Crossing the Sierra de Gredos

A Novel

Peter Handke; Translated from the German by Krishna Winston

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos
1
She wished this were her last journey. The place where she had lived and worked for a long time now always offered more than enough new experiences and adventures. The country and the region were not the ones in which she had been born, and starting in childhood she had lived in several altogether different lands and landscapes.
Raised by grandparents who were avid travelers, or vagabonds, to be more precise, who seemed to change their nationality with every border they crossed, she had pined for a while in her youth for the long-lost land of her birth in eastern Germany, familiar to her not from her own memories but rather from stories, and later from dreams as well.
After several visits to that country, she then spent some years there as a student, in Dresden or Leipzig, let us say, a good hour by bicycle from the village of her birth, and eventually, several countries or two or three continents later, she even settled there, two hours by car from her alleged birth house, by now torn down and replaced by a new building. She lived there and worked, though not yet in banking.
Later still, again after several countries and continents, after alternating between work and the vagabond life, though not the same kind as her grandparents'--almost always alone--she gradually, imperceptibly, lost track of her birthplace, and one day the image of an expansionist, overweening Germany was gone from her consciousness, whereas for a while at least some traces of her own, small-caliber Germany lingered, a stream with the shadows of water-skaters on its pebbly bed, a harvested cornfield from whose furrows bits of chaff swirled into the air, a mulberry sapling that had wandered by mistake into that steppe-cold region.
And then these traces, too, faded away. The images no longer came of their own accord. She had to make an effort to summon them. And as aresult they remained devoid of meaning. At most they turned up in an occasional dream. And eventually they, too, vanished from her dreams. That country no longer pursued her. She did not have a country of her own, or another country either, including this one here. And that was fine with her. Perfectly fine! The eternities spent in foreign parts seemed to have shaped her, enhancing her beauty, and not only the beauty of her face!
A clear, frost-cold night in early January on the outskirts of a northwestern riverport city. What was the name of the city? of the country? The author she had hired to write a book about her undertakings and her adventures had been forbidden from the very beginning to use names. In a pinch he could use place names, but it had to be made clear at once that they were usually false--altered or invented. Here and there the author, with whom she had negotiated a standard delivery contract, would also be free to toss in a real name; in any case, future readers were to confine themselves to following the larger story, and the story and the manner of its telling were calculated to make them free to forget, from the moment they turned the first page, any thoughts they might have had of hunting for clues or sniffing around. If possible, the first sentence of her book would banish any such overt or ulterior motives in favor of reading, pure and simple.
According to the contract, the same prohibition applied to names of persons and indications of time. Persons' names were admissible only when they were clearly products of the imagination. "What imagination?" (the author).--"The imagination appropriate to the specific adventure, and to love" (she).--"Whose love?"--"Mine. And indications of time only of this sort: One winter morning. On a summer night. The following fall. At Eastertime, in the middle of the war."
For a long while now she had had hardly any relatives left. And those who were still alive were out of sight and out of mind. Somewhere --"Where?"--"How should I know?"--she allegedly still had a half brother, who allegedly rented out recreational vehicles, or was a microchip technician? or both?
Yet for many years she had made her ancestors, starting with her parents, of whom she had no conscious memories, the objects of a quiet, private, and all the more fervent cult. These ancestors, with the possible exception of her grandparents, who for a long time were entirely too present, constituted--thanks to stories, no matter how fragmentary, indeed, precisely because they were fragmentary, and then also dreams--the lovefor which she wept anew, often daily, during a good "two dozen summers, and even more winters."
Did she long for her ancestors? Yes, yet not to be with them, but merely to be able to look in on them for a moment, to comfort them, to thank them, and to bow down before them, after taking the appropriate step backward.
And then these shadowy ancestors had lost all their hold over her. And that, too, had happened ever so gradually. Some summer or winter morning she had realized that her venerated dead belonged to the gazillions of those who were no longer present, having seeped into the ground since the dawn of time, crumbled, or blown away to the four corners of the earth, never to be recalled, never to be brought to life by any love whatsoever, irrecoverable for all eternity. They still turned up now and then in dreams, but only as part of a crowd, under the heading of "also present": this "now and then" no longer had the meaning it had once possessed of "at all sacred times."
And this second death of her ancestors was also fine with her, like the small and large birth country that had earlier slipped away from inside her. In the meantime she had come to see as delusory the type of strength she had long derived less from the entire country than from little pockets in that country, less from the wholly successful life of an ancestor (to be sure, there was not even one life that fit that description) than from misfortune and a lonely death (which was the lot of all her forebears). Such strength, she wondered: Did it not make one tyrannical and ruthless? Did it not add to the burdens of those with whom one now passed time, lived, worked, had dealings, in the present? Such strength was accompanied by a kind of arrogance, was it not, which could thwart, even harm, even destroy the days as well as the nights of one's contemporaries, those who somehow or other got close to one? Once free of her ancestor worship, did she become receptive to other kinds of strength? impulses? No, in spite of everything, it was not perfectly fine with her when the ancestors grew meaningless and dim. It was more a question of her letting it happen, with a bitter aftertaste, and not only on her tongue.
Week after week it had been bone-chillingly cold in this region where she had made her home for a long time now. At first she wanted to talk the author out of any reference to this detail, which hardly seemed to fit the "northwestern port city" they had settled on as her place of residence, a place where the Gulf Stream moderated the climate. But then sheallowed herself to be persuaded that a "port" could also be a riverport, inland, far from the warming coast, on what was already a cold portion of the continent. Basel. Cologne. Rouen. Newcastle upon Tyne. Passau. What mattered: that her bank's headquarters were located in such a city. But the name of the bank was not to be mentioned in her story either.
On the morning of her departure she rose even earlier than usual. As before every journey, it had been a light, floating night, perhaps, too, because she had again slept in the bed belonging to her child, who had gone away. Her things were already packed--or rather, stashed in a bag purchased at the end of her girlhood and by now half as old as she was. It seemed immeasurably older, however: worn, torn, scuffed; like a relic from the Middle Ages, when travel had been very different from today; an ermine satchel? Time and again, before each of her solitary journeys, and not only into the Sierra, she had wanted to throw it away, or at least stow it in a corner. And every time it had been the one she decided to take with her--"just once more." As a child, her daughter, long since over the hills and far away, had begged her mother, whenever one of their games came to an end, for this kind of "just one more game," and after that "just one more": "Please, just one more, one more!" This was no longer asking; it was pleading. The author: Could he include that in her book? She: If not that, then what? All through the trip her bag remained half open. But nothing ever fell out. And her shoes? They were old and scuffed--good for rock climbing.
It was still completely dark, and outside the frost crackled on the windowpanes. She did not turn on the light; the moon, almost full, though waning, shone through the entire house with its many uncurtained windows. Here on its periphery, the riverport city extended to the foot of a ridge, partly wooded, partly bare cliffs. The hill, black with the moon behind it and very close by, appeared to form part of the spacious house, which at the moment looked empty. In each room--and there were quite a few rooms--the near emptiness projected a different image: here the resident had long since moved out for good; here the room had been cleared out except for two or three objects and pieces of equipment, ready for work to begin; now the deserted vestibule showed signs of a hasty departure; now the table in the parlor gleamed for a meeting about to take place; there, in the kitchen's one pot, the size of a cauldron, food had been prepared for a large gathering, or for a whole week.
A sort of fullness or, rather, stuffed quality, similar to that of her bag, manifested itself only in the first of the suite of rooms intended for a toddler, a schoolchild, and a student: even the corners were filled with games, action figures, toys, standing and lying next to and on top of each other. Except that in her bag each of the items had its place, its purpose, its plan; they all complemented and implied one another. But here in the playroom, the hundreds of toys were scattered every which way and did not reveal any recognizable game. Not even the rudiments of any familiar or reproducible game could be discerned, and not merely because of the moonlight. Yet games had been played in this room, with all the things lying about on the floor, and with all of them together, at the same time, and how! Full of enthusiasm, in the sweat of armpits and the brow, amid shouts of encouragement and the raucous singing of made-up songs, play, play, nothing but play. And the play seemed to have ended not all that long ago. Any minute now it would resume.
