cover image Absence


Peter Handke. Farrar Straus Giroux, $18.95 (118pp) ISBN 978-0-374-10022-3

German author Handke ( Afternoon of a Writer ) enlarges the recurrent metaphysical preoccupations of his prolific output in this latest challenging and rewarding novel. The story's four nameless protagonists meander through a surreally disconnected and flattened landscape. An old artist, a gambler ignorant of himself, a callow soldier whose self-effacing ``absence'' is a defense against the world, and a vain woman whose frantic mirror-staring fails to make her present to herself, ``roam''--as the novel's epigraph from Chuang Tzusp ok puts it--``in the palace of Nowhere, where all things are one.'' As they wander across an almost featureless northern plain, the past, present and future become one and the characters' insubstantial identities collapse into one another. But when they detect legible symbols in the surrounding blankness and read them with conviction, the landscape springs into recognizable life and the characters discover their strength. In this smoothly written fable, Handke forcefully summons readers to the recognition that the essence of human life lies in the striving for self-expression even though its perfect realization must always remain elusive. (May)