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Peter Handke: Kali [Potash]

Handke’s books often concern loners making strange journeys to somewhat exotic, perhaps mysterious locations. This is one of those books. A woman singer – we do not know her name – has just finished a singing tour in a Northern city and she is now leaving. Not only is it the last performance of her tour, it is the last performance of the season in the city because, as her limousine driver says, all performers now head South, as winter is approaching. She is heading it seems to her childhood home, a pre-winter city but also an emigrant (not immigrant) city, as Handke describes. (Even this is ambiguous, as when, a guitarist she is talking to, asks her where she is going, she replies In meiner Kindergegend. Oder nein, in der Nachbargegend. In der Gegend gleich neban, hinter dem Kindheitsfluss, hinter dem Kindheitsee, hinter dem Kindheitshügel. In der Gegend hinter meiner Gegend. [In my childhood region. Or, rather, no, in the neighbouring region. In the region immediately next to it, behind the childhood river, behind the childhood lake, behind the childhood hill. In the region behind my region.]) The city seems to be called Emigrants. The local football team certainly is. The area is noted for its huge underground reserves of salt (hence the title of the book), which were formed from a large long since disappeared sea and mining this salt is one of the occupations of the local populace.

Our heroine has something of a picaresque journey round this strange city. When she arrives, things seem quite straightforward. Indeed, the bus driver recognises her, as they were at school together. He even invites her to stay with him as he is not only a bus driver, but the owner of the local hostelry. the people she meets are not what we would call straightforward. They speak also as though they come straight out a fable – in a strange language, almost a philosophical language, but in conundrums and statements and Handke-like obscurities. And the whole visit is described in almost a dream-like style. She meets her mother who, she feels, has been expecting her but the mother takes it almost for granted when she turns up unannounced. We learn that (like Handke’s mother), her mother is not from that region but as to where she is from, several wildly conflicting options are given, none of which may be true. And there clearly are immigrants. One man states that they used to be from the East but now come from everywhere. This clearly mirrors the situation in Austria, where immigrants used to come mainly from Czechoslovakia, fleeing Communism, but now may come from anywhere. Indeed, we see a group arriving by boat and Handke clearly points out that they are not white.

Is this country a version of Austria, a pre-winter Northern country? And who is the singer? One man says of her Sie verkörpern das Tod [You personify death]. Austrian writers have made a point of showing Austria as some sort of deathly place – think of Thomas Bernhard and Elfride Jelinek, and Handke himself has certainly not been afraid of criticising his country. The immigrants are, as explained, first, the Eastern Europeans and now the immigrants found in most European countries. But there is another theory offered by one of the characters – the survivors of World War III. In other words, this is not just Austria but post-apocalyptic Austria.

The book needs careful reading and, as always with Handke, there are areas where you do wonder what might be happening. But this ambiguity is, of course, part and parcel of Handke’s style and part of what makes him such an interesting writer. The world is changing and, for Handke, not necessarily for the better. The old world – represented here by the woman vicar who is keen to hang on to the way things were – is slipping away from us and there is not much we can do about it. However, we have to adapt to this new world. It is an ambiguous confusing, difficult world, where the culture of death is strong. It is a bit preachy but, as with all of his books, well worth reading. Sadly, it is not available in English.

Publishing history

First published in German 2007 by Suhrkamp
No English translation
Published in Dutch as Kali: een voorwinterverhaal by Wereldbibliotheek in 2009
Published in French as Kali: une histoire d’avant-hiver by Gallimard in 2011
Published in Italian as La montagna di sale: una storia di inizio inverno by Garzanti in 2011
Also available in Danish