Serbia's eloquent ally

 

Serbia has few friends in the German-speaking world apart from an eccentric rabble drawn from the extreme right and the Stalinist left. But Belgrade boasts one intellectual heavy-hitter in the shape of Peter Handke, Austria's greatest living writer and one of the leading lights of German letters.

As soon as the first NATO bombs began to fall last week, Handke published an open letter to the world, condemning the Western allies as butchers worshipping at the altar of the god of war.

"Mars is attacking and since March 24th, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republika Srpska and Yugoslavia are the fatherland of all those who have not become martial, green butchers," he wrote.

Handke's remarks were condemned roundly by other writers, including former admirers such as Susan Sontag, who said that the 56-year-old Austrian was now "finished" in New York because of them.

"His political views are hideous. He is absolutely on the wrong side," she said. Gunter Grass is one of the few German writers to come out in favour of NATO's air strikes, arguing that the West has tolerated Serbian atrocities in Kosovo for too long. Other leading literary figures, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Christa Wolf and Martin Walser have maintained an uncharacteristic silence.

Far from remaining silent, Handke is about to stage a play about the Yugoslavian conflict which will be staged in Belgrade following its premiere in Vienna on June 9th.

Called Die Fahrt im Einbaum oder Das Stueck zum Film vom Krieg (The Journey into the Dug-out, or the Play of the Film of the War), it is set in the restaurant of a provincial hotel in Bosnia where a major war film is being cast. Two directors argue so much about the production that the film is never made.

The play is currently being rehearsed in absolute secrecy at Vienna's Burgtheater but Handke has threatened to cancel the production if the media do not stop criticising him.

"Handke's transformation into an ideological monster is fascinating. If he can't think of anything better to say than that the Serbs are the people who have suffered most in this century, then the Germanic guilty conscience is behind it," according to the French philosopher, Alain Finkelkraut.

The son of a German soldier father and a Slovenian mother in the conservative Austrian province of Carpathia, Handke came to prominence as a novelist and playwright in the mid-1960s. His anarchic plays, one of which was called Insulting the Audience, won him an enthusiastic following among Germany's 1968-ers - the generation whose political and cultural attitudes were shaped by the student protest movement.

Handke's work became increasingly introspective and contemplative during the 1970s and 1980s but Mein Jahr in Niemandsbucht (My Year in the Bay of Nowhere), published in 1994, signalled a change of direction. It was a plea for a life devoted to poetry and thought in a neo-romantic nowhere, far from the corruption of modernism and the media.

Two years later, this plea had become a raging attack, not only on the media but on the entire Western world. In a travel pamphlet called Eine winterliche Reise zu den Fluessen Donau, Save, Morawa und Drina oder Gerechtigkeit fuer Serbien (A Winter Journey to the Rivers Danube, Save, Morava and Drina, or Justice for Serbia), Handke characterised the Serbs as a tormented, misunderstood people.

"On my travels I, at least, did not see Serbia as a land of paranoiacs - much more as the huge room of an orphaned, yes, an orphaned, abandoned child . . . But who knows? What can a stranger know?" he writes.

In the course of his attack on Western coverage of the Balkan conflict, Handke accuses the Bosnians of staging market massacres in Sarajevo and casts doubt on the murder of Muslims at Srebrenica. When critics pointed out that the victims' corpses provided evidence of Serb atrocities, the writer replied: "You can stick your corpses up your arse."

Handke lost a few more of his dwindling band of friends last month when, in an interview on Serbian television, he suggested that the suffering of the Serbs today was greater than that of the Jews under Hitler. Dismissing the remark later as a slip of the tongue, Handke said that journalists ought to have known that he did not mean what he was saying.

"Not for the first time in my life, something that has long been established in my head comes out wrong the moment I say it," he said.

Before the bombing began, Handke declared that, in the event of a NATO attack on Serbia, his place would be in Belgrade. But there was no sign last week that he was preparing to budge from his comfortable home outside Paris.