By this point in the review, the reader is perfectly justified in demanding an answer to a key question: What’s the story? Well, it’s a story of two halves, or rather two distinct phases of unequal length. (There are no chapter breaks, although unlike his more misanthropic compatriot Thomas Bernhard, Handke at least lets us pause for breath between paragraphs.) As the novel begins, a writer who, like Handke, lives in a village outside Paris sets out one August afternoon across the capital and into the Picardy region. Observing his environs as he goes, he sporadically refers to a young woman he calls “the fruit thief” who also seems to have gone on a similar journey into the country’s northern provinces. This “fruit thief” – we later learn her name is Alexia – seems at first to be his mental image of the protagonist in a novel he intends to write, or rather, is writing. It becomes apparent that in tracing her steps, real or imagined, across inland France, he is writing his way into her and thus conjuring the novel into being. In short, Handke doesn’t just give us the story, but also, as was the vogue in the days of Milan Kundera and literary postmodernism, the imagining of the story and the conditions from which it emerged.
The France that the narrator travels through is recognizably one of the recent past, still in shock after the jihadist atrocities – a nation at war, yet “silent and paralyzed with terror.” As his train exits Paris, a noise startles the narrator and his fellow passengers: “Fear was in all our bones. … If nothing else, we contemporaries had something in common now. “
I’d have gotten on better with this book if Handke had continued with his first-person peregrination, doing away with the fictive conceit in favor of something akin to his 1996 Serbian travelogue, “A Journey to the Rivers” (the kind of book that, in his Nobel Prize speech, Handke called “my narrative excursions or one-man expeditions”). However, a unidirectional shift occurs some 75 pages in: Suddenly the wanderer is no longer thinking intermittently of Alexia, but has removed himself from the stage in order to tell her story. The phantom limb pain of expecting that we will revert to the “I” perspective fades into an acceptance that we’re stuck with Alexia for the remainder. The young woman is roaming through Picardy in search of her mother, having recently returned from an impromptu voyage to Siberia. While there is no shortage of descriptive color and incident, albeit of a low-voltage variety (a dance with an innkeeper, some dialogues with a gloomy boy named Valter, and so on), this long stretch – the bulk of the novel – is , frankly, hard going.
As an avant-garde firebrand in the 1960s, Handke wrote an “anti-play” titled “Offending the Audience,” but now his strategy has shifted perilously close to Boring the Audience to Tears. Much like the narrator imagining the character of the fruit thief, I kept trying to envision a subset of readers who genuinely find this stuff delightful. Lacking most of the elements that draw people to fiction – insight, suspense and so on – it falls to either the language or the narrative material itself to make the novel worth the reader’s while. Although both have their moments – a mad speech in the final pages, an interlude at an inn that takes on the lighting and atmosphere of old European folk tales – the meal served up by this deeply eccentric novelist is spare and saltless, with no wine and no dessert. I suspect it’s the destiny of such an uncompromising writer as Peter Handke to end up writing basically for an audience of one. His most loyal readers, perhaps, adopt an attitude of veneration, hushed and solemn and more or less bored, the way many people attend Mass.