Peter Handke: Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht. Ein Märchen aus den neuen Zeiten (My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay)
There are some authors that you read and you know that there is a good chance that not only will you enjoy the book but you will see that the writer is an authentic master. This is the case with Handke. Some of his many books do not meet his usual standards, that is for sure, but many of them do and this one certainly does. Some critics have complained that it is boring and, indeed, if you are looking for excitement, sex and love, you will be disappointed but, if like me, you believe that the reflexive novel – the novel where the author/narrator gives us his view of the world – is where the novel is and should be going, then this is as fine an example as you will find.
The story concerns a writer (and former lawyer) called Gregor Keuschnig. This is both a reference to the main character of Die Stunde der wahren Empfindung (A Moment of True Feeling), who was called Georg Keuschnig but, as he often calls himself Gregor K., a clear reference to Kafka‘s Gregor Samsa/Josef K. Keuschnig is clearly based on Handke himself. Like Handke, he is divorced from his wife though Keuschnig’s wife is Catalonian. He continually refers to her as the Catalonian woman and we only learn that her name is Ana well into the book. They have a son, Valentin (Handke and his wife had a daughter), who, when talking to his father, refers to his mother as your Catalonian woman.
The year in No-Man’s Bay only occurs in Part 4 (the final part) of the book and nearly two thirds into the novel. Though it is fairly isolated, it is in fact within a short distance from Paris, near to Versailles, and in the Vélizy-Villacoublay region, an area Handke will have got to know when he lived in Paris. Before that we learn a lot about Keuschnig and, in particular, his desire for isolation. It is not that he is or wants to be a total hermit, it is just that he prefers being on his own and living alone. He recounts several stories, both of people who also seem to want to be alone and of himself and his isolation. He starts off, for example, by telling of his time in Mongolia, working on a UNESCO-funded development project. He speaks Russian, the common language, while a colleague, a German, who does not speak the language at all, manages to communicate far better with the Mongolians than he does. Indeed, as he says, he makes every effort not to communicate with them. His marriage to the Catalonian woman seems to have been an unmitigated disaster and a continual attempt by both to keep away from the other, though she has the habit of turning up at unexpected times both in his life and their son’s life. The stories of the other people mirror this isolation. There is, for example, the singer, thinking of death, and travelling around the world on his own to places where he is reminded of death or the reader, also travelling around and trying to read the books he feels he has to read.
Of course, in all of these stories Handke is, as usual, full of brilliant insights into the human conditions and particularly about the isolation of humans. There is communication but it is usually the exception and not the rule. When he finally moves to his No Man’s Bay, even though it is but a short distance from Paris and he can see the lights of Paris at night, we get the sense of a much greater isolation. He lives on his own in what seems to be a cabin in the woods. He does get occasional visits, including from the Catalonian woman, but, in general, his contact with the outside world is scant. Most people who come there do so by accident, because they are lost. There are some locals but they seem to be either itinerant forest workers or less than communicative natives, except for a Russian priest. Keuschnig barely reads, either newspapers or books, focusing on writing the book that will become this book. He collects mushrooms, ruminates on his world and life and has minimal communication with the Russian priest. Once again, both Handke’s ruminations on the human condition and on his life are what makes this book so fascinating. There is no conclusion, except that the singer was missing – or was he?
First published in German 1994 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1998 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux