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Peter Handke: Die Wiederholung (Repetition)

Written by anyone else, this could have been a very boring book but, written by Handke, it works. It tells the story of Filip Kobal. He is writing in the present (i.e. 1980s) as a forty-five year old, recounting his childhood and, in particular, a journey he made into the Slovenian part of what was then Yugoslavia, when he was twenty. He and his family (father, mother, brother and sister) live in Austria (Filip was born there), just over the border from Yugoslavia. His father and many of the villagers are Slovenian in origin (Handke’s mother was, too). His father keeps some contact, reading a weekly church newspaper in Slovenian. His brother, Gregor, who was born in Slovenia, studies the language. Filip, however, does not speak the language and considers himself Austrian.

Filip recounts his growing up, how he felt somewhat detached from the rest of the village (like all Handke heroes, of course). His father, a carpenter, was bit of a loner. His sister, Ursula, was mentally disturbed and Gregor had lost an eye as a child, as his parents had been unable to get medical treatment for him. Two enemies make a big impact on him, the first being a boy his own age, with whom he fought and the second being a teacher at the boarding school where he was for five years (like Handke himself). But much of his life was mundane, till Gregor went off to agricultural college and then disappeared into Yugoslavia during World War II. When he is twenty, Filip, unlike his contemporaries who want to go off to Greece, sets off for Yugoslavia to look for his brother. Much of the book is about the twenty-year old’s journey as seen from the perspective of the forty-five year old.

With another author, we might have expected a story of the young man looking for clues about his brother and eventually either finding him or, at least finding traces of him. But Handke is not interested in Filip finding his brother (which he does not, though he does find a trace of him). Their mother thinks that Gregor might have joined the partisans but Filip thinks that he has just gone into Yugoslavia and got swallowed up. At the end, he says that his plan was not find his brother but to tell his story. In other words his journey is not to find his brother but to find what made his brother (and his father and himself) what he was. Filip has two books belonging to his brother. The first he thought was a published book but, when he looks at it, he realises that it is a book of notes Gregor made when he was at agricultural college, specifically concerning growing fruit trees. The second is a Slovenian-German dictionary, published in 1895, which contains translations of idioms used in various parts of Slovenia. Handke gives us lengthy excerpts from both. This could have been very boring and very nearly is but Handke just manages to keep us interested, comparing Gregor’s view of the natural world with the depredation that he sees, as well as giving us samples from the dictionary of Slovenian idioms (You move as slowly as the fog when there is no wind is one example.)

Filip/Handke’s aim is partially to recover his sense of being Slovenian and all that that implies. It means the language, the landscape (the karst area, which he compares with the Maya territory, is an example), the people and the psychology. Nothing much happens, as Filip wanders around but Handke’s story-telling is so exceptional that we cannot help but be fascinated by what he (and Filip) see what it means to be Slovenian. Yes, at times the story drags a little, and this may not be Handke’s best work, but it is still masterful and a work well worth reading.

Publishing history

First published in German 1986 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 1988 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux