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Short Book, Long Apology : A JOURNEY TO THE RIVERS: Justice for Serbia.<i> By Peter Handke</i> .<i> Viking: 83 pp., $17.95</i>

<i> David Rieff is the author of several books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West" (Touchstone)</i>

For all the divisions that became apparent between their nations once the former Yugoslavia descended into war in 1991, Western European and North American intellectuals were remarkably united in their responses to the catastrophe. In this way, as in so many others, the Croatian and Bosnian wars seem to have recapitulated the experience of the Spanish Civil War more than half a century earlier.

Then as now, the stances of the major outside powers were either frankly to side with the rebels (Franco’s Fascists in 1936; the Bosnian Serbs in 1992) or to remain formally neutral but interpreting that neutrality to mean that the government side (the Spanish Republicans; the authorities in Sarajevo) was to be prevented as much as possible from obtaining the weapons it needed to defend itself. All the while, most intellectuals in these same countries condemned their governments’ policies, taking sides in 1992 with Sarajevo as they had taken sides in 1936 with Madrid. And while there were, of course, no international brigades in Bosnia--perhaps it would have been better had there been--more than a few intellectuals made the dangerous trip to Sarajevo during the siege, and many more became active on Bosnia’s behalf at home.

To say that this was the position of the overwhelming majority of intellectuals is not to say that all writers and artists side with the Bosnian Republic any more than all had upheld the Republicans over Franco. T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound had, with varying degrees of ardor, favored the Fascists in 1936. In the early ‘90s, though a certain number remained neutral or expressed indifference, the list of actively pro-Serb intellectuals was short in every major country except Russia. In the West, probably the best known of these was the Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke. For him, what crimes the Serbs had committed they had been provoked into committing. Germany, he argued, was the real villain of the crisis, with its premature recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence.

As the war continued, Handke, by his own account, grew more infuriated by what he viewed as the way in which journalists in newspapers like Le Monde and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and his fellow writers had lined up against the Serbs. In the end, indignation turned to action, and Handke traveled to Serbia in the fall of 1995. The result is “A Journey to the Rivers,” a travelogue-cum-essay of 83 pages, whose subtitle, “Justice for Serbia,” makes its author’s ideological intentions plain enough.

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When the book appeared in Germany last year, it caused a sensation. In the last year, Handke has exploited the ruckus to the fullest, engaging in endless polemics in the French and German press and lecturing and debating the book’s many critics (notably the German writer Peter Schneider, whom Handke singles out for attack in his text) in dozens of forums. As result, “A Journey to the Rivers” has acquired a renown that few travel books, particularly ones that are thin in their arguments and sparse in their reportage, ever receive. Handke’s assiduous self-promotion (he has largely put on hold his other writing to argue his pro-Serb case) and the fact that, given the pro-Bosnian stance of most other writers of Handke’s stature, there is something of a “man bites dog” quality to the book, doubtless help to explain the attention it has gotten.

And some explanation is certainly needed. For as the English translation, capably rendered by Scott Abbott, reveals, there is little in the book that is of much interest except that Handke wrote it and that it takes the Serb side. There is virtually no reporting and only the crudest sort of historical analysis. Although Handke seems disposed to believe the claim that the Serb secession from Croatia was absolutely justified, he never talked to a Croatian Serb leader, let alone attempted to visit the Krajina or Eastern Slavonia regions of Croatia on which the Serbs established their mini-state in 1991.

More astonishing, Handke, so full of opinions about the real nature of the Bosnian conflict about which, he states over and over again, he and not the various reporters who actually covered the war has the truest sense, declined to set foot in Bosnia itself.

Toward the end of “A Journey to the Rivers,” Handke does, indeed, go to the Serb-Bosnian border, but he chooses to stay on the east bank of the Drina River. When he gets there, for a moment his confidence in his view falters. “Isn’t it,” he asks himself, “finally irresponsible . . . to offer the small sufferings in Serbia--the bit of freezing there, the bit of loneliness, the trivialities like snowflakes, caps, cream cheese--while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihac, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing?”

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“Yes” is the obvious answer, just as the question damns Handke’s contemptible book more effectively than any critic could possibly hope to do. But he believes, as he puts it, that by recording “certain trivialities,” he is paving the way for reconciliation far more importantly than by what he calls recording “the evil facts.”

It is an assertion to take the breath away, coming as it does at the end of the book. For it becomes clear (as it has not been throughout the book) that Handke appears to believe that his aimless meanderings through Serbia, his splenetic assertions about the foreign press and his ill-informed assertions about the mentality of the Serbs he encounters (whom he caricatures as surely as he defames the reporters whose work he so completely misrepresents) are actually acts of peacemaking.

The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, except presumably, as he does throughout much of the book, when he’s talking about himself. He came to Serbia knowing nothing about its complicated politics and, to judge by the book, left knowing no more.

The obscenity of his portrayal of the Bosnia he never deigned to visit is clear enough, but what is far sadder is that the people “A Journey to the Rivers” defames most terribly are the Serbs. For as recent events in Serbia have demonstrated, the Serb people are anything but the monolithic nationalists that Handke portrays them as being. Many opposed the war and despised the Milosevic government. But they are nowhere to be found in Handke’s book. He prefers his Serbs as he imagines them, not as they are.

Had Handke visited an opposition leader like Vesna Pesic or asked to have translated for him the broadcasts of the anti-government B-92 radio station, he would, of course, have discovered the complexity of what has been going on in Serbia throughout the war. Had he talked to any of the excellent foreign reporters he castigates in his book, they would certainly have explained just how nuanced and at odds with itself as well as with the outside world Serbia really is.

But since Handke chose not to inquire too deeply and to leave Serbia as he had come, a prisoner of the folkloric cliches about the place he had formed in irritation before he set out, he must have been astonished by the sight of young people demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis against the Milosevic regime and the dark prison that Serbia has become.

Justice for Serbia? Myopia about Serbia is more like it.


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