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Experience II - The Ninth Country: Peter Handke's Repetition

 
It begins with a spare and simple sentence in which so much is held:

A quarter of a century, or a day, has passed since I arrived in Jesenice on the tail of my missing brother.

The next sentence:

I was not yet twenty and I had just taken my final school examination.

The author, at forty-five, is remembering a trip he took when he was nineteen. A quarter of a century has passed since that day (looking at the copyright notice of the book, you learn the narrator is the same age as the writer; Peter Handke was forty-five in 1986, the year Repetition was published), but it is as though it happened yesterday.

The narrator, Filip Kobal, though of Slovene descent, has never been out of Austria. He is off to Yugoslavia instead of following his schoolmates for a trip to Greece. He has the surname of an old Slovene hero who led the Tolmin peasant revolt back in the eighteenth century. "It was he who had said - and his words were still renowned in the Republic of Slovenia - that the Emperor was a mere servant and that the people had better take matters into their own hands."

The story has begun. We learn the preceding fact from a border guard, but also that Kobal meant "the span between parted legs, a 'step' and consequently a person standing with legs outspread" - and that on the very first page. Underline it, I tell myself, it has the look of a motif. And true enough, it is re-echoed later on. The book is full of such motifs (is that the word?) - the Mayans, the fairy-tale telling teacher, Filip Kobal's double - none of which are explained for many pages.

You have to be patient and wait for the pieces to come together. But do they come together? They are not pieces of a puzzle to be solved. Each, rather, finds in its correlate (the Mayans and the people of the Karst, each a people of the expanse, the fairy tales of the school teacher and those of the words in the narrator's brother's dictionary) what echoes it but what also returns it to itself. Each term is allowed to resonate in its difference from the other. Nothing quite fits. The Mayans are not Karst Slovenians; the fairy tales of the teacher are not those of the words in the dictionary; Filip Kobal is not his doubles or his brother and his journey, too, is different. Strange that repetition should be the repetition of a difference and not that of the same. This difference, this repetition is the life of Handke's book.

One has to wait two hundred pages to find the motif I underlined being taken up again:

One day on the crest dividing Austria from Yugoslavia, my father spread his legs, one foot on this side, one foot on the other, and made one of his short speeches: 'See, this is what our name means, not straddler but border person. Your brother is a man of the interior; we two are border persons'.

The many motifs are made to reverberate around an absence whose mystery the narrator will not solve by finding his brother.
 
*****
 
The narrator is carrying two of his brother's books. The first is a copybook containing his brother's notes as a student at an agricultural school in Slovenia. The other is a Slovenian-German dictionary, in which, we learn later, various words are underlined. These were the only books in the house the narrator grew up in. Reading the copybook in the Bohinj, he writes,

it seemed to me that my brother's handwriting was right for this new country; the handwriting of a settler, of a man about to start on a journey, whose writing is an intrinsic part of this starting-out and not the mere record of a continued action.

It is a handwriting which is even and undoubting, that of a leader or a discoverer. The Kobals are known for their beautiful handwriting. The narrator is an exception; unlike his brother he does not have a handwriting of his own - 'my present style was copied from him', he writes - he has already, we learn, published a story, but it would take the typewriter to teach him to write properly. That time is still to come.

His brother, studying agriculture, was likewise on the cusp of turning twenty. His copybook did not simply record lecture notes, but makes up a kind of treatise on the planting of apple trees in his own orchard.

I couldn't help reading my brother's observations on grafting and on transplanting young trees as in part a Bildungsroman.

After the brother disappeared, the narrator did not tend the orchard; he was busy, he said, unlearning his competence at every kind of physical work. His mother was ill, his father busy, only his sister - mentally ill, according to the narrator after a failed engagement - visits it occasionally.

Who is the father? One of a devout and hardworking stock of Slovene journeymen, a hired hand who was able to build himself a house in which he was never happy until the end. An unhappy man; a bully. Who is the mother? A non-Slovene, godless and blasphemous, who expects salvation only from the hard work of her family whom, she hopes, will one day make their way back to that valley from which her family sprang.

Sometimes the mother and father press their foreheads together, whispering. The narrator speculates later they whisper about his missing, much missed brother. The one who was held up to the young Filip Kobal as a paragon.


*****


His brother had started to write Slovene at agricultural school. Until then, he'd spoken a Slovene mixed with German, unlike the narrator, who only speaks German. The brother wanted his family to imitate him. Perhaps this is what it means to call him a 'man of the interior'. He found in this foreign country what he would call in a letter 'our most essential possession': the language of his forebears, Slovenian.

His letters, written mostly in this language, show what he was: pious - not with a religious piety, the narrator explains, but pious in a more general sense, pious towards all things. He was close to what is holy. Too, the brother is possessed by irony, which tempers his despair at finding himself drafted as a solider. The mother thinks her older son joined the partisans, but her younger one writes: 'My guess is that he simply disappeared, no one knows where'. Nineteen year old Filip Kobal is travelling in Yugoslavia to find his brother, Gregor Kobal. To find him? Rather to repeat the journey away from Austria in his own way. A repetition repeated in turn by the forty-five year old narrator, who is retracing that journey of his younger self, remembering what, he claims, in a beautiful passage, had not yet hardened into a memory:

What I had experienced at the age of twenty was not yet a memory. And memory meant not that what-had-been recurring, but that what-had-been situated itself by recurring. If I remembered, I knew that an experience was thus and so, exactly thus; in being remembered, it first became known to me, nameable, voiced, speakable; accordingly I look on memory as more than haphazard thinking back - as work; the work of memory situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.

Memory as storytelling, and the teller as the one who keeps memory, who puts it to work.

Filip Kobal has gone to seek out the brother of whom he had heard celebrated throughout his childhood. He seeks yet one who was close to holy, pious, but who often wrote to his family of his despair as a soldier. Every day is the same, his brother complained in his letters. But hope still exists for Gregor Kobal. It is present in the very grammar of his letters. He writes in German (there is no future perfect in Slovenian), 'We shall have walked on the green track'; 'the boundary stone will have been moved to the edge'. Lines written in a kind of hope as they release him from his present and from the present of his younger brother. It is as though he waits for Filip Kobal in a time that has yet to come to pass. Everywhere Filip Kobal has been, Gregor Kobal has been already.

The narrator says he has only a fragmentary legacy of his brother - one which resembles that of the ancient Greek philosophers. Fragments, moreover, that speak in a language as yet unfamiliar to him, though one he will try to learn. Filip Kobal calls his brother his forebear. It is this forebear who is still watches in kindness over him. But his brother, he writes, does not bring him peace; he is there, rather, to strengthen that peace and the peace of writing.

Accordingly it was impossible to lean on my forebears (the only effective forebear, this much I know, is the sentence preceding the one I am writing now).

Gregor Kobal brother watches over Filip Kobal's writing, over the starting-out of his younger brother, which is also a repetition of his own journey.

*****


Slovenian, the narrator recalls, used to repel him; it sounds menacing to him, usually because he associates it with authority - that of the teacher of grammar at school, for example, or in church. Hardly a language, it was for him only an ungainly hybrid, full of borrowed words. But now there is his brother's example as a speaker of Slovenian. As one who discovered Slovenian as the tongue of his people.

The words of the dictionary they tell Filip Kobal of a tender and peaceable people who have names for the humblest of things - for the space under the windowsill or the shiny trace of a braked wagon wheel on a stone flagstone. A people drawn to name the intimate and the small, places of hiding and places of safety. A gaunt, bony, awkward people with rough-hewn features in whom the narrator discovers kinship and finds beauty. Each 'self-reliant, bold, rebellious, independent, each man of us the next man's hero'; each alive 'in an immanent world obedient to the laws of weather, of sowing, repeating, and animal diseases, a world apart from, before or alongside of history'.

The people of the Karst rose up with the ancestor the older brother chose for himself. But if there is a rebellion, it is one of peace, a stern peace that demands insurrection at one moment (the Tolmin uprising) and, perhaps, disappearance at another (the older brother). A rebellion which reveals itself in things to Filip Kobal as they call out from the heart of his childhood. Each Slovene word is a fairy tale about a world that is now disappearing. A world of the working class to which his parents belong, whose only two books were those left to them by their disappeared son.

The narrator comes across to last word marked by his brother in the dictionary. It is annotated 'at the front'. The last half of the dictionary is unmarked, its pages clean. The brother left the dictionary at home as what he calls 'a baptismal present' and disappeared. A gift his younger brother, for whom the language of his own time has become inexpressive and dull, will receive in turn.

Then:

To annihilate means to do away not with a particular human being but also with what gives the world its cohesion. To eliminate someone like my brother - who, unlike the great mass of those who speak and write, had the gift of bring words and through them things to life, who never ceased to exercise that gift and to point out examples as he was doing now to me - was to kill language itself, the living tradition, the tradition of peace; it was the most unforgivable of crimes, the most barbarous of world wars.

A few pages later, the narrator finds himself weeping for 'things and their words'. Things and their words. Not words and the things that accrue to words, but things as they have given themselves to be named by the men and women of the Karst and the Bohinj. Those things which called for names to bring them out of obscurity and now, reaching Filip Kobal, the narrator, allow him to receive his childhood again.

They will allow him to receive his own language anew, too. The narrator quotes a German word as rich and interesting as the Slovenian ones he came across. Kindschaft, literally childscape, but which, a footnote explains, has the meaning of filiation or adoption. The Karst, described in the third part of the book, my favourite, is often linked with a new baptism. More precisely, it is the wind that passes over that landscape that is baptismal. Reading of the Karst, I feel as though I am reading about reading itself, that I am passing across the surface of a great expanse of words.

*****


Repetition is a book about the birth of names and the rebirth of childhood. It is a book about a repetition which Filip Kobal seeks by writing, by journeying and by journeying in writing. But it also a book about filiation and adoption - about the act of choosing a descendant, his brother and in experiencing writing, too, as a kind of inheritance. Each sentence that inherits from and follows previous sentences; writing itself is his forebear as it asks to be continued.

In one of his letters from the front, Gregor speaks of the legendary country, which in the language of our Slovene forebears is called the 'Ninth Country' as the goal of our collective longings[....] I now saw a possible fulfilment of his pious wish: in writing.

The ninth country: is it this to which the elder brother pointed when he wrote in the future perfect? Is it this of which he dreams writing in a language without a passive voice? His young brother, his descendant writes: 'My purpose had not been to find my brother but to tell a story about him'. To repeat the journey of his brother, retracing it, does not necessitate a literal reduplication. Filip Kobal has repeated the journey into the Slovenian language started out by his brother. Repeated it by living in his own way the Bildungsroman of his brother's treatise on husbandry and his brother's dictionary. Living it, experiencing it as a encounter with language and with things, with things and their language, things and language dancing in that great roundplay in which the world is baptised anew.

The final lines of the book rise in a kind of prayer. One of those lines: 'Descendant, when I am here no longer, you will reach me in the land of storytelling, the Ninth Country'. Descendant - who is being addressed? The ones who have read his story and felt the pressure of his sentences. Felt them fall, one after another as though feeling their way into the future. Us, in other words.

To eliminate someone like my brother ... was to kill language itself, the living tradition, the tradition of peace; it was the most unforgivable of crimes, the most barbarous of world wars. But his brother watches over Repetition. The older man who writes of his younger self is still watched over by his brother. In turn, the words watch over us, words of peace, of a whole tradition of peace.

This is a book that will never end. The task it gives us is to read it as it was written: close to a childhood that is not yours or mine. A childhood in which things call for names and ask to be remembered and repeated in storytelling.


The Ninth Country: Peter Handke's Repetition
is the second of Lars' Experience articles. His first was Leaning Against the Wind: Bernhard's Gathering Evidence, his third is Absalom's Hair: Gabriel Josipovici's In a Hotel Garden and his fourth is Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life.
-- Lars Iyer (10/08/2005)

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