Peter Handke and the Language of War
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Peter Handke and the Language of War

The history of this war hasn't been written yet. It is offensive to be labeled a revisionist because of this statement. With the exception of the Shoah, the writing of history is never final, especially in the Balkans.

Peter Handke, Interview with Antoine de Gaudemar, Liberation, March 27,1997

Peter Handke's Die Fahrt im Einbaum (Voyage by Dugout) premiered at Vienna's Burgtheater on June 9, 1999, the day NATO representatives announced that their seventy-eight-day bombing of Yugoslavia would cease. Claus Peymann directed the play, his last production at the Burgtheater after thirteen high-profile years. Two months earlier, in protest of Vatican and German support for NATO intervention in the war, Handke had renounced his membership in the Catholic Church and had returned the ten thousand Marks awarded him in 1973 for Germany's Büchner Prize. There had been rumors that Handke would withdraw his play in protest of the bombing and that protestors would disturb the premiere of a play they found "pro-Serbian." The play opened as scheduled, to a packed house and largely appreciative audience. Many of Europe's newspapers reviewed the play the next morning, including four in Berlin; three in Vienna; two each in Munich, Cologne, and Hamburg; and a front-page review in Le Monde. The reviews varied widely, but one German headline expressed the unanimous sentiment: "THERE WAS NO SCANDAL."

The play was the then latest of Peter Handke's works provoked by the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a series of texts that began in 1991 with Departure of the Dreamer from the Ninth Country, an essay lamenting Slovenia's declaration of independence from what Handke saw as the productively multinational republic of "southern Slavs." In 1996, after Slovene and Croat secessions from the union led to vicious civil wars (which media accounts almost invariably blamed on the Serbs), Handke traveled in what had become Serbia to write A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (Viking, 1997; my translation) and several subsequent texts, including Voyage by Dugout or The Play of the Film of the War, set a fictional ten years after the war in Yugoslavia. Among the prose accounts of travel in the troubled land, the play stands out generically. Handke's turn to the theatre is reminiscent of Lessing's eighteenth-century [End Page 56] forced abandonment of his theological arguments against a literal interpretation of the Bible and return to his "old pulpit," the theatre, where he argued his points through characters in the magnificent Nathan the Wise. Whatever their form, Handke's work entered into European public consciousness to an unprecedented degree, even for this often public and sometimes controversial author.

"It was principally because of the war," Handke writes in A Journey to the Rivers, "that I wanted to go to Serbia, into the country of the so-called aggressors. . . . I felt the need to travel into the Serbia that became, with every article, every commentary, every analysis, less recognizable and more worthy of study, more worthy, simply, of being seen." Readings from A Journey to the Rivers to packed houses throughout Europe kept Peter Handke, if not the substance of his argument, at the center of a political storm. Audience members repeatedly accused him, falsely, of denying massacres at Srebrenica and of traveling to a bucolic Serbia while war raged in Bosnia, questions raised and answered in the text itself:

Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn't obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden—which made the writing journey adventurous in a different way, dangerous, often very depressing (believe me). . . . But that's not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that's good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.

In response to polemical attacks in the European and American media, Handke reminded readers in the introduction to the American, Spanish, French, and Italian translations of A Journey to the Rivers that he had written about his "journey through the country of Serbia exactly as I have...