It’s German Literature Month time again, and today I have the pleasure of reviewing a book by a writer I’ve read for the first time. We’re off to Austria, in a book which has surprisingly little to do with football, but a lot to do with language…
Peter Handke’s Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick***) starts off in Vienna. Josef Bloch, a former professional goalkeeper, thinks he’s been fired from his job, so he goes off and checks into a hotel. Over the next few days, he reads newspapers, watches films, meets people and generally idles his time away.
The dramatic, Kafakaesque first sentence then soon gives way to a strange, uneventful story. The story stutters along, stumbling over simple sentences, in a bizarre, disjointed manner – until, after hooking up with a woman:
“Sie stand auf und legte sich aufs Bett; er setzte sich dazu. Ob er heute zur Arbeit gehe? fragte sie.
Plötzlich würgte er sie.”
p.22 (Suhrkamp, 1972)
“She stood up and then lay down on the bed; he seated himself next to her. She asked whether he was going to work today.
Suddenly, he strangled her.” (my translation)
Boom. Out of nothing, the story takes a new, and rather violent, turn – before slowing down again immediately. Bloch calmly leaves and takes a bus to the country…
The story itself is only 100 pages or so, and in terms of plot, there’s not a lot to it. While you might think it’s about a murder, in reality (if such a word is relevant here), it’s all about Bloch and his strange relationship with the world. From the very start, he acts decidedly strangely, and he has an unusual take on reality, seeing each second, each motion, step by step:
“Die Kellnerin nahm das Glas von der Flasche, auf die sie es gestülpt hatte, legte den Bierdeckel auf den Tisch, stellte das Glas auf den Deckel, kippte die Flasche in das Glas, stellte die Flasche auf den Tisch und ging weg. Es fing schon wieder an! Bloch wußte nicht mehr, was er tun sollte.” (pp.34/5)
“The barmaid took the glass off the bottle over which she had placed it, laid the beer mat on the table, put the glass on the beer mat, tipped the bottle into the glass, put the bottle on the table and went. It was starting all over again! Bloch had no idea what to do.”
There’s an awful lot of this in the book. Bloch seems overwhelmed by the input of raw data in everyday life, unable to simply filter it out like a ‘normal’ person…
Bloch also struggles with language and noise and has great difficulty in distinguishing sounds (he’s constantly mistaken as to what he thinks he hears). He seems to be seeing and hearing life through a filter, one which makes it difficult for him to understand precisely what is going on around him. As is mentioned in the brief introduction at the start of the book, these errors are like a leitmotif, constantly appearing throughout the novel.
Having just killed someone, you can understand that Bloch has a certain sense of paranoia, but there’s more to it than that, and everything is wearing him down. He seems to struggle with the simplest of actions, whether it’s greeting someone in the street or choosing the right time to enter a conversation. Still, he just moves on, even if his interactions seem to end in arguments, conversations and fights. At times, he seems like an alien who understands the language perfectly but has little cultural background
(and a very shaky grasp on manners…).
Like its central character, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable book to read at times. Handke is playing with language and the way it affects our experience of the material world, and no word, or sentence, is taken for granted, each utterance weighed carefully before being committed to paper. It’s very tempting on occasion to try to read things into the story which perhaps aren’t there. Is Bloch suffering from some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Is he just concussed from one too many kicks to the head? Surely there’s a deeper meaning to the title?
In fact, later on we hear about a goalie and Bloch’s views on the game:
“Es ist sehr schwierig von den Stürmern und dem Ball wegzuschauen und dem Tormann zuzuschauen”, sagte Bloch. “Man muß sich vom Ball losreißen, es ist etwas ganz und gar Unnatürliches.” (p.117)
“It is very difficult to look away from the attackers and the ball, and look at the goalkeeper”, said Bloch. “You have to tear yourself away from the ball, it’s something completely and utterly unnatural.”
Yet this is what we’ve been doing all along. In a crime novel where the police are elsewhere, in living the story through Bloch the reader is effectively watching the goalie… Yes, it is decidedly unnatural – and rather uncomfortable too 😉
The English-language version, translated by Michael Roloff, is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux