eats in restaurants. Throughout his travels he gathers and samples the various kinds of mushrooms to be found in different parts of Europe. There are more edible types than anyone but an expert would suspect existed; in fact, an expert might deny the existence of such a wide variety. The reader could easily get the impression that the pharmacist’s goal is not to find himself or to find love or happiness but to collect mushrooms, the way Vladimir Nabokov collected butterflies. The pharmacist, whose wants are few, enjoys mushrooms for their taste and aroma but also for the psychedelic effects some produce. He will eat dark, malodorous, misshapen fungi no...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)