Before setting out, a cup of coffee (or tea) at one of the windows on the south side. That was the direction in which she was supposed to go. Yet it was a long time since a southern destination had meant anything to her, as was also true of the ocean and all the other points of the compass--and that was fine--including the Himalayas and a journey to the moon. The latter was suddenly reflected in her cup and promptly disappeared again. She tried to catch it. But it slipped away each time. She sat down on a folding chair, a so-called camp chair, and wished she could sit there forever.
Now a shock: someone was eyeing her, or her silhouette, from outside, from the dark: the author, the deliveryman. A first solitary peal of the bell in the church tower on the outskirts, and almost at the same moment the voice of the muezzin from the nearby minaret, answered by the repeated hooting of an owl in the wooded hills. The first early plane leaving a flashing trail among the sparkling fixed winter stars, and now, as a third element, a match struck across the entire sky and already extinguished: a January falling star.
No, no author. And yet he existed. He was even a reason for, and one of the destinations of, the trip she was about to undertake. And it was only tangentially or incidentally for the purpose of telling him her life story or whatever. The main purpose was money. He and she had first agreed on a contract for the delivery of her book, and now they were tosign a contract in which she and her bank--the bank and she, or at least her name, had long since become synonymous--were to have a free hand in managing and growing the author's fee.
Nowadays she did not normally concern herself with such matters. The bank had its own department for them, and by now she worked outside of and above the departments. But in this case she had to make an exception. She had got herself into this situation when she decided that she wanted a real book written about herself, instead of the endless newspaper articles and magazine features, a book about her bank, too, and its history. Of course the amount of money the author wanted to invest (or could invest) was a drop in the bucket, and not only compared to the sums her bank usually handled. And the author's personality, too, judging by the one meeting the two of them had had thus far, seemed like that of someone who would normally give her a wide berth.
How had she settled on him? Why had she not signed a contract with a journalist, or a historian, or, the most obvious choice, a journalist specializing in history? From the beginning she had insisted on a more or less serious writer, a teller of tales, or for that matter an inventor of tales, which did not have to imply that he bent or falsified the facts--just that he slipped in additional facts here and there, different, unsuspected facts, and, once in the swing of things, suppressed or, why not? simply forgot some that were obvious, not necessary to mention? "The Facts, Not the Myth"--that was what one of the historically oriented journalists had suggested as a subtitle when he offered his services for the book project. And among other mottoes, this one, this very one, had sent her off on the opposite track, or rather sidetrack, that of the author, although there came moments when she felt she had fallen into his trap.
Be that as it might, she was confident that he would smuggle all kinds of other things into the series of facts; and those things would be decisive for the story. Story? This was closer to the true state of affairs: as others might aspire to earn a place in history, she wanted to earn a place in the "story." And it should be a story that could not be filmed, or could be captured only in a film such as no one had ever made before.
At one time she had been a reader. (She still read now, but for her it was not real reading anymore. She did not read properly. Yet she felt orphaned without reading.) And in those days the author, that accursed author--and not only because of this trip he was forcing her to take--had served her less as a hero than as a pilot? No, she did not need a pilot;served? Yes, served. And although his last few books had appeared quite a while ago, and she had not even got around to reading them, the idea had suddenly occurred to her of having him write her book. Him or no one. And he would get down to work for her right away. No one, not even he, could refuse her offer. Even that he might ask for time to think it over would be inconceivable to her. Once, when she had been in another part of the world, as the guest of a president, a man who placed great importance on his own dignity and whose cooperation was almost a matter of life and death to her bank--"let us say, the president of Singapore"--in the middle of the negotiations she had demanded that a certain document she had left in her hotel room be fetched, not by just anyone, but by the president himself. "And he promptly went to get it!"
The author, without a new book now in a decade, was, at the same time, almost to his own regret--"almost"--by no means forgotten. Without being anywhere near wealthy, he did not suffer from a lack of money. He knew nothing at all about her and her worldwide legendary reputation as a banker and financial expert until her proposal reached him, sped to his garden gate by an authorized courier, and his ignorance was not the result of his isolated life in a village in La Mancha (where did such a thing still exist, a voluntarily isolated life?).
