Only Disconnect : ABSENCE by Peter Handke translated by Ralph Manheim (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $17.95; 117 pp.)

The four nameless characters in Peter Handke's latest novel are like paper dolls, suspended against a bleak sky in a chain of silhouettes that block the scant light. Told in a strangely passive voice that appears to rise from a void, "Absence" is not only about the condition of being absent--it also demonstrates the condition through the absence of words, connections and characterization.

Though Handke's characters are indifferent and detached, his language soars at times. His old man "resembles an old singer, long fallen silent." The woman, who has been told by her lover that she is corrupt and destructive, lives surrounded by photos of herself in which she "displays the same look of imperiousness and of knowing herself to be the center of attention." The gambler, impassive and volatile, mumbles to a packet of bank notes: "Instead of embodying the world, I am the point where lovelessness is concentrated." The soldier disengages himself from the attention of others by focusing on things around him. His parents accuse him, "You don't make your presence felt. . . . You're there and then again you're not. It's your absence that drives us away from you."

In previous works, including his splendid recent novel, "The Afternoon of a Writer," Handke creates intentional gaps, challenging his readers to climb into the texture of his fiction and drama. But in "Absence," the fabric is stretched taut across an abyss, a fragile web of words and interactions too fragile to guide one to the other side of the abyss.

A brilliant and successful writer who has stunned and outraged his audiences, who has moved them deeply, who has jabbed at the complacency of society, Handke has proven himself to be far too skillful to have left all these gaps by mistake. They're intentional. He takes a huge risk in pulling us into this absence, this nothingness--but unfortunately the risk doesn't work. I like Handke's work. I've admired his novels and plays for many years, have read them in German and in translation, and I'm disappointed by his new book while realizing that, perhaps, he succeeds in what he intended--to create such a strong depiction of absence that it leaves a void in me.

Within his significant body of work, Handke has frequently explored the insufficiency of language, as well as the absence of intimacy and communication. Though he has written about bleak situations, his characters are usually complex and unique in their struggles with self and community. But unlike the protagonist in "The Afternoon of a Writer," the characters in "Absence" don't have the depth, the awareness, the despair at being detached, or the struggle with wanting and fleeing intimacy. They're swimmers who "have left no trace in the wind-ruffled lake."

Handke describes the occupants of a sanitarium for the elderly as "immobile, inactive, and for the most part unseeing." But that description fits every character in this novel. The old man, the woman, the gambler and the soldier are cast together in a surreal journey where time slows and the landscape contains elements of different continents, where the weather changes drastically and objects take on a weight they didn't have before, where the woman's suitcase contains anything she could possibly need. In their undefined quest, the travelers drift along, believing "there was nothing more to investigate or discover on Earth."

The strongest scene in the novel emerges when Handke lets his characters feel the impact of a storm. Even his language--which until then has sounded as though an indifferent observer, watching from a great distance, were relating the story of a journey void of motivation and destiny--takes on a new intensity and power. The rain "streamed down the backs of our hands, slammed into the hollows of our knees; bowing our heads, we saw sheets of water . . . heavy and increasingly cold, terrifying." Odd moments of intimacy link the woman to the old man, on whose shoulder she rests her head, and to the gambler whose hair she cuts. In a cave, the travelers form a community, one unit "in which all of us not only heard and saw the same things but in addition were all of the same age and sex."

Handke's narrative frequently reads like stage directions and, indeed, much of "Absence" has the texture of a play waiting for the interpretation of a director, and for three actors and one actress to move into the roles of the characters. As the curtain rises, they stand with their backs to the audience, delivering toneless monologues in a sequence of frozen moments that mirror the emptiness of contemporary society as well as the numbness of the detached individual in a confusing landscape--yet without involving the audience in the passion of that emptiness.

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