Douglas Messerli

  Acting and Perceiving  

The small village of Taxham – on the outskirts of Salzburg, Austria – was constructed early-on in the manner of many villages throughout the world today, with barriers blocking most of its entrances and exits due to the highways, nearby airport, natural boundaries, and old military bases. In short, it is a city unknown almost to all except those that live and work in it.

Peter Handke's most recent novel, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, centers on one of Taxham's citizens, the local pharmacist, whose life, like that of the village, has been carefully constructed to keep others out and himself locked in. Although he shares his house with his wife, she and he have little communication and live in spaces (real and imaginary) that each other does not inhabit. His major activities other than the daily pattern of opening and closing the town's pharmacy, is a morning swim, his reading of medieval romances, and his love of nature which is particularly focused on the gathering, tasting and analyzing of various varieties of mushrooms.

Indeed for the first third of this work, he appears as an unlikely candidate for the fantastic fable that he, the narrator of the work, and Handke himself are about to tell. But one evening, while in the woods, he is apparently attacked and hit severely on the head. The injuries, which at first seem minor, are soon recognized as serious when, at the local airport restaurant, he is unable to speak. There, as if in a dream, he picks up two strangers – a former Olympic sports champion and a poet, both now down on their luck, and travels with them into a strange world, which, although later named as Spain, represents an archetypal city "of the night wind," as surreal as the worlds created by Kafka, Walser, Celine and other continental fabulists.

They've chosen the city, almost by accident, because the poet recalls that his ex-wife and a child he has never met lives there. But upon arriving in the strange Santa Fe, they perceive the city is celebrating a festival, and the poet can recognize very little. Although they find the house, his wife no longer lives there. Nonetheless, the pharmacist, now described by the other two simply as "the driver," there encounters, once again, the former woman friend of the ski champion in whose house they had spent the previous night and who had strangely enough entered the pharmacist's room and pummeled him in his bed; and he also recognizes, among the gypsy musicians, his own son, who had abruptly left his family years before upon being slapped by his father in the face upon the boy's release from the authorities for a petty theft. And soon after, the poet recognizes his own daughter as the queen of the festivities at the very moment she is arrested and taken off.

In short, the three together vaguely represent aspects of one being, and events in each of their lives recall and newly affect one another. In the days following the first evening of the festival, the town and townspeople gradually take on stranger and stranger qualities as a plague of near-madness begins to affect the citizens, one by one of them falling into tirades and attacking, for no apparent reason, others, often killing them. Upon saving his poet friend from just such a fate, the pharmacist realizes he must leave, and enters the seemingly endless vastness of the surrounding steppes.

Accordingly, Handke sends his character across a near-desert in a kind of pilgrimage into the self, the past, and all that in the bunkered-up village of Taxham the pharmacist has attempted to escape. The surreal voyage across this seemingly desolate and empty space – which we gradually come to see is actually filled with animals, vegetation and other itinerant voyagers – is a true literary tour-de-force, as Handke's anti-hero both suffers and finds, at times, near ecstasy in the inexplicable search for something different in his life. The vague magnet of this voyage is the skier's friend, the woman described earlier in the book as "a winner," presumably a term applying to her appearance and personality, but growing in the pharmacist's voyage to mean so much more: a winner in life, something as the young skier was, a champion, perhaps a prize.

Handke's hero does ultimately find something of value, his own voice, a reconciliation of sorts with the son (who is seen with the poet's daughter), and the discovery of love with the "winner." But the final section of the book is not a record of fulfillment and rewards, but a statement of the role and purpose of art. For life has returned to its usual pattern, slightly altered perhaps, but filled with the tedium of the daily repetition and workaday acts. The pharmacist, now designated as "the storyteller," has experienced something amazing, but he knows that he must record it, not only "tell" the story, but as he says the narrator, to see it in print, in "black and white." "I want to have my story in writing. From speaking it, orally, nothing comes back to me. In written form, that would be different. And in the end I want to get something out of my story too. Long live the difference between speech and writing. It's what life's all about. I want to see my story written. I see it written. And the story itself wants that." Handke brilliantly points up the differences here between the act of living and the recognition of it, the reception of those acts. They are not the same. As in this profound, short work, things simply happen in life, one is pulled, driven to it in a world where the acts themselves often make little sense, often seem to be without meaning; while art records them, reveals them, allows one to observe them, to give them substance.

Los Angeles, 2000

©2000 by Douglas Messerli