And he, too, an explorer of forms and man of rhythms, and otherwise quite inept socially, or perhaps reluctant, and also growing old, complied with her summons at once. In the village's one tienda he purchased a telephone card, and from the village's only phone booth he announced his arrival for the next morning in the riverport city (even though he had half a day's journey to the nearest airport). And then the meeting in her penthouse office: "I will write your book. For as long as I can remember, money has been one of the great mysteries to me. And now I want to get to the bottom of that mystery. And besides, I have always hoped for a commission like this: not a work but a product to deliver. An order." A man of rhythms? What kind of rhythms? "Above all the rhythm of understanding, that most inclusive of feelings, hand in hand with the rhythm of remaining silent, and leaving things unspoken."
She had seen photographs of the author when he was much younger. But his face seemed hardly changed. Only his body was smaller than she had imagined, wizened, as if desiccated, prickly, like something blown in from the meseta. At the same time, he immediately looked familiar, as only one villager can to another; familiar as one villager could be to anotherespecially in a different setting, whether in the nearest town, or, as happened more and more often, in a country where they were both strangers: for these days it seemed increasingly common for the inhabitants of villages and towns--these especially--to be scattered all over the world, less as tourists than as residents, working, married into the most faraway places, dragging the children they had had with Japanese natives or blacks down a side street in Osaka or Djibouti.
Yet the sense of familiarity did not persist. As the author stood there before her--he refused to have a seat--he soon became uncanny to her. Uncanny as only a person could be whom one had promptly wanted to take in one's arms, only to encounter an invisible wall of glass with the first step toward him.
There was nothing in her realm--and her realm was wherever she happened to be--to which she paid closer attention than proper distance. But the distance this man preserved toward her (and, as she later observed: not only toward her) was a kind of affront. There were people who positioned themselves practically in your face, no matter what the conversation was about, as if for a film close-up. He, on the other hand, for the duration of their discussion stayed at least one step farther back than was customary for people engaged in negotiations or conferring with each other; if she inadvertently stepped toward him in mid-sentence, he immediately backed away, acting all the while as if nothing had happened. People like this were boors, just as much as those who practically rubbed bellies with you. And at the same time: once he was standing there calmly, he seemed rooted in her office as if in his own soil (farmers had long since ceased to stand that way), legs spread, hands on hips--the picture would have been complete if he had gone into a straddle, the way some soldiers marked their terrain. And all the while he looked past her or gazed at the sky visible above her head through the skylight, or stared at her, or smiled suddenly, or once sighed deeply, or hummed a snatch of an unfamiliar song, or even remained so completely silent for a while that she, assuming that he was not understanding her language (yet didn't they speak the same language?) switched to English, French, Spanish, Russian, and only when he apparently could not understand at all--precisely then!--did he start to listen again or wake up, and the discussion of the contract could continue. He struck her as peaceable and at the same time irritable, or vice versa. Too peaceable? Too irritable?
Nonetheless she had eventually commissioned him to do the project. That same morning the delivery agreement was signed and in force; she had drafted it quickly, and when it came to the final version, he was firm and alert, paying meticulous attention, with something to say about every sentence. She regained a degree of confidence in the author, different from the confidence she had felt at first sight, once she realized that his insistence on constantly enlarging the space between them originated in a sense of guilt. It made sense to her as soon as her instinct saw or smelled it--all the articles claimed that she was "a creature of instinct"--and when she unexpectedly saw and smelled in the man her own guilt; a great guilt; but off-limits so long as one kept one's distance. And how was it with her? She protected herself in a different way. And as long as she was protected, there could be no mention of guilt; instead, she had a secret. And she was proud of her secret. She would defend that secret to the death.
The author probably was the right man for the job. In the meantime, however--now that she had ventured into the story--it seemed as if her book still called for someone else, not a reporter specializing in banking but a third type. What was that question the author had asked? Did she want the book to have a more spoken or literary style? For him the spoken aspect provided the foundation, or rather the subtext, and furthermore a counterexample. Literary style, on the other hand, was the essential additive to the story, its enrichment, the enrichment.
Her predawn walk around the house, through the grounds, in the lingering moonlight. One of the increasingly frequent airplanes passing in front of the moon, its moonlit shadow twinkling across the lawn, so different from the shadows of planes or birds in sunlight; owl-like. The countless tiny mounds thrown up by earthworms before the frost came, now frozen hard, an insult to her soles with every step. Newly arrived in Yucatán, she was mounting the steps of the Mayan temple before sunrise.
