One ought to be a mystery, not only to others, but also to
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Every country has its rivers. That afternoon it was the Sava, not far from where it flows into the Danube under the once-stern gaze of Belgrade’s Kalemegdan fortress, far from the lesser rivers of my own American West. A houseboat was the gathering place, a rustic restaurant with no sign to announce its presence. The invitation had come in response to questions about a translation. Peter Handke had replied, in English: “On April 8th I shall be in Belgrade / Serbia. Žarko will come too, also Zlatko. And you??” On the back flap of the envelope, below F-92370 Chaville, was an Arabic word I could not decipher. A friend later said it was “Chaville.”
Packed into a little Peugeot, a big Jeep Cherokee, and a good-sized taxi, the column of friends, fellow travelers, and distant neighbors wound off the backbone of the white city. At the end of a streetcar line in New Belgrade the Jeep bumped up over the curb and ascended a steep dirt path to the top of a dike. The Peugeot eased tentatively over the curb and up onto the dike. The taxi followed a more circuitous route but found the top of the dike as well. The cars parked and the passengers disembarked.
Peter Handke tugged a dark-brown stocking cap over his grey hair. He wore a knee-length black coat, black pants that twice had been lengthened by hand, and high-top black shoes. Dark-haired Sophie Semin wore a long black coat with sleeves colorfully embroidered by her husband. Ljiljane Kapor was youthful in brown pants and a matching jacket. Her attentive assistant Marija had neon-red hair. Maja Kusturica warded off the cold with an elegant white coat and bright blue scarf. Thin-lipped poet Matija Bećković wore a brown coat and a Sherlock Holmes hat. Theater director Mladen Materić’s blue jeans were baggy at the ass. Short-haired novelist and translator Žarko Radaković had no hat but was snug in a brown wool coat. A dark-haired Belgrade journalist and her younger protégé wore dresses under warm coats. And I, a university professor who wanted, someday, to call myself a writer, was comforted by a black coat against which my long grey hair looked nearly white.
The first week of April still saw the river at its spring-flood stage, making access from the shore difficult. Wooden steps led down the grassy dike to a long plank bridge that carried the party out between still leafless trees whose trunks seemed surprised to be rising out of the floodwater; at the bridge’s end ten steep steps led down into the shallow water; two weathered planks reached from the last step above water to a forklift pallet; three planks continued the makeshift bridge to a gravel bank from which two steps led up onto a platform supported by four red 55-gallon drums; from that secure perch, thick planks reached onto a long floating bridge that ended at the door of a low-roofed restaurant for boaters on the Sava River—and on this day, for the eleven guests who had approached over the labyrinthine path.
We shed our coats and scarves and hats in a dining room heated by a small wood fire in a cast-iron stove. Windows looked out over the Sava on one side and to the flooded trees on the other. We took seats at a table that stretched the width of the room along two long windows.
On the previous night in the Hotel Moskva, so late in the night that the next day had already begun, so late that who knows how many bottles of Riesling, including a special bottle of Morava offered by the attentive hotel manager, had been emptied by the three who remained after the Serbian poet had said good-night and Sophie had gone to bed—on that night before the afternoon on the Sava Žarko entertained us with stories about a legendary pair of sly and slow-witted characters. Mujo and Haso went to a soccer game. They agreed that whenever either team scored they would drink a pint of beer. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. Let’s go to a basketball game, suggested Haso. Suljo painted a picture with two naked people and took it to a gallery. It is called “Mujo in Sarajevo,” he told the gallery owner. Who are the people? the owner asked. The woman is Fatima, Mujo’s wife, and the man is Haso. And where is Mujo? Mujo is in Sarajevo. Peter claimed he was not a good teller of jokes but that proved to be only partially true. He said, for instance, that he was thinking about repainting Caspar David Friedrich’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon.” He would paint only one man, he said, a drunk who would stand there contemplating two moons. I was halfway through a long joke before I remembered it required an English-language pun and the joke limped to its conclusion. I mentioned my brother who had died of AIDS two decades earlier and described the book of “fraternal meditations” I was writing: “Immortal for Quite Some Time.”
Peter looked at me curiously: Du bist mir ein Rätzel.
I am a puzzle to myself, I replied.
The meal on the houseboat began with a toast: slivovitz in small glasses raised to the author whom the Kapor Foundation and the Serbian president would honor the next day. Plates of tomatoes, spring onions, radishes, and kajmak cheese were the first course, served with mineral water and carafes of red and white wine. Platters of breaded Sava fish followed, big fish steaks with roasted potatoes and Serbian salad.
