A joke about the novels of Austrian writer Peter Handke goes something like, “Should you start reading them from the front or from the back?”—alluding to their almost plotless nature and to how each focuses minutely on the mundane observations of a central character, usually a self-absorbed loner. In such previous works as Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (1975; A Moment of True Feeling, 1977), Slow Homecoming (1985), and Der Chinese des Schmerzes (1983; Across, 1986), Handke has spun out volumes of such observations. Having lived almost a decade in Paris, Handke clearly shows the influence of the French New Novel on his fiction. More than anything else, though, Handke draws on his own personal experience to achieve a sense of authenticity, creating a kind of postmodernist neorealism that occasionally rises to poetry. The observations of Handke’s central characters suspiciously resemble those of Handke himself in his journal, Das Gewicht der Welt (1977; The Weight of the World, 1984). Thus, one term often used to describe his novels is “solipsistic.”
In these respects Repetition is not much different from Handke’s previous novels. Yet Handke’s techniques are better suited here to his central character, Filip Kobal, a callow youth just graduated from the gymnasium. One does not expect shrewd observations from Filip, but one is sometimes surprised by his freshness and enthusiasm—a reminder of Joseph Conrad’s theme that youth is a special time. The actual point of view in the novel is of a forty-five-year-old Filip looking back on himself at the age of nineteen and twenty, but Handke seems to forget about the older perspective for long stretches. The older perspective mainly provides an important overall capping effect and some occasional jocularity. For example, young Filip gets so carried away by his enthusiasm as he sits reading on a Yugoslav mountainside that he jumps up, runs about the mountain, and bursts into song, much to the amusement of passing villagers and the older Filip. Generally speaking, however, it is the consciousness of the younger Filip that dominates the novel.
A measure of young Filip’s callowness is that, even though his mother is dying at home, he sets off in the summer of 1960 in search of his much older brother, Gregor, who disappeared during World War II when Filip was a mere infant. Yet Filip’s instinctive search is not so much for his lost brother as for himself. To find himself, he must first become “lost” like his brother. That is, he must leave his confining home situation and domineering old father; he must repeat his brother’s experience of breaking away. Otherwise, he could become lost like their sister, who, rejected in romance, now sits at home in an autistic stupor.
Hence one can hardly blame Filip for wanting to follow his older brother’s footsteps. His home situation is truly depressing, and his growing up (told in short flashbacks) has not been much different. As the only youngster in a saddened, aging household, he hardly knew what childhood was like. School might have offered him companionship but apparently did not. In his first school he was harassed by boys from a neighboring village and an “enemy” from his own village who shadowed him. He was sent away to his second school, a seminary where he was homesick and made an enemy of his favorite teacher. He commuted to his third school, the gymnasium in the nearby town of Klagenfurt, where he stood out as an awkward country boy among the glib city teenagers. By the time he is graduated, it is not surprising that he has developed solitary habits, that he is ready to break away, and that, instead of joining his classmates on their trip to Greece, he heads out alone for Slovenia, his ancestral homeland and the place where his brother presumably disappeared.
The Kobals’ Slovenian ancestry serves to connect the themes of family and breaking away to an even more important theme in the novel—cultural marginality. The...
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