PETER HANDKE is controversial. There is no getting around this, and sadly there is a danger that it may distract attention from the fact that “Crossing the Sierra de Gredos” is one of the most emotionally rewarding and intellectually demanding novels of the year. Handke is controversial but in a way that is different from that of his countryman, Gunter Grass, who as an outspokenly leftist progressive novelist, has only recently revealed in his memoir “Peeling the Onion” that he served in the Waffen SS during World War II.
No, with Handke it is more complicated than that. But it can be summed up by referring to two things: Yugoslavia and “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,” Handke’s book about his travels during the Balkan War and his treatment of Serbia as a victim rather than an aggressor. Many Handke readers who pick up “Crossing the Sierra de Gredos” may expect this story to somehow reflect upon this controversy. They will be disappointed, though the novel contains some small, delicious allusions to satisfy our crass (and forgivable) curiosity. The novel’s heroine (for want of a better word) is of Serbian descent. The story centers on her travels to a distant, complex country much fought over, much beset by a difficult history. There’s a fantastic leap into the future in which Handke imagines Belgrade as being reoccupied by the Turks.
The English title shortens the original German one -- which is “Bildverlust, oder Durch die Sierra de Gredos” or “The Loss of Images, or Through the Sierra de Gredos” -- for no discernible reason. Perhaps the English publisher thought readers wouldn’t trust a book whose title sounds abstract. And yet, the story line is easily told. A powerful female banker is traveling from her home in an unnamed northern European seaport. She has commissioned an author living in Spain’s La Mancha region to write her life story, which the novel frames within her journey to the rather forbidden mountainous zone named in the novel’s title.
Like some of Handke’s other novels -- “My Year in No-Man’s Bay,” “The Afternoon of a Writer,” “Across,” “Short Letter, Long Farewell” -- “Crossing the Sierra de Gredos” is also about travel, and we are invited to participate in Handke’s playful entwining of his story’s heroine, the writer who is composing her story and Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the famous former inhabitant of La Mancha:
“She had one thing in common with the hero of Miguel’s story: she looked for adventures where there were none to undergo, at least no external, visible ones. And accordingly he, that good-for-nothing, that inept soldier and galley slave, that one-armed son of a quack, would he have been the right one to tell her story after all, the only one? But this man Cervantes never did narrate primarily internal adventures such as hers. Or did he? Was it not true that his adventure stories, too, no less than that of the loss-of-images-and-how-one-can-manage-one’s-way-out-of-it, belonged primarily to an interior world, and were for that very reason universal?”
The reader should realize one thing about this novel’s technique: Handke eschews many of those elements beloved by English teachers through the years -- character and conflict development, and an intricate plot awaiting a delicate, tedious explication. As the author writes, warning us, about his novel: “Time played no part in these events, or at least not the usual part. Just as the customary categories of place and space continued to exist but hardly applied to what took place, the hours, minutes, seconds, and such were if not inoperative, at least units of measurement best left out of consideration.... “
However, what remains is far more compelling. The opening sentences of an essay by G.K. Chesterton describe exactly the eccentric feeling one has in reading Handke: “Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.”
Readers participate in the woman’s journey not by an easy and trivial identification with her, but at the artist’s level: It’s as though we were witnessing the creation of the woman traveling and the various losses she has had -- a long-lost lover, a daughter lost, found and lost again, a brother imprisoned for a terrorist act and now freed to drift into an uncertain future.
Handke’s handling of this material is complemented by an incredibly nuanced description of the desire to travel and the fears that such travel provokes as one is traveling.
Reader, don’t worry. You won’t get lost in abstractions: Handke always roots his heroine in a vivid real world. “The mulberry was grafted; a trunk without limbs,” he writes of her as she walks about her property before going on the journey. "[T]he dense branches grew straight out of the top of the trunk without limbs and curved uniformly downward and inward, layer upon layer so that now, with the leaves gone, the tree looked something like an outsized beehive. At the same time the trunk was pitted, with deep, branching cavities that served as a refuge for bats. At the moment they were hibernating there.”
Handke always startles. In one paragraph, he seems to make a defense of the method in his novel -- and of his genius:
“Yet our book has an even greater continuity as its subject.... time leaps or is suspended or piles up becoming concentrated and even dense enough to touch as occasionally happens in a Western; remember ‘The Searchers,’ when the family waits in silence, alone on the prairie, for the Indians’ attack and for death; and the compressed time in ‘Rio Bravo’ where all night long the trumpet of death is played for the group under siege in the jail and it feels as though not just one night has passed but an epic year, an epically compressed eternity.” *