My mind slipped to the afternoon at Peter’s house in Chaville. Had it been ten years? Fifteen? Peter sautéed mushrooms and served them with dark bread and Portuguese white wine. He gave me the first pages of the American translation of Mein Jahr in der Niemandsbucht and asked for an evaluation. I read a few pages aloud and then pointed out an early sentence that, in the original, ended with “. . . an der Stelle des zwischendurch mich weiterwürgenden ‘Ende’ das Ding Verwandlung.” The translation rendered this as “. . . the ‘end’ that still gagged me now and then was more and more firmly replaced by this metamorphosis thing.” With the throwaway silliness of “this metamorphosis thing,” I told Peter, “Das Ding Verwandlung” has lost its philosophical tension. And the carefully wrought, eleven-word original phrase has been bloated to nineteen flaccid words. Your sentences have been flattened, the nuance is gone.
It had struck me then and now again that this is what I most feared about my own life, that it was commonplace, lackluster, banal, flaccid. At the turn of the century, at the beginning of the new millennium, still married, still practicing the Mormon religion I had been raised in, I woke from a nightmare in which my little car was surrounded by a never-ending cluster of identical cars that descended from the sky in ranks of ten to land in perfect synchrony and drive obediently along an endless highway just wide enough for ten little cars. I fled the marriage, left the Mormons, and sought antidotes to the unsettling dream in Handke’s supple and self-questioning sentences, found succor in the author’s preface to A Journey to the Rivers where he asserted that he had written about his journey through Serbia “exactly as I have always written my books, my literature: a slow, inquiring narration; every paragraph dealing with and narrating a problem, of representation, of form, of grammar—of aesthetic veracity.” I would live with aesthetic veracity, I thought. My life would be a slow and dialectical unfolding. And I would be skeptical of my attempts at aesthetic veracity and dialectical unfolding.
That day in Chaville, Peter showed me a letter from American publisher Roger Straus to Siegfried Unseld, Handke’s German publisher: “We have a problem, and his name is Peter Handke.” The books weren’t selling as they once had. How was it possible, I asked myself, that an editor with Straus’ reputation had no idea what the translations were doing to Peter’s work?
I removed the bones from my second fish steak and reflected on how challenging I found each new book. It helped to read with a pen in hand. Der Grosse Fall/The Great Fall, for instance; I had read it slowly, fascinated by the dual metaphor of standing and falling announced by the title, attentive to the slow, inquiring progress of the metaphor. I wondered if my method was compensatory gratification for the sterile pedant I feared I had become. No, I thought. I was finding my way out of dualistic dead ends through the simultaneously critical and affirmative ideas Peter so often conjoined with “and.” I had once written about this productive interplay in Peter’s novel Die Wiederholung/Repetition, describing the method as “postmetaphysical metaphysics.” Peter disdained abstractions of that sort.
The afternoon hours passed without seeming to pass. The courses of food and pitchers of wine were ever-changing constants as the houseboat lifted and fell with the river’s insistent current. I was experiencing, I thought, a kind of standing now, a nunc stans in which memory was as present as the experience itself.
Peter moved to an adjoining table to speak with the Serbian journalists. Žarko joined them as translator, a role he had played dozens of times over the years while traveling with Peter in what had been Yugoslavia. I realized that the wine had gone to my head like the scent of elderberries at the Hallesches Tor in ETA Hoffmann’s “The Gold Pot.” Peter looked tired. The journalists asked their questions. Žarko translated them. Peter responded. Žarko translated the responses. Žarko looked tired as well.
“Or” had been my original conjunction. I spent two years in Germany as a Mormon missionary. I knew the truth and knew that other people needed it and I bore witness that if they would pray as he had God would reveal the truth to them as well. My German improved and I began to read—Buddenbrooks, Mutter Courage, Der Steppenwolf. Nietzsche’s wild-eyed Zarathustra taught me that we create our truths instead of finding them. Lessing’s wise Nathan offered a parable in which the magic ring was mercifully lost. I too would essay a life on my own terms, I thought, on my own terms and yet in the context of the American, Mormon Volk I had left and that was still with me even as the minutes and hours of the afternoon on the Sava were stretched and enhanced by wine and tiredness.
I admired the lively face of the man Žarko described as one of Serbia’s greatest living poets and marveled at Mladen’s heavy brows and enjoyed the animated interaction between Maja and Sophie as they smoked and talked and smoked. I observed red-haired Marija as she moved around the room to take photos of the gathering.
The German writer Peter Schneider attacked my translation of A Journey to the Rivers for presenting Peter’s work in a less controversial light than it deserved. I replied that Schneider either couldn’t read or refused to read. Criticize what is there, yes; but criticize what you put there with your simplistic and inflexible mind and you become the aggressive and stupid critic I was afraid Peter took me for when he called me Dr. Scott. I am a Germanist, a good one. I am also a writer, co-author with Žarko of two books described in Belgrade as a “two-seater without steering.” Couldn’t a person be both a writer and a critic? Was it the double role that made me a puzzle to Peter?
