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Peter Handke: Don Juan (erzählt von ihm selbst) (Don Juan: His Own Version)

One of the many joys of reading Handke is that you can always rely on him to produce something different. Looking at the title of this book, you would think that it would be a first person narration by Don Juan of his conquests. And you would be wrong. For a start, it is set in the present day. Despite the title, it is actually narrated by an anonymous narrator to whom Don Juan speaks and then the narrator tells what he has heard. As the narrator says, Don Juan was always looking for someone to tell his story to. The narrator has an inn in the ruins of Port-Royal-des-Champs, near Paris. He spends his time cooking (for no guests) and reading but is tired of reading. One day, Don Juan comes crashing through the hedge, pursued by a leather-clad couple on a motor-cycle. While it is that Don Juan, it is not the Don Juan we think we know, not, as he tells us right at the end, the Don Juan of Molière and Mozart. Indeed, the narrator tells us Don Juan war kein Verführer. Er hatte noch nie eine Frau verführt. [Don Juan was not a seducer. He had never seduced a woman.].

While he is recounting his story, the narrator and Don Juan also spend the rest of the day doing other things. One day, for example, they go to the cinema and see a film about a man who tries to entice a woman to kill herself with him. They watch TV, they eat, they talk, they visit the local sights. Don Juan naps. But, gradually, our narrator (and we) realize that Don Juan is not the Don Juan of myth and story. Yes, he likes (and meets) beautiful women but he does not seduce them. There is, in fact, no sex in the novel. He is not hounded by the relatives of seduced women. Indeed, at the end he goes off with the brother of one of the women he had met the previous week (the narrator is unsure which one). He is concerned about his own dead child. In short, he is not Don Juan.

Handke, as always, tells a wonderful story. He looks at the aspects of time and language that we find in his other books. He looks at the history, not just of Don Juan, but of the place where he is. On one of their visits, for example, they visit a cemetery and look at the graves. Above all, he looks at the person and beyond the myth and legend.

Publishing history

First published in 2004 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux