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Peter Handke: Die morawische Nacht (The Moravian Night)

Note that the title refers to the river Morava and not to Moravia in the Czech Republic. Handke uses a Germanised form of the Czech word, rather than the usual German word, March. The Moravan Night is a houseboat. It used to be a floating hotel but has been converted for use as a personal houseboat of the author or, rather, as the narrator quickly points out, the ex-author (he has not written for ten years) who is the focus of this novel and who may or may not be, at least in part, based on Handke himself. At the beginning of the book, a group of people – friends, associates, like much in this book it is not entirely clear – come to the boat, which is moored on the Morava river (though we do not know exactly where or, indeed, in what country). They are sat at individual tables. As well as the ex-author, there is a woman there. Who is she? We do not know. We learn from him some of his life, in particular how he had to flee from a woman who was out to kill him (we will learn about her later) But we also learn of strange journeys he made.

The first journey is a strange one through an enclave (he uses the term in German) which may or may not be Kosovo. All we know is that they goes through Porodin. They are a group of a people on a bus (an old bus, with Cyrillic writing on the side). The ex-author (we never learn his name, he is known only as the ex-author) generally keeps himself to himself and so do the others but there are occasional interactions, such as we when they all start asking him awkward questions or when the driver criticises the people of small ethnic groups struggling for their independence, and not just the ones in former Yugoslavia. The road takes them through ruined towns though some are still inhabited and occasionally they are greeted by the inhabitants or followed by the police. They even see tanks. But they also see buildings destroyed, waste all over the place and dead animals. Some villages are completely uninhabited. Both the descriptions of the landscape and the reactions and thoughts of the ex-author and some of the passengers are haunting and masterly told, as only Handke can.

But we also follow his other, earlier travels. He spends time on an island in the Adriatic, which he calls Cordura (named after the film They Came to Cordura), though that is not its real name. Here he lives a life of isolation, mixing only with the fishermen. He goes to Spain, starting with Numancia, where he attends a conference on noise and meets the poet Juan Lagunas, who tells him that we no longer have an association with a place any more and that this is something irretrievably lost. He travels around, particularly in Galicia, seeing places, meeting people and going to football matches. It could be boring with a lesser writer but Handke keeps our interest going at all times. He then goes to Germany, specifically to a small town in the Harz mountains where his father had lived. He had barely known his father and wanted to discover his roots but his visit did not help. The (naturally unnamed) town did not seem German to him but could have been any where. This may partially have been because it was near the East German border but also because he felt more Balkan than German. He looks for his father’s grave in the cemetery but it is not there. When he inquires at a nearby flower shop he learns that graves for which the upkeep had not been paid were dug up, to allow space for the recently died. He remembers only his father’s death, suddenly keeling over and telling his wife, Lina, that he was dying. The narrator points out that this is the only German name he mentions during his story.

This points to one of the key themes of this work. Later in the novel, the ex-author narrator will comment on this issue of belonging, of place as well as talking about the land and languages and cultures. This is now all confused, citing the example of an Asian and Turkish immigrant talking to one another in a strong Austrian dialect. We are part of this whole – our language, our land, our culture – but we are individuals as well and this has also taken a terrible blow in the post-Yugoslavia conflict. There is a telling image of the narrator ex-author going to a conference and visiting a cemetery called the Cemetery of the Nameless, a cemetery where unknown corpses and the corpses of suicides were buried. There is even a gravestone which reads simply Nameless. Never to be Forgotten. (It reminds us, of course, of the father’s grave which has now gone.) It is ironic, of course, but also, for Handke, deeply sad that these people have been forgotten. But, in the end the Porodin Enclave is no longer an enclave and Porodin is now Porodin and no longer Породин.

Handke is one of the most important authors writing today, even if you find his views on Serbia somewhat disturbing. Yet, of the many books published by him since 2000, relatively few are available in English. Yes, some of his works are long (this one is 560 pages but still much shorter than Der Bildverlust (Crossing the Sierra de Gredos) and yes, he is very prolific but more, much more of his work should be available in English. This one has made it into English but it remains to be seen how many others will.

Publishing history

First published in German 2008 by Suhrkamp
First English translation by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2016
Translated by Krishna Winston