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Don the Juan had always been looking for someone to listen to him. Then one fine day he found me. He told me his story, but in the third person rather than in the first. At least that is how I recall it now.
At the time in question, I was cooking only for myself, for the time being, in my country inn near the ruins of Port-Royal-des-Champs, which in the seventeenth century was France's most famous cloister, as well as its most infamous. There were a couple of guest rooms that I was using just then as part of my private quarters. I spent the entire winter and the early spring living in this fashion, preparing meals for myself and taking care of the house and grounds, but mainly reading, and now and then looking out one little old window or another in my inn, formerly a gatekeeper's lodge belonging to Port-Royal-in-the- Fields.
I had already lived for a long time without neighbors. And that was not my fault. I liked nothing better than having neighbors, and being a neighbor. But the concept of neighborliness had failed, or had it gone out of style? In my case, though, the failure could be attributed to the game of supply and demand. What I could supply, as an innkeeper and chef, was no longer demanded. I had failed as a businessman. Yet I still believe as much as ever in the ability of commerce to bring people together, believe in it as in little else; believe in the invigorating social game of selling and buying.
In May I pretty much gave up gardening in favor of simply watching how the vegetables I had planted or sown either thrived or withered. I used the same approach with the fruit trees I had planted a decade earlier, when I took over the gatekeeper's lodge and turned it into an inn. I made the rounds again and again, from morning to night, through the grounds, which were situated in the valley carved by a stream into the plateau of the Île-de-France. Holding a book in my hand, I checked on the apple, pear, and nut trees, but without otherwise lifting a finger. And during those weeks in early spring I continued steaming and stewing for myself, mostly out of habit. The neglected garden seemed to be recovering. Something new and fruitful was in the making.
Even my reading meant less and less to me. On the morning of that day when Don Juan turned up, on the run, I decided to give books a rest. Although I was in the middle of reading two seminal works, seminal not only for French literature and not only for the seventeenth century—Jean Racine's defense of the nuns of Port-Royal and Blaise Pascal's attack on the nuns' Jesuit detractors—I concluded from one minute to the next that I had read enough, at least for now. Read enough? My thought that morning was even more radical: "Enough of reading!" Yet I had been a reader all my life. A chef and a reader. What a chef. What a reader. I also realized why the crows had been cawing so ferociously of late: they were enraged at the state of the world. Or at mine?
Don Juan's coming on that May afternoon took the place of reading for me. It was more than a mere substitute. The very fact that it was "Don Juan," instead of all those devilishly clever Jesuit padres from the seventeenth century, and also instead of a Lucien Leuwen and Raskolnikov, let us say, or a Mynheer Peeperkorn, a Señor Buendía, an Inspector Maigret, came as a breath of fresh air. At the same time, Don Juan's arrival literally offered me the sense of a widening of my inner horizons, of bursting boundaries, that I usually experienced only from reading, from excited (and exciting), blissful reading. It could just as well have been Gawain, Lancelot, or Feirefiz, Parzival's piebald half-brother—no, not him, after all! Or perhaps even Prince Mishkin. But it was Don Juan who came. And he was actually not altogether unlike those medieval heroes or vagabonds.
Did he come? Did he appear? It would be more accurate to say that he hurtled or somersaulted into my garden, over the wall, which was an extension of the inn's façade along the street. It was a truly beautiful day. After the kind of overcast morning so common in the Île- de-France, the sky had cleared, and now seemed to continue clearing, and clearing, and clearing. Yes, the afternoon stillness was deceiving, as always. But for the moment it predominated; and cast its spell. Long before Don Juan hove into sight, his panting could be heard. As a child in the country I had once witnessed a farm boy, or whatever he was, running from the constables. He raced past me on a path leading uphill, and at first nothing could be heard of his pursuers but their shouts of "Halt!" To this day I can see that boy's face, flushed and puffy, and his body, which looks shrunken, his pumping arms seeming all the longer. But what has stayed with me even more vividly is the sound he was making. It was both more than panting and less. It was also more than whistling and less that burst out of both of his lungs. Besides, it was really not a question of lungs. The sound I have in my ear breaks or explodes out of the entire person, and not from his insides but from his surface, his exterior, from every single patch of skin or pore. And it does not come from the boy alone but from several, a large number, a multitude, and that includes not just his pursuers, bellowing as they gain on him, but also nature's silent objects all around. This whirring and vibrating, no matter how unmistakably the hunted boy had reached the end of his strength, has stayed with me, representing an overwhelming power, an elemental force of sorts.
I had hardly heard Don Juan's breathing, far off on the horizon and at the same time very close, when I promptly had the runaway before me. The long-ago bellowing of the constables was replaced by the roar of a motorcycle. As the rider gave gas, the engine's howl rose rhythmically, and it seemed to be coming ever closer to the garden, bucking over everything in its path, unlike the breathing, which had immediately filled the garden and continued to fill it.
The ancient wall had crumbled a bit in one place, creating a sort of breach, which I had left that way on purpose. That was where Don Juan came hurtling head over heels onto my property. He had been preceded by a sort of spear, or lance, that whizzed through the air in an arc and dug itself into the earth right at my feet. The cat, which was lying next to that spot in the grass, blinked a few times, then went right back to sleep, and a sparrow—what other bird could have pulled this off?—landed on the still quivering shaft, which then continued to quiver. In actuality the lance was just a hazel branch, slightly pointed at the tip, such as you could cut for yourself anywhere in the forests around Port-Royal.
