The Woman of La Mancha

By Reviewed by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Sunday, July 29, 2007


By Peter Handke

Translated from the German by Krishna Winston

Farrar Straus Giroux. 472 pp. $30

Peter Handke's Crossing the Sierra De Gredos, set in an unspecified time in the 21st century, is a beautifully hallucinatory, eerily compelling novel. In it, Handke, a leading figure of the Austrian avant-garde and a rumored contender for the Nobel Prize, relates the story of an anonymous woman living in an unnamed port city of northwestern Europe. She is a powerful banker, equally admired and hated, the subject of countless profiles, a strangely opaque celebrity, yet notorious enough to be recognized, insulted and threatened in airports all over the globe. Handke invests this "queen of finance" with a gift not typically associated with money managers: an extraordinary receptivity to images, which come to her in flashes of illumination and are the mysterious source of her worldly success.

The banker decides to commission someone to write her biography, and she makes a quirky choice, a reclusive writer of fiction living in the Spanish town of La Mancha. I confess Handke's invocation of Cervantes gave me a twinge of momentary alarm. However, fears that still another novelist was clutching the hem of greatness, hoping the long stride of the illustrious predecessor would drag both author and story along in a cloud of borrowed glory, proved unfounded. Handke's novel is no ham-handed rehash of Don Quixote, and his allusions to Cervantes are so delicately respectful, so unobtrusive, that they resonate all the more powerfully because of their discretion.

The banker sets off across the Sierra de Gredos of Spain to keep an appointment with the writer. Over this harsh mountain landscape, which she traverses by bus and on foot, a threat hovers: "The darkness of a prewar period had closed in again." Everywhere she encounters signs of an undeclared, unacknowledged war, flights of military aircraft, refugees huddling in queer, makeshift shelters and cities whose inhabitants manifest bizarre psychological traumas.

As one might anticipate, this journey is a spiritual pilgrimage. The "queen of finance" has lost, or is estranged from, everyone dear to her and seeks to repair the wounds of love and yearning. The trip also provides the occasion for a meditation on the current state of global affairs. References to a detention center known as the "Institution for Implementation of Justice," to the "World and Universal Bank," to a planet that boasts it has no borders yet is beset with "restrictions and prohibitions as perhaps never before," and comments on how the murderous impulses that once were the prerogative of history's mobs are now incarnated in the world's leaders spark uncomfortable recognition. Handke's novel skips, darts and strikes sidelong blows. By turns, it is a novel of ideas, a satire, a poetically sensual evocation of the natural world and a hymn to longing.

Unlike many recent novels set in the future, it is also curiously hopeful. The banker insists that her life story takes place in "a transitional period when there were still, and once again, surprises." The surprises she places hope in are authentic and personal images that "seemed, in the face of the transitoriness and destructibility of the body, indestructible," but which are being displaced by "ready-made and prefabricated ones, images controlled from the outside and directed at will."

Handke's dismissal of modern media is hardly new, but the intensity of his repudiation is. The "alternative images" this book offers, lovely epiphanies of the inner life, transcriptions of the shimmering, transcendent quality of an external world we fail to see, are striking contrasts to the vapid electronic fog that surrounds us. The novel issues a fervent call to look again, both inward and outward.

Handke's goal, I take it, is to produce a work where it is not "the purely external surprising, astonishing, and unusual happenings that provided material," but one that relies on "the astonishing and unusual juxtapositions of external and internal, the interactions and indeed the resonances" appropriate to the time and era, a book capable of " 'lighting the way' (like the rose in the old poem)."

These snippets of quotation not only announce the extent of Handke's literary ambition but also indicate his marriage of style to purpose, conveyed gracefully by Krishna Winston's translation. While a master of riveting, specific and detailed description, he also makes use of philosophical abstractions, aphorisms and question marks that liberally sprinkle every page. Seemingly straightforward declarations are summarily denied, qualified or interrogated. At first, I found this annoyingly evasive, as if I had been handed a fork to eat soup -- and not just any soup, but a dauntingly large tureen of consommé. Yet gradually, I came to understand these were not simply stylistic tics but an attempt to prod perception, and that this wonderful, profound novel asked more than the suspension of disbelief, it demanded attention and patience, "a reading," as Handke's narrator says, "that was neither skimming nor poking around nor devouring, but a reflective tracing, in places also spelling out and deciphering."

Mile by mile, glittering bit by glittering bit, Handke creates a brilliant mosaic that justifies the ecstatic affirmation with which he concludes his novel, an affirmation that bears comparison with Molly Bloom's in Ulysses. Great writers teach us to read anew. Perhaps Handke is one of them. ·

Guy Vanderhaeghe's novel "The Last Crossing" is this year's selection for the One Book Montana reading program.

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