Shane's Reviews > The Moravian Night: A Story

The Moravian Night by Peter Handke
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This was a rather difficult book to read, in style, structure and sequence. Although the storyline hangs on a retired writer’s journey through his past stomping grounds back to his family home, it looked like a self-indulgent romp in time and memory by Peter Handke with nary a care for the reader, as if “through his writing he could re-order time according to his own pace and escape reality.”

In summary, a retired writer (Handke?) summons a group of loyal friends to his boat house on the Morava River for a meal and to a recounting of his recent journey through Europe. The tables on board the boat are each arranged for a single person, each positioned so the person sitting at a it is pointed away from the rest of the guests. There is an attractive woman on board whom no-one knows and who flits in and out of the dinner party. That these guests, summoned at such short notice, would linger long into the night while the host rambles on about his travels suggests that they are total admirers of his work and are dedicated to his well-being.

The ex-writer’s peregrinations go from the Balkans to the edge of Portugal and Spain, back through an eight-mile tunnel into Germany, and on to the family home in Austria. The narrator is always a third person or persons, sometimes someone at the boat party and sometimes an unnamed one, and I wondered why Handke chose this complex narrative structure, for it is difficult to read and follow; the style is a confluence of many streams of consciousness, flowing and overlapping like the currents of the Morava River.

The places the wandering ex-writer winds up have shades of the macabre: a cemetery where one half of a town has killed the other half; a young girl he had once had an affair with, who has now been reduced to begging and to hurling curses and excreta at him; a symposium on sound where all the delegates have been damaged by it and yet one delegate, a monk, says, “Silence can also destroy”; hiking in the countryside with a poet who knows nothing about the novelistic craft, while our writer in turn does not get poetry; meeting a populist writer who states that only the language of journalism is alive and that literary writing is dead; meeting his brother, a world traveller, who feels the world in his body parts and has not read any of the ex-writer’s books. Our wanderer is even seen behaving irrationally on some parts of his journey by some of his guests on the boat who then take up the story on his behalf.

He meets odd characters: a young rock climber in Austria, an old man in Portugal editing a manuscript, and the idiots of Santiago de Compostella, to name a few. The woman appears and reappears on this journey, loving him and then being beaten by him. I struggled with the allegory and the symbolism here. Was she his nemesis? His muse? Does she have to be beaten like he has to batter his books to give them character? Why is she now at peace with him on the boat? Because he has finally given up writing? And what does the dog symbolize, for this animal also shows up in places along his journey?

I got it that he is mourning the break up of the Balkans into fragmented states: “new borders have cropped up, new countries carved out of old.” There is even a dying band of Central European partisans meeting annually to resuscitate a unified Balkan state. Handke has a soft spot for the Balkans due to his maternal ancestry being from that side of the world, and which was brought into focus by the recent Nobel Prize furor over his expressed sympathies for Slobodan Milosevic.

At the cemetery where his parents are buried, he has a revelation: he attains a heightened state of awareness and describes the minutia of ant colonies, bumblebees and grasses. Upon his return home to the Morava riverboat he finds that time away on his travels has changed what was home. There are bomb craters now, the signage in the enclave he lives in has changed from Cyrillic to English, the river has dried up, and the boat has been pulled ashore. Symbolism? Meaning? Go figure!

The only redeeming elements here for me were the complex but fluid sentences, the powerful imagery, the writer’s connectedness with sights, sounds and smells, and the reflections of a writer who has passed his “best by” date. Maybe the Nobel was conferred upon Handke for his boldness to go into these areas.


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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 7, 2020 – Shelved
January 7, 2020 – Finished Reading

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