That boy fleeing years ago from the local constabulary had not even noticed me. Unseeing, his pupils bleached white in his fiery red face like those of a poached fish, he had thudded past me, the child observing the scene (if it was a powerful thudding, it was with his last reserves). This Don Juan on the run did see me, however. As his body, head and shoulders first, came flying through the breach, not unlike the spear, he had me directly in his sights. And even though this was the first time the two of us had laid eyes on each other, this intruder immediately seemed familiar. He had no need to introduce himself, which he could not have managed anyway, his breathing nothing but a strange, uninterrupted singing. I knew I had Don Juan before me—and not just some Don Juan, but the Don Juan.
Not often, yet repeatedly, in my life, total strangers like this—they in particular—have seemed familiar at first sight, and in each case this sense of familiarity has proved consequential, without even needing to be deepened as we have come to know one another. This familiarity had potential. But whereas on the previous occasions (all too infrequent), the other person had become my confidant, when Don Juan turned up the opposite happened: his eyes sought me out first, and he immediately made it clear that the role of confidant for the story he had to unload was reserved for me.
Still, that farm boy on the run so long, long ago and the Don Juan before me had something in common. Both of them offered an image of festiveness. Indeed, that panting boy stumbling by had been dressed in his Sunday best, the standard outfit worn by country folk for going to church. And today's Don Juan was also festively dressed, though in an out.t that went with the blue May sky. Furthermore, his fleeing, like that fleeing long ago, itself exuded a festive air. Except that the glow that surrounded Don Juan came from inside him, whereas the boy's—well, where did it come from? No glow had emanated from him personally, none at all.
Had the motorcycle in hot pursuit got stuck in the Rhodon valley, still swampy in places even today? The roar of the engine kept coming from the same spot. No more revving. The vehicle hummed evenly, almost peaceably, at a distance. Don Juan and I positioned ourselves by the dip in the wall, and both of us peered out. Half hidden by the pale green riparian forest, a couple was sitting on the motorcycle, which at that very moment was turning and then chugged off, weaving in and out among the alders and birches. Apparently the enclosed grounds of the former monastery of Port-Royal-in-the-Fields still had the power to offer asylum. No one could be pursued inside its walls. Whoever entered was safe for the time being, no matter what terrible things he had done. Besides, the expression in the couple's eyes revealed that this Don Juan was not the one they had been chasing. The one they wanted to kill was different. The woman looked especially confused. The man even gave Don Juan a friendly wave as they rode off.
As would be expected of a contemporary and/or classic couple on a motorcycle, these two were all in leather, black leather, and wore helmets that resembled each other as only helmets can. Needless to say, the hair of the apparently young woman in back billowed out from under her helmet, and was some sort of blond. Riding along, the two of them, the man and the woman, looked rather like brother and sister, even twins. What counteracted that impression was the way the woman had her arms around the man from behind, and also the fact that under their leather outfits they were clearly stark naked. The two of them had pulled on their suits in a hurry, and all the buttons, snaps, and zippers were open, so that anything that could flap open was doing so. Leaves, blades of grass, bits of snail shells (along with remnants of snails), and pine needles clung to the half-bared back of the man, but only to his. The young woman's shoulder blades seemed a flawless white. At most we saw a plump poplar seed sticking to them for a moment— before it blew away. These were no brother and sister who had jumped on their bike and sped off, perhaps to confront Don Juan and destroy him. I puzzled over the pine needles on the man's back, pressed deep into his skin. For the entire Port-Royal region had only deciduous trees.
Don Juan's face, which was rather broad and flat, remained blotchy for a while, just as I had imagined Feirefiz, Parzival's half-brother, whose mother was a "Mooress," when I read Chrétien de Troyes. Except that Don Juan's blotches were not black and white like his predecessor's but red and white, dark red and white. Also, the pattern was confined to his face, not spread over his entire body like my Feirefiz's. Even his neck was free of blotches. So only the surface of the redskin's face was checkered like a chess board. His eyes were large, and hardly clouded from running; nor were they altogether devoid of mirth. I should consider him as real as anything could be, he told me, and he snapped shut the switchblade in his hand. Then he indicated to me that he was hungry. Sweaty and dehydrated though he was, he did not ask for something to drink but rather for something to eat. And when I, the chef, promptly went in to fix something for him, I was making it plain that I understood him. And how real this person was! I no longer recall the language in which Don Juan addressed me on that May afternoon near the ruins of Port-Royal-in-the-Fields. Whatever: I understood him somehow or other.
I had pushed all my lawn furniture into a corner formed by the wall, and was intentionally letting it rot. So now I brought out a chair from the kitchen for my guest. He walked backward to reach it. On this, the first day of the week that Don Juan would spend with me, I initially assumed that his habit of going backward allowed him to keep his eye on any danger or threat— for instance from the motorcycle couple. But I soon noticed that his expression was not vigilant in the slightest. He certainly looked awake, but not watchful. Nor did he dart glances in one direction and then in the other or over his shoulder; as he backed up, he gazed straight ahead in the direction from which he had come. For someone like Don Juan, I would have expected this direction to be either the west, with the castles of Normandy and those monasteries still in operation in and around Chartres, or, more likely, the east, with the former residence of the Sun King not that far away at Versailles, and most likely Paris, not much more distant. But he had come running and hurtling into the Rhodon valley from the fields to the north, where the new towns of the Île-de-France were located, blocks and blocks of apartment houses, the towns' centers occupied almost exclusively by office buildings, the closest of these new towns being Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. On the other hand, that direction made sense in conjunction with the leather-clad motorcycle couple. And wasn't there at least one fir tree between the Ville Nouvelle and the ruins of the old abbey here, one in particular: The lone cedar on the edge of a residual patch of woods? The most splendid and sturdy growing thing in that entire landscape?
Excerpted from Don Juan by Peter Handke.
Copyright © 2010 by Krishna Winston.
Published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.