Saturday, April 07, 2007

Scott Abbott's, a Handke Translator's, letter to The American Scholar

Michael McDonald opens his essay on Peter Handke by calling him “The Apologist” (The American Scholar, Spring 2007). He points out that the Austrian writer appeared at the funeral of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Then he poses a question: “Should we forgive him?” The answer for McDonald and others more interested in controversy than in thinking, is obviously no.
As the translator of Mr. Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (Viking, 1997), a book at the heart of the debate McDonald discusses, and as author of half-a-dozen articles about Handke’s work, I don’t even recognize the “Peter Handke” McDonald vilifies. He has given readers of this journal a conveniently evil creature of his own heated imagination. I hope he doesn’t use this evidence to justify going to war with Austria.
A century ago, Gustave Flaubert collected examples of clichéd ideas in France, calling his work The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas (translated for New Directions by Jacques Barzun). The entry for “America,” for instance, reads “If it weren’t for the discovery of America, we should not be suffering from syphilis and phylloxera. Exalt it all the same, especially if you’ve never been there.” And the accepted way to respond to the name “Machiavelli”? – “Though you have not read him, consider him a scoundrel.”
Michael McDonald considers Peter Handke a scoundrel without having read him. Consider a couple of entries from the catalogue of accepted ideas that make up his “argument”:
Milosevic, “a man most disinterested observers believe to have been responsible for a series of wars that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people during his 13 years in power.”
Milosevic, “the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’”
Justice for Serbia, “part political harangue and part travelogue”
Handke, “has never abandoned his bedrock faith that language is merely a set of debilitating fictions used to mask reality.”
The “essay” is a naïve catalogue of such popular ideas, asserted as common sense, even in the face of obvious contradictions like the one that has Handke believing that language is only debilitating while attacking him for his argument (in language) that Serbia, like Croatia and Bosnia and Kosovo and Montenegro, ought to be dealt with justly.
McDonald is unable to think that the civil war that destroyed Yugoslavia had multiple perpetrators, including Milosovic, Izetbegovic (Head of Muslim Bosnia), and Tudjman (head of Croatia) – (accepted ideas necessarily simplify, and who can remember that many foreign syllables anyway?).
McDonald proves that Milosevic was alone guilty by reminding us that people called him the tellingly alliterative “Butcher of the Balkans.”
McDonald denigrates the beautifully provocative Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia with words that better describe his own blunt thinking: “political harangue.” Compare, for instance, the following self-reflexive, self-doubting sentences from the end of Handke’s book with McDonald’s rigid and certain prose:
But isn’t it, finally, irresponsible, I thought there at the Drina and continue to think it here, to offer the small sufferings in Serbia, the bit of freezing there, the bit of loneliness, the trivialities like snow flakes, caps, cream cheese, while over the border a great suffering prevails, that of Sarajevo, of Tuzla, of Srebrenica, of Bihać, compared to which the Serbian boo-boos are nothing? Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn’t obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden -- which made the writing journey adventurous in a different way, dangerous, often very depressing (believe me), and I learned what “between Scylla and Charybdis” means. Didn’t the one who described the small deprivations (gaps between teeth) help to water down, to suppress, to conceal the great ones?
Finally, to be sure, I thought each time: but that=s not the point. My work is of a different sort. To record the evil facts, that=s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.
Michael McDonald does not record the evil facts, nor does he provide readers of The American Scholar with ideas that promote peace. He wants Peter Handke to be and to remain punished.
When Günther Grass, whom McDonald champions as a moral counterweight to the guilty Handke, supported Germany’s actions against Serbia during the wars, some Serbs decided to burn the copies of Grass’s books they had collected and read before the war. Peter Handke suggested that they keep the books, that they wrestle with the ideas, that they respect the work of a fine novelist.
Grass’s ideas are important. As are Handke’s. McDonald’s are a disgrace.
Scott Abbott
Woodland Hills, Utah

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