From the densely intertwined, frost-withered, and tangled ivy that covered the wall at the bottom of the garden, little brownish-blackish berries with a blue haze popped off and flew in an arc, having ripened only now, with the onset of winter; and from inside the hedge she heard a pecking, cracking, smacking. Downstream the Isonzo flowed, where it was not yet murky from the cement works, over white pebbles that also formed the banks--the million dead forgotten (no, not forgotten). Theblackbird--the earliest daytime bird?--came shooting out of the bushes, as always almost grazing the ground, and as always taking the curve with its wings folded, and hurtling with a loud squawk into the open through the escape hatch it had long since had its eye on.
She paused. The coppersmiths' street in Cairo echoed with the sound of hammers on metal; smoke and clouds of metal filings eddied from the workshops, open to the street, and she saw and smelled the billows far more intensely and lastingly than on the day when she had passed through there, although at the time she had been all eyes and ears.
Such images came to her daily, especially in the morning hours. She lived off them, drawing from them her most powerful sense of being alive. They were not memories, either voluntary or involuntary; these images flashed before her too suddenly, like lightning or meteors, and refused to be slowed or brought to a halt, let alone captured. If you wanted to stop them and contemplate them at leisure, they had long since evaporated, and with such interference you would also destroy the lasting effect of the image, which had appeared for a fraction of a second, darted through you, and vanished just as abruptly.
What effect did the images have? They ennobled the day for her. They ratified the present for her. She lived off them, which also meant that she used them and made good use of them. She even employed them for her work; her ventures; her deals. If she had an almost magical ("legendary," as the articles put it) ability to focus on the matter at hand, to display "supernatural presence of mind at the decisive moment," not only having all the facts and figures in her head but also dazzling her partner or counterpart in negotiations by serving them up as "a numerical witches' brew," she owed this talent to something she had not yet revealed to any interviewer--and what words would she have chosen?--namely, to the intervention of these images of hers in her workday.
Does this mean that the images were subject to her will after all, there to be summoned at will or as needed? No. They remained unpredictable. But over time she had discovered various methods of activating her "reserves." It was not a question of specific techniques, certainly not of tricks, but rather of fundamental attitudes and a whole way of living.
Yes, she had aligned her whole life, not merely her profession and her existence as a "queen of finance," to accommodate these shooting images. What fundamental attitudes and behaviors were especially productive in this regard? She, who by nature (or by virtue of her profession?) was littlegiven to shyness, proved shy when it came to speaking of such matters, but she could offer hints: a kind of mindfulness in everyday actions; a willingness to take detours; not avoiding moments of absentmindedness when in the presence of others, but rather letting herself succumb to them; physical effort--not athletic, preferably manual labor--for sustained periods and at a steady pace, to the brink of exhaustion, when the images might begin to glow ... (instead of an exercise room in her house she had a workshop).
Just as she lived off the formation of images in every sense, she also lived for it. And she did not deploy her reserves--"Never use this word again!" she instructed the author--for any kind of war. A single image, mobilizing itself and her, was all she needed, and the day would acquire a peaceful aura. These images, although devoid of human beings and happenings, had to do with love, a love, a kind of love. And they had penetrated her since childhood, some days fewer of them, some days whole swarms of these shooting stars--always taking the form of something she had actually experienced in passing--sometimes completely absent, a non-day. And she was convinced that this happened to everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. No doubt the specific image always belonged to the individual's personal world. But the image itself, as an image, was universal. It transcended him, her, it. By virtue of the open and opening image, people belonged together. And the images did not impose anything, unlike every religion or doctrine of salvation. Except that as yet no one had managed to tell the story of these images properly? Had also not found this phenomenon as earthshaking as she had? Had also not found the courage? (She certainly had not?)
