Powerfully alive, honest, and at times deliciously satirical, The Moravian Night explores the mind and memory of an aging writer, tracking the anxieties, angers, fears, and pleasures of a life inseparable from the recent history of Central Europe. In crystalline prose, Peter Handke traces and interrogates his own thoughts and perceptions while endowing the world with a mythic dimension. As Jeffrey Eugenides writes, “Handke’s sharp eye is always finding a strange beauty amid this colorless world.” The Moravian Night is at once an elegy for the lost and forgotten and a novel of self-examination and uneasy discovery, from one of world literature’s great voices.
Every country has its Samarkand and its Numancia. That night, both places were here with us on the Morava. Numancia, located in the Iberian highlands, had at one time been the last refuge from and bulwark against the Roman Empire, while Samarkand, whatever it may have represented in history, became and remains legendary, and will still be legendary when history is no more. On the Morava, in place of a fortress we had a boat, to all appearances a rather small one, which styled itself “hotel” but for quite a while now had primarily served the writer, now the former writer, as a dwelling. The HOTEL sign merely provided cover: almost anyone who inquired about a room for the night, a cabin, would be told “No vacancy” and sent packing. Such inquiries, however, hardly ever occurred, and not only because the boat always anchored in places along the river to which no proper roads led. On the rare occasions when someone did find his way there, it was because of the “hotel” sign beckoning at a great distance through the darkness, across the fields bordering the river: MORAVIAN NIGHT.
The boat was not really anchored, merely moored to trees or pilings, and in such a way that the hawsers could be loosened quickly and easily—whether for a quick getaway or simply for pushing off without any fuss, for maneuvering upstream or downstream. (After many years of sand and silt buildup, not entirely the result of war, during the period in question long stretches of the Morava had become quite navigable again, all the way to the sources of its southern and western branches, thanks to a flourishing and—almost—universally recovering economy that was spreading even beyond the borders of our country, previously reduced to the most wretched backwater of Europe.)
On the night when we were summoned to the boat, it was tied up between the village of Porodin and the town of Velika Plana. Although Velika Plana lies closer to the river, the summons came from the riverbank on the Porodin side, far from the bridge linking the two towns, and as a result we zigged and zagged, each of us wending his way separately from the village, turning now left, now right, along cart tracks that switched direction from one field to the next. Since all of us happened to be in Porodin or nearby villages, on various farms, we, the friends, associates, distant neighbors, collaborators of the former writer—each of whom had been his traveling companion on one leg of his journey or another—soon formed a convoy of sorts, in cars, on bicycles, on tractors, and on foot, the latter making as rapid progress cutting across fields as those in vehicles, who had to follow bumpy tracks that kept veering away from the destination on a course to nowhere that soon petered out. Even those on foot, with that glowing MORAVIAN NIGHT sign seemingly just a hop, skip, and jump away, would unexpectedly happen upon a deep canal that forced them to make an abrupt turn, only to find themselves facing an impenetrable thicket that forced them to turn off again.
Why had our boatman chosen to make the Porodin area, of all places, his residence? We could only guess. Some surmised that it had to do with a story told all through the Balkans between the wars—it had always been either wartime there or “between the wars”: apparently a peddler had been killed by a local resident, for which the entire village had done penance ever since on the anniversary of the murder. Others believed that he had moved there because of the Morava, to be able to gaze out at the river, especially its shimmering bends, one just upstream, the other downstream. Still others speculated that it had to do with the many crossroads and forks in the good-sized village, where he simply wanted to sit on the terrace outside one of the little Balkan taverns, watching flocks of sheep grazing as far as the eye could see, a glass of the cloudy, iron-rich local wine in front of him.
It was long past midnight. As if by previous agreement, we had gone to bed unusually early, and were already fast asleep when the summons reached us. Yet instantly we were wide awake. Not a moment of bewilderment or confusion. The wake-up call had come in a number of ways, but mainly by mobile telephone. One or two, however, heard a messenger knock on the barnyard gate or toss a pebble at the window—one little knock or a single little stone was enough. And one of us, opening the door to find the procession assembled outside, told the others that as he had lain in his bed in Porodin with the curtains open as wide as they would go, he had been startled out of his sleep by the seemingly imperious flashing of that neon sign far off in the meadows along the Morava, and the next person claimed to have been jolted awake by a signal sounding more like that from a seagoing vessel than from a houseboat. Jolted? Maybe so. But it had been no ordinary jolt. And however it happened, the rousing had taken place without words. And one way or the other: each of us felt as if the summons had seized him by the scruff of the neck, at once roughly and gently. The telephones had beeped only once. And one of us, who answered a fraction of a second before the ring, with the kind of presence of mind one has only when one has been fast asleep, heard nothing but a very brief, almost inaudible laugh, sounding to him, on the threshold between deep sleep and wide-awakeness, all the clearer, and that meant, without words: “Get up!” The laughter was melodic, and it was not the laugh of our friend on the boat but unmistakably that of a woman, which, however, came as no surprise to the person thus summoned. Nothing surprised him at that moment, nor did anything surprise him as he then made his way across the fields and the fallow stretches—despite the highly fertile land along the river and the all-pervasive new economy, the untilled areas continued to expand—all the way to the MORAVIAN NIGHT. Nothing surprised us, any of us, in that moment of waking long before midnight. And likewise in the hour that followed, as we hobbled and wobbled over sticks and stones: not a flicker of surprise. The prevailing sensation: that of great freshness, coming both from the night air outside and from deep inside us: an all-encompassing freshness.
Those who went on foot reached the boat first. Those with vehicles, even bicycles, had had to abandon them long before they reached the banks of the Morava; it was impossible to make headway in the increasing tracklessness, with more and more drainage ditches and thorny thickets. The hikers, accustomed to the dark, had little trouble finding gaps and crossings, while the drivers and bikers had to grope their way forward, night-blind after switching off their headlights. This description gives the impression that there must have been many of us, quite a large number indeed, a convoy. But that was deceptive: we merely seemed numerous as we made our way across the river valley by night. There were not more than six or seven of us, corresponding, so to speak, to the hours stretching ahead, the episodes, the chapters of the night, until morning. The season: not long before the onset of spring. The date: not long before Orthodox Easter, which that year, in contrast to earlier practice, had been aligned with the pan-European Easter, as was supposed to be done for the foreseeable future. Moon phase: full. Wind: gentle night breeze, stronger down by the river. Fields of clouds drifting slowly from west to east. The first summer constellations, which for a brief hour toward night’s end made way for a glimpse of Orion and a few other winter constellations.
Contrary to one expectation or another, the former writer received us alone on his house- and escape boat. Contrary likewise to various expectations or fears, he looked healthy and, as might have been said in an earlier time, hale; no spring chicken exactly, but steady on both legs (whereas during his years as a writer a typical habit of his had been to shift his weight from one leg to the other, although that “meant nothing; all the people in the village back home did the same, from childhood on”). The way he stood there quietly was reassuring, especially after all the things one or another of those summoned had heard about his tour, his daura, in some stages of which he had been fleeing, in others wandering aimlessly, in others courting death, and in still others running amok on his native continent of Europe.
On the other hand, it accorded with the general expectation that the host seemed not especially elated to see his guests arriving. Not so much as the whisper of a greeting could be heard from the silhouette visible up there by the railing under the invitingly glowing MORAVIAN NIGHT. Not even the hint of a wave to beckon our little band, by now gathered one and all on the brushy riverbank, onto the boat. True, down by the water lay a kind of plank that connected the boat to the land somehow. But it was so narrow, and furthermore angled so steeply, that we teetered precariously as we made our way up it, as if on a chicken coop ladder, dropping onto all fours, one behind the other, as the plank shuddered and we kept sliding back. Obviously he did not reach out to any of us to heave us onto the deck, let alone welcome us. Perhaps also noteworthy was that he initially left us alone on the boat for a long time, only later coming to join us, appearing from god knows where.
Although he had had us summoned, it seemed now as though we were disturbing him. Not only did our arrival not please him; it actually displeased him. He resented it. We were undesirables, interlopers, river pirates. We had expected such a reception, to be sure, were accustomed to this apparent lack of hospitality, contrasting so harshly with the tried-and-true Balkan tradition. Nonetheless, that night we were offended, especially when his first words after a long, rigid refusal to speak chided us for our “servile punctuality,” our “predictability.” And the next thing he did was to switch off the neon sign, leaving us in total darkness on the boat for a while. And likewise the Balkan music, which admittedly had lured some of us on board, fell silent. In its place nothing but the skull-splitting frog chorus from the vegetation along the Morava, which would go on all night, the only other sound being the howling of the trucks on the expressway near Velika Plana, it, too, persisting unabated through the night: the long-distance freight traffic, not only to Turkey and back but also from continent to continent, roared by without a second’s letup.
Once our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, some of us discovered something unexpected about our host: he was swaying his head to the squawking of the myriad frogs and accompanying the distant thundering and roaring of the tractor trailers with a humming that seemed intended to convey a melody. This was new to us because we knew no one more sensitive to noise. Hadn’t this sensitivity escalated to the point that a sudden gust of wind, no matter how gentle, had been enough to make him jump as if an enemy had laid hands on him? And had he been joking when he said again and again that he had given up writing out of a growing dislike for noise of any kind? As time went on, he had come to experience every sound as a racket, as noise, malevolent noise. Even music? Yes, music, music especially, that of Claudio Monteverdi as much as that of Franz Schubert. And after the whistling of wind and the rustling of leaves, once two of his favorite sounds, which had always filled him anew “with an inchoate love,” eventually his third-favorite sound had also become repellent to him—the rhythmic and melodic scratching of his pencil in silence. Could a change in his attitude toward the world of sounds be the result of his participation in the International Congress on the Acoustics of Silence and Sound, to which, as one of us who had accompanied him there knew, one stage of his tour had been dedicated?
We who were summoned to the boat that night were all men; again in conformity with our expectations, he told us to remove our shoes, as one would before boarding a seaworthy yacht. But supposing a woman had been present, no matter who, he would not have hesitated to issue this order. He spoke, however, in an oddly soft voice, different from his usual soft voice. Although we were all trusted friends of his from way back, not all of us grasped immediately that he meant this soft speech to be contagious. To some he had to whisper insistently, “Shush, shush!” At that it became clear to each of us that the prohibition on resonant voices was neither a foible on our host’s part nor a point of etiquette, but a response to danger. Suddenly we all became aware of the danger, though not its specific nature. We felt it: the danger of danger. Not that all of us began to whisper like him; we fell silent. We became completely silent, from one minute to the next. And in that silence we realized that the cessation of the music, like the extinguishing of the MORAVIAN NIGHT sign, had had a hidden significance: both had signaled danger. We stood motionless on the strip of deck by the door leading into the so-called reception area; from there on one side one could enter the “salon” or “restaurant,” on the other side the cabins or hotel rooms, which in actuality, like the “restaurant,” served the boat’s owner as living, sleeping, and watch areas.
What we smelled next was not danger, however. It was the smell of the Morava, as it had smelled for millennia on April nights, when—or so we imagined—the snow began to melt in the southern and western mountains from which it flowed; this smell, at least in our imagination, was something that had persisted through the ages—at most a hint of another smell seemed mixed in with it: maybe that of iron rusting away deep in the water, iron from all the bridges destroyed along the river’s upper course (it goes without saying that they had long since been rebuilt, joined by more and more new ones, including those for the high-speed trains)? maybe from the constantly puffing-up bodies of the hordes of frogs in the reeds along the banks? More likely from the frogs; hadn’t each of us kept in his nose the smell that even a single frog’s warty skin deposited in my hand when I caught him?
Unexpected—or perhaps not—a hug from the boatmaster. One after another we received a wordless, tight, prolonged hug, accompanied by the obligatory mutual three kisses on alternating cheeks; how could it be otherwise? And the door to the enclosed area was held open for us, as if by a bellman, and likewise that to the salon or lounge, as if by a master of ceremonies. The salon was heated by a crackling fire, welcome on that April night on the river. Amazing, a fire like that on a boat, but as previously mentioned, nothing surprised us that night, as almost nothing had for a long time, especially nothing involving our faraway neighbor. This fire, sometimes blazing, sometimes just glowing, provided the only illumination for the rest of the night. And it was sufficient, and thanks to the windows all around the salon we could look out, at the Morava on one side and the floodplain forest on the other. It probably upset no one that various features of the room could only be guessed at; nor did it interfere with the course the night took—more likely the opposite.
Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Austria, in 1942. His many works include The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, My Year in the No-Man’s-Bay, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, and Don Juan, all published by FSG. Handke’s plays include Kaspar and The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, and he wrote the screenplay for Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire. In 2014, Handke was awarded the International Ibsen Prize.
Krishna Winston is the Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature at Wesleyan University. She has translated more than thirty books, including five previous works by Peter Handke and works by Werner Herzog, Günter Grass, Christoph Hein, and Goethe.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
FSG’s Favorite Books of 2016
C.E. Morgan & Lisa Lucas Discuss the Politics of Storytelling
Unforbidden Pleasures: Adam Phillips & Ilene Smith Discuss Agency and Desire
An Excerpt from David Means’s Debut Novel Hystopia