On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House
by Peter Handke
Translated by Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Comedy and tragedy make strange bedfellows. It has been noted that Franz Kafka, the man responsible for embracing the absurd in literature, was at times incapable of reading some of his own works without laughing. Despairing, enigmatic, and yet profound, his literature is even stranger when one recognizes the elements of dark comedy and pathos that remain under the surface. In a similar way, the playwright and novelist Peter Handke’s latest novel, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, reveals the dark places where tragedy and comedy enter our lives and leave us at a loss, undecided whether we should laugh or cry.
The novel follows the odd perambulations of an unnamed pharmacist in and around the city of Taxham on the Austrian/German border. Estranged from his wife, they occupy the same house as summer guests visiting a cottage. They are perpetual onlookers in each other’s presence. The only moments when they commune, the narrator reveals, are when they are confronted by symbols of death and decay. Asked by the unnamed narrator what they have in common, what quiet moments do they share, their responses clarify their relationship and its decay:
“When an ambulance siren wails. • When we’re in our rooms at night and see through the window the emergency flare flashing up in the mountains over on the other side of the border. • When in last spring’s flooding the drowned cow floated down the river. At the first snowfall. Yes? Oh, well. I don’t know “(15).
Early into the novel, the pharmacist’s wife leaves on her vacation. Alone. He returns home to the cottage by himself and dines on some wild mushrooms that he has collected. They are symbols of both life and decay and life sprouting out of decay, the mushroom figures prominently throughout this book. In fact, the narrator even blames his decaying relationship with his wife over his passion for mushrooms.
Having fallen asleep while reading a book of epic poetry, the pharmacist wakes with a start. Outside, the dawn is breaking and the narrator prepares to begin his day of work. Yet circumstances conspire and confound him. As he leaves his house and heads toward town, he is attacked by an unknown assailant who knocks him unconscious and leaves him in a ditch. He awakens confused, yet somehow relieved. Everything is as it should be, he thinks to himself, even though he has been rendered mute.
Later on, he gathers two companions who wander with him for nearly half the book. He encounters a great poet, the winner of a wonderful prize, and an Olympic skiing champion. Together, all three set off into the long night•s journey into the nightmare country. The skiing champion wants to take his fellow travelers to visit a “winner,” a woman he used to date. The poet wants to find his lost daughter he has abandoned. Both situations portend doom for the pharmacist and his companions. Upon reaching the winner’s house (no name, she is simply referred to throughout the text as the “winner”), they discover her husband has died and she is feverishly disposing of his belongings. They are invited to spend the night, but during the night, the widow awakens the pharmacist by raining blows down on his body.
“She beat him violently, left, right, with both fists, and she had big hands, which she clenched into fists like a man’s. And all the while she kept her eyes averted from him• He put up no defense, and it was as if the blows hurt less that way and he remained completely unharmed. And nevertheless she was beating him with such force that he fell out of his narrow bed” (62).
From here, the novel gets progressively stranger. The three companions continue their travels and arrive at a village where the poet locates his daughter. The poet and skiing champion leave the pharmacist and he is once again confronted by the stalking winner. She taunts him and curses him in a restaurant and then leaves him with a strange sense of dislocation.
The novel culminates with the pharmacist wandering an unnamed countryside and steppe. Like the proverbial saint or hero, his wanderings are almost at an end, and yet, have they just begun? It is here he confronts the nightmare lady who has been stalking and beating him. She warns him cryptically:
“Stop seeking the living here among the dead! You will shake off your speechlessness. Otherwise your not speaking will do you in this very day. Your silence is no mere taciturnity. It’s true that at first, and then for a while afterward, it enlarged the world for you• It devalues and destroys your memory, without which you have no business being in the world, and makes you in-significant. You have reached the outer limits of the world, my friend” (159).
“Grudgingly and with great effort, he regains the ability to speak. The words pour from him like sea brine through a sieve. As the novel concludes, he makes his way back home at last and as he sits down to read, he pauses and began to tremble. Now he was trembling. Only now was he trembling” (174).
What is to be made of such a novel? Is it an allegory or myth? Is it an epic or is it merely a postmodern novel (which are so prevalent these days). I would venture that this novel is a cross of different styles of writing. On the one hand it draws heavily from mythic literature: the hero’s journey to recapture some lost item or heal an injured king. Yet, just as myths contains symbols that defy easy conceptualization, so too is this book rife with ideas and images that transcend easy summary. What do the poet and skier signify? Who is the winner and what does she gain? What significance is the innkeeper’s greeting?
At the same time, the plot is thoroughly modern. As all great art does, it is rooted in time yet remains timeless; its generality is what makes it so universal. It is a postcard of one’s man journey through the dark lens of loss and remembering. Confronting your doppelganger and the fissures that blossom from the bruises in your soul. And, as in life, there is no rhyme or reason, the tragedy and comedy all depend on your vantagepoint. All these riddles can only be resolved by the reader, and only in the still moment between dusk and dawn. I must go now, there is a scratching at the door, I believe the pharmacist has arrived with my medication.