To tell the truth, she was not even all that shy or modest when it came to this topic so dear to her heart. Over the years she had often felt the urge to spread the word of her remarkable and memorable encounters with the shooting images, or image showers. Was it possible for a modern woman, not just a woman of the Middle Ages, to have a sense of calling? The idea became more and more compelling: she had to reveal what she knew. And finally the message had appeared in glowing letters before her eyes: Now or never. The moment had come to tell the world! And, strange to say--as if this were part of her calling--it would soon be too late, not only for her but for the world at large. Everywhere under the sun the images were dying out. She had to entrust herself to some author or other--not to lay out everything for him in minute detail, but to hint at this orthat and let him describe the problem as he saw fit. For she was convinced it was a problem, one of epochal proportions, decisive for the future, one that should at last be made productive, but above all a lovely one. And wasn't a lovely problem the ideal basis for an expedition, including a narrative journey like this one?
This urgent sense of a calling was new to her. Some commentators saw it as an outgrowth of her success, which for quite some time had been consistent, unsurpassable, and above all invulnerable: missionary zeal as a result of unequaled success coupled with invulnerability. Others, on the contrary, saw her proud, self-chosen solitude as the cause. And there were still others, for instance the author she finally commissioned to write the story, who suspected, or "had the inspiration," that her "quest" expressed a "terrible guilt"--he unintentionally turned the tables on her this way during their first conversation. "And you expect to achieve some sort of expiation as a result of expressing these matters?" No reply.
In point of fact, even though this was not the source of her specific guilt, she had already fooled many people by letting images play a part in her everyday and professional dealings. It was hardly ever done on purpose. The images never came on demand; if they came at all, it was involuntary. But whenever one of her images shot through her, as long as it was with her, she emitted a special radiance that instantly filled the room. Those present when this happened could not help referring this radiance to themselves. In business situations they promptly felt as though she could see right through them, whereupon they surrendered all their ulterior motives and became putty in her hands; they followed wherever she led, essentially doing her bidding.
That almost never redounded to their disadvantage: usually both parties benefited. The effect of the images was no illusion! On those rare occasions when things went badly, again both parties suffered. Thinking himself betrayed, the other party might then try to attack her physically (in her business dealings she was never perceived as "a woman"); when this occurred, the images would intervene in perhaps the most remarkable way of all: in the face of a threat--and more than once when a weapon was involved--an image would turn up, as unexpectedly as consistently, and each time only one, which, however, was so powerful that it projected a radiant shield between her and the attacker. Poof! a deserted sandy playground by a canal in Ghent, and the enemy was an enemy no longer. Poof! the diminutive library along the city wall of Ávila, with aview from its windows of the foothills of the Sierra de Gredos, and the woman became untouchable to her attacker.
But in private life, according to the stories that made the rounds, the images inflicted quite a bit of harm, even destruction and devastation. In that realm the images could be mighty deceiving, so people said. The radiance or glow emanating from her, the woman, when they were in her, could be interpreted by the person who happened to be present only as benevolence--no, as commitment, compliance, surrender. Nothing brighter, more open, more naked than the face of this stranger, this woman who unexpectedly turned to me with this radiance brighter than any ordinary woman's smile. Desire, love, compassion: all wrapped up in one. And then the recoil. Yet the radiance persisted. And that was what turned us deluded lovers into madmen or wimps, or both. And since violence was out of the question with her, that woman! our only recourse was to curse and abuse her. "You did not keep your promise."--"You betrayed me."--"You lead everyone down the primrose path."--"She is the epitome of coldness and heartlessness."--"A sphinx who watches with eyes aglow as we tumble into the abyss."
But perhaps she really did love no one and no thing? Was in love with or passionate about only the mystery of that one image floating in from the void, each time filling her to the brim with presentness, crowning her once and for all--wasn't this what she wanted to be--the queen of the present moment? And could one blame those people, male or female, who, when at such moments she touched their hand, stroked their head, seized them by the forelock, nudged them with her hip, or even blew on them (not merely breathed on them), when she acted so loving toward them, embodying promise, and then an instant later turned away or pushed them away, charged her with unfaithfulness and even worse? Love: that was something she did not want to hear about. Likewise friendship. And that was how it had always been?
On the other hand she wished and wanted her story and ours to be set in a transitional period--a transitional period when there were still, and once again, surprises. "As you know, in the earthshaking periods, those in which this story is not to take place," she explained, "there are no more lovely surprises."
Copyright © 2002 by Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main