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Peter Handke: Der Bildverlust (Crossing the Sierra de Gredos)

When this novel was first published, it was hammered by German and Austrian reviewers. They accused it of being self-indulgent, going off on his usual tangents, being too intellectually demanding and being too abstruse. Well, yes, of course it is. That is what makes Handke great and what makes this novel so fascinating but let’s not pretend that Handke is an easy read. If you want an easy read, stick to airport bookshop novels. Of course, the German reviewers might have been put off by the length – the German text has 759 pages – though Handke has written other long novels. Or they may have been put off by Handke’s often controversial views, particularly on Serbia. Whatever the reason, they have missed out on a fascinating novel.

The novel tells the story of a woman banker who has obviously had a successful career. She is known as the Finance World Champion and seems to be hated by many. She was born in East Germany but gradually moved farther away from her place of birth and now lives in a northwestern river port city. She has a daughter but the daughter has long since disappeared. She has asked an author to write her story. The author has been successful but has not published a book for nearly ten years. We (deliberately) know nothing about the woman or the author, apart from their nationality. When he visits her, he stops at a shop and Handke uses, in the German text, the Spanish word tienda, rather than the German word Laden. We know she speaks Arabic, as she even talks about the trees around her house using both the Arabic and German names for them and carries an Arabic book with her on her journey, partially, no doubt, because her husband was an Arab. We know that she is attractive, as people have likened her to a film star. But she wants nothing known about her personal details and wants them disguised, with the exception of the story of her brother. He is a terrorist and is currently in prison for his terrorist activities, though we don’t know where, except that it is a two hour plane journey and then a two hour taxi ride for her. No-one knows of his existence but she wants the author to tell his story.

To tell her story, our financial heroine has decided to cross the Spanish mountain range, the Sierra Gredos. She is heading for La Mancha, where she will meet the author and which, of course, is the home of Don Quixote. She starts out from Valladolid to where she flies from her home town. Even the journey starts out in an odd way as she is seated next to a strange child, who tells her of her death. She has travelled this mountain range before, when she was younger, with her husband and daughter. But this is not going to be your straightforward Quixotic adventure, replete with windmills to tilt at. What we get – through her thoughts, her memories and her conversation with the author – is the story of her life but more her life imagined than her life lived. Indeed, right from the beginning, we learn that, for her, it is the image that is important, whether it is the natural world she sees and observes or her memories of her life, which has been lived not only in Germany and her current home but also in other parts of the world, including, of course, the Sierra Gredos. And it is this that we get for much of the book – her images, real or imagined, views of the world and of the Sierra Gredos but also of other parts of the world, of historical personages and events and of strange lives lived. And the images are not just of the physical but of the varying emotions she feels and has felt and conjures up. As this goes on for some five hundred pages of the book, it is easy to see why some reviewers found it hard work and hard work it is. This is a book that needs to be read several times to be appreciated but, at 759 pages, is unlikely to be read more than once by most readers.

The images come at you from all directions as he jumps around, with small paragraphs sometimes continuing on from the previous one and sometimes going off on a new and not always fathomable tangent. You have to stop and think and ask yourself, What does he mean and where is he going? and suddenly he is off somewhere else. If you are the sort of a reader that needs to have everything clear and explained, you are going to be very disappointed in this novel. Indeed, you are probably disappointed with Handke’s work as a whole, but if you are able to appreciate that what he is trying to do is not tell a conventional, linear story but an image-driven story, where poetry is more important than plot and fact and perception more important than reality, then you will realize that this is a fascinating and important work.

Publishing history

First published in German 2002 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux