A Roman wilderness of pain

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Als J.M. Coetzee den Literaturnobelpreis erhielt, war ich der Macher einer Sendung für den Hessischen Rundfunk. Zwar ist es erstaunlich, wie wenig ich mich in meinem Leben mit zeitgenössischer englischsprachiger Literatur beschäftigt habe, aber sein Buchtitel Warten auf die Barbaren, reizte mich genug, um wenigstens eine kleine Rubrik in meiner Sendung wert zu sein. Da ich das Buch nicht lesen wollte, zapfte ich vom Schreibtisch im Funkhaus Frankfurt-Dornbusch aus die ARD-Medienbank an, um tatsächlich einen ganz frischen Bericht einer Journalistin von Stockholm zu finden – einen fürchterlichen Abklatsch dem ich nichts Nützliches entnehmen konnte. Verärgert, das weiß ich noch, dass jemand für so ‘nen Klatsch gleich eine Person nach Stockholm schickt mit Flugtickets, Übernachtungen usw. – ich hatte ein Interview mit dem Nobelpreisträger erwartet – ging ich am nächsten Tag zum Hugendubel.

Mein Verdacht war irgendwann bestätigt: Bei Coetzees Warten auf die Barbaren handelt es sich um eine offensichtliche und so intendierte Replik des Themas von K.P. Kavafis’ gleichnamigem Gedicht: das Reich (irgendeines – man erfährt nicht, welches) verkommt in eine bequeme Dekadenz, die nur durch einen fiktiven Krieg gegen einen konstruierten Feind – die “Barbaren” – vertuscht wird. Bis es sich herausstellt, dass die Barbaren keine Gefahr sind. Wie schade nun, dass die Zivilisation keine andere Wahl hat, als in ihrer eigenen Grausamkeit zu ersticken.

Die ersten Rezensionen des Romans sprachen von einer Kritik am Apartheid. Coetzee lebte und lehrte damals in seinem heimatlichen Südafrika. Der Film (Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) mit Johnny Depp in der Rolle des menschenverachtenden Obersts Joll) lenkt allerdings den Blick zurück auf die Hauptinspiration des Alexandriners Kavafis, der als überzeugter Bürger des British Empire Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts, auf das römische Reich als eine Allegorie zurückblickte. Die Barbaren in Ciro Guerras Film schauen Zentralasiaten ähnlich, die Landschaft ist nordafrikanisch-levantinisch. Guerra führte Coetzee zu Kavafis; das Heute auf King George und Romulus Augustulus zurück; nahm den Roman aus der politischen Interpretation der 80er heraus und machte daraus ein offenes Kunstwerk. Heute kann ich den Roman dadurch als etwas Neues wieder lesen.

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When J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel prize for literature it was the time I was producing a radio broadcast for Radio Hessen, a state owned broadcasting corporation based in Frankfurt. Surprisingly enough, in my life I haven’t read much contemporary English literature but a title like Waiting for the Barbarians deserved definitely a mention in my radio broadcast.

However, I didn’t want to read the book. So I looked up in the German state-owned broadcasting stations’ media bank to find out that someone had allowed for a colleague to travel to Stockholm … for shopping! While I hoped for an interview with the laureate, she had sent 60 seconds full of boredom. Which is weird. Normally, in 60 seconds you didn’t have the time to get bored…

I had to read the book after all, to verify my suspicion: Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians bears a clear reference to Cavafy’s poem of the same title: the empire (which empire? The reader never knows) enjoys a decadence covered up only with the help of a fictitious threat – the “barbarians”. Cavafy, the poet, and the Magistrate in Coetzee’s novel are the ones with the role to say that the barbarians are no enemy, let alone a threat – to be annihilated by sorrow (the poet) or the authorities (the Magistrate).

First reviews spoke of a work aiming at apartheid. Coetzee lived and taught in his native South Africa back then. Ciro Guerra’s movie Waiting for the Barbarians (2019) though, starring Johnny Depp as the inhumane colonel Joll, focuses on Cavafy’s main inspiration, an Anglogreek one from early-20th-century Alexandria. The empire – the British, the Roman – will not fall. Unfortunately… The movie’s barbarians resemble Central Asians, the landscape is North African and Levantine. Guerra reduces Coetzee back to Cavafy and makes the novel an opera apertà that can be read anew without the restrictions of its interpretations in the 80s.

Pierre Loti le deuxième

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“Peter” heißen beide, der alte Orient- und der neue Balkanenthusiast. Pierre Lotis Erfolg vor hundert Jahren zog schlimmstennfalls Nazim Hikmets Beschimpfung nach sich, der Scharlatan könne doch gar nicht wissen, was der Orient sei. Demgegenüber wird heute Peter Handkes Nobelpreis mit dem Völkermord in Verbindung gebracht.

Journalisten-Bissigkeit kommt wohl Handke nicht zeitgeistbedingt zuteil. Denn, um bei Serbien zu bleiben: Der andere große literarische Zeitgenosse des Landes, Milorad Pavić, durfte ohne Vorwürfe Oriententhusiast sowie ab 1991 Mitglied der Serbischen Akademie sein.

Der Unterschied? Pavić war ja Belgrader. Handke jedoch lebt in Paris. Daher muss erst der Journalist bestimmen, ob er serbische Nudeln und serbische Wälder zu Kriegszeiten verklärt betrachten durfte.

Das nachfolgende Foto und die Assoziation Handke-Loti-Pavić gab mir Belgrad am 10. Oktober des ausgehenden Jahres, dem Tag der Ankündigung der Nobelpreisvergabe. Für mehr persönliche Hintergründe soll sich der Leser den nachfolgenden englischen Text antun.

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Hungry and tired and denied a table in Vuk we strolled in the Knez Mihajlova when I thought of Proleće. You can always find a table there! It was rather too late in the evening of October 10, 2019. Earlier, in the afternoon, still in Greece but near the state borders, the car radio had said that Peter Handke was one of this year’s Nobel prize laureates. Now, despite hunger and darkness, I noticed the announcement of a just finished literary evening “90 years after the birth and 10 after the death” of Serbia’s other great novelist, Milorad Pavić. Wife and children were in a hurry “Where is your plan B? We’re hungry!” I thought I was ridiculous thinking that Handke would have been celebrated in Belgrade in the very evening of the announcement from Stockholm.

Proleće had a table alright…

I do believe that Handke is a great author of Serbia although he has never written literary texts in Serbocroatian, a language in which, nevertheless, he is fluent. What I also believe is that he loved Yugoslavia in a rather postmodern way. But he who has not sinned cast the first stone. To me too, about the same time, Yugoslav market places, Yugoslav bookstores, Yugoslav newspapers appeared as the Southeast the way it once was: full of pretentious seriousness in the literary supplement, full of self-irony in the fiction department, full of fun beside the vegetables where a gypsy band played one of the innumerable versions of “Come and make me yours” full of major seconds and melismas.

Exoticism has very rarely been held to be big art. But I’m not an artist, so I wouldn’t care if I were attributed bad taste. Not much anyway. Paul Gauguin was happy to see his exoticism winning the Parisian public over. Pierre Loti’s fame, Gauguin’s first inspiration to visit Tahiti, melted however rapidly. In the 20s, the Turkish poet and socialist Nazim Hikmet was wondering what an imposter it takes to glorify poverty, prejudice and superstition in the name of picturesque, giving his poem the title “Pierre Loti”.

One century after the Pierre and the Paul of Tahitian exoticism, Peter Handke focused on a picturesque much closer. It was – to put it sarcastically – an emerging picturesque. To quote a back then famous movie: Lepa sela lepo gore: nice villages burn nicely.

Handke never employed sarcasm in his two travel journals in Serbia and Bosnia. At most, he quoted it: “May your house be shown on CNN!” as a curse between quarrelling neighbours for example (CNN was showing much burned down property in those days). Handke never wrote war propaganda – unless it is war propaganda to adore the “different yellowness” of pasta purchased from a Serbian market. In Handke’s work there is nothing that could connect his Nobel prize with genocide. But this is exactly what is constantly repeated in the two last months.

To return to Milorad Pavić, 10 years after his death and 90 etc: also he styled a postmodern picturesque. And – what was more dubious in Milošević’s Serbia – he became a member of the Serbian Academy. In 1991! No complaints here!

The difference is probably that Pavić lived in Belgrade. Someone like him had the right to love and hate whoever he liked. Handke however lives in Paris. Consequently it is the journalism that has to decide if it was OK to be Yugophile…