When had I begun to write my non-critical work? Why had I done that? It was Žarko’s fault, I thought. Žarko had asked me to contribute to a Belgrade journal and then to his anthology on childhood and then to the Flugasche issue on the painter Julije Knifer and then the invitation to the book Repetitions and later to Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary. It was Peter’s fault as well. Peter’s books engaged me, called to me even, made me want to understand, to pay attention, to weigh possibilities—and beyond the understanding to write, to write about myself.
If I ever wrote a book about Peter Handke, I told myself as the houseboat rose and fell gently in the wake of a passing boat, I would write about the dialectical texts and certainly not about this afternoon on the Sava. I wanted to write about Žarko’s books as well. I would learn Serbian, I thought, Serbo-Croatian, so I could read my friend’s Tübingen, Emigracia, Knifer, Era, Strah od Emigracije, Pogled, Kafana, and so on. I had made that vow before. I would make it again.
The river flowed past, heaving and falling like a mother’s breasts. Marija was brilliant and Handke looked tired and Sophie and Maja shared more cigarettes and Mladen gestured broadly and Matija Bećković said hello to me and in English which Mladen translated into Serbian I told the smiling poet that Žarko had said he was the best of all living Serbian poets. The poet winked and said Žarko always told the truth. I said I had known Žarko to lie on occasion. Not in this case, the poet replied.
I was exhausted after five hours on the houseboat on the Sava River. Time folded in on itself with the food and the wine and Mladen’s huge head and Žarko’s solicitous translations and Sophie wincing with her back pain and another pitcher of wine and overlapping conversations translated back and forth from Serbian and English and French and German and even Spanish and the poet’s funny stories about another Serbian poet and soft cheese and onions and more wine. Peter asked the young journalist if she had a boyfriend and she said yes and he asked for his name and she said Vladimir and he said Vladimir? Vladimir! and fish soup came and I asked Marija with her beautiful sharp nose and bright red hair about the man in blue eating alone at a separate table and she said he had a factory that made medals like the one the President of Serbia would give to the Peter the next day and, she added with a smile, he gives away a lot of medals! and I said he must be a very good President then and she laughed and said oh yes he’s the best there is and I suggested that perhaps the President would give Žarko and me medals too and she said it would surely happen but that it would probably require that we stay in the country just a few more days and I said we were leaving on Thursday and would that be long enough? and she thought perhaps it might require the weekend as well and the fish soup was followed by thick fish steaks accompanied by potato salad and the Sava flowed as slowly and powerfully as time while swallows dipped and rose outside the window and a photo of Angela Merkel handing a scholarship notice to the son of the houseboat owner hung on one wall and Peter joined the two journalists at another table for an interview Žarko translated and I stared at a photo of a man holding a huge fish in his arms and Marija asked the houseboat owner who said it was a Sava River fish like the one that lay in steaks in front of us and, raising a glass of wine to my lips, I realized that the cold spring meant that there were no orgiastic frogs croaking the way they had alongside the barge on the Danube that night fifteen years earlier when Žarko and I sat with the filmmaker Edgar Pera and drank Jelen Pivo and pissed through a hole in the restroom floor into the Danube and I thought of the book I had read by David Albahari, the one called Leeches, and about the nationalist antagonisms and conspiracy theories sucking nourishment out of the postwar Yugoslav state and then we ate nicely toasted cream puffs and deliciously oily baklava and Maja told rapid stories in French while she and Sophie and Ljiljana shared stilletto-thin cigarettes from a pack that was giving out and I wondered why so many “j”s are required for the name Ljiljana and the Sava flowed unceasingly and I, politely, at least I was trying to be polite, asked Maja Kusturica what she did professionally and she asked me, in English, to repeat the question and when I did she raised her shapely eyebrows and expelled cigarette smoke through her nose and looked me in the eyes and said “I suffer” and I wanted to laugh but smiled instead and she smiled back and time flowed on like the Sava River.
That night, lying alone in the dark in what had been Žarko’s mother’s apartment, I remembered the pleasure I had felt the previous day when I bought a copy of Žarko’s translation of Peter’s Die morawische Nacht/The Moravian Night, featured that month in the windows of Belgrade’s bookstores. Žarko signed it for me and wrote a fraternal dedication:
In Peters Morawa münden wir immer wieder ein, und immer wieder fließen wir daraus, und niemand weiß, wohin sich diese gewaltige mäandernde Wassermasse bewegt. Wir zwei, mein liebster Freund, bleiben immer dabei . . .
We flow again and again into Peter’s Morava and again and again we flow out of it and no one knows the course of this powerful meandering water mass. We two, my dearest friend, will always be there . . .
Scott Abbott lives on a mountainside in Utah. He is co-author, with Žarko Radaković, of Repetitions, Vampires & A Reasonable Dictionary, and of the forthcoming We: A Friendship.