When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in 2004, she accepted reluctantly, deferring to her countryman Peter Handke as a “living classic” more worthy of the award. Handke had no chance: Unlike Günter Grass, who kept the SS off his lapel, Handke wore his outrageous support for the Serbs with pride. He even filed a brief with the Hague vindicating Slobodan Milosevic. But Handke is also, legitimately, one of the greatest German writers of the past 50 years. When political backlash forced him to decline a major literary prize and the Comédie-Française canceled one of his plays, many European artists felt obliged to defend him despite his difficult political positions.
Crossing the Sierra de Gredos, both brilliant and maddening by turns, makes an artistic apologia for Handke’s reactionary politics. Call it the Don Quixote defense: the novel, set largely in the mountains above La Mancha, contrasts a poetic female banker—a stand-in for the Don as well as Handke—with an “objective,” Sancho Panza–like reporter. The setup produces surprising comedy; Handke, as one critic puts it, has never been known for wit, and, “even by German standards, is remarkably humorless.” As the banker sets out to summit the mountains, moving from her sterile suburban home through a Eurozone overrun with immigrants to a hidden cult of anti-media survivalists, Handke plays his cynic and idealist both straight and for laughs. Where the banker dreams of mining the cult’s imaginative lifestyle to found “a new kind of bank—an image bank” (joke or no joke?), the journalist thinks to “cure” them by installing “image-producing machines every few feet, at a density ten to fourteen times greater than that of the traffic lights in Frankfurt, Paris, New York, or Hong Kong.” (Joke! Shit—no joke.)
If Handke’s sympathies clearly lie with the survivalists, he at least has the modesty to cast his alter ego not as a white knight riding to the rescue of a misunderstood people (so easily read as the Serbs), but rather a knight-errant lost in political delusions. A neat trick; by that light, Handke’s support for Serbia becomes not outrageous, merely quixotic. Just forgive me if I can’t forget that he’s tilting at genocide rather than windmills.