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Handke and the Patriots

Milan Djordjevic’

Peter Handke was back in Belgrade. But the only people present when the Serbian translation of his book [Justice for Serbia: a winter journey to the Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina rivers'] was launched at the National Library were scribblers from Politika's infamous 'Echoes and Reactions' page: patriots, congress orators, fighters for 'our cause', guardians of the small-town mindset.

Until a few months earlier, hardly any of these esteemed personalities had ever heard of the writer Peter Handke. Let alone read his books or watched his plays. His books and plays would most probably only have scandalised them. Today, however, when it is clear to everybody that Handke 'loves our country', 'loves our people', and is willing to testify 'on our behalf', it is all quite different. How shall I put it, the man is suitable in every way, to the point where he could perfectly well have been received on the President's own sofa. Handke, it seems, is a naive and well-intentioned person. Never having lived, however, for any amount of time in an East European country or a 'people's democracy', he has not the slightest notion of what goes on here. As a writer he is interested only in immediate events, and in this famous travelogue of his writes only about what he has seen - all of which he seems to find vaguely exotic. What he saw, however, was next to nothing. Such naivety and such writing are reminiscent of the 'naivety' and the writings of assorted fellow travellers after visits to the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin's purges, repression and show trials. In just the same way did our innocent Handke end up among people who foster a by-no-means- innocent small-town mindset: people who have participated - and still participate - in mass deception and self-deception.

We who live in this country of authentic surrealism, where militarists and bullies preach peace, where naked lies are presented as truths, where robbers preach honesty, and where blind devotion to the leader is considered supreme patriotism - we who in recent years have been subjected to every kind of manipulation and witnessed every kind of crime - cannot be shocked by the paradox of a nonconformist (which Handke undoubtedly is) addressing the flower of our hyper-conformist 'intelligentsia' and receiving self-satisfied applause from that select society. For this was just one more carnival performance and cultural show (in line with the ruling party's slogan: 'With culture everything is more beautiful!') amid the false normality that overlays our poverty, neglect and lack of future.

Translated from Republika (Belgrade), 143-44, 1-31 July 1996.