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If the Swedish Academy was so determined to foist the Nobel Prize for Literature on an Austrian in 2004, a case could be made that the Austrian should have been Peter Handke rather than Elfriede Jelinek. But to have a dog in this fight you need to be a lot more comfortable in German than I am. Let's just say that however accomplished Handke is as a stylist--and The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1970), A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (1972), and The Afternoon of a Writer (1987) are remarkable indeed--any chance he had for a Nobel fell off a cliff in the 1990s, when he blamed Western politicians and the media for the disintegration of Yugoslavia, took the side of Slobodan Milosevic in the Balkan bloodlettings, and published an agitprop travelogue called Justice for Serbia (1996). He would even speak at Milosevic's funeral in Belgrade in 2006.

CROSSING THE SIERRA DE GREDOS (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) is Handke's first novel since he surfed this wave of ethnic cleansing. Naturally, we read it for clues to his disorderly state of mind. Just as naturally, he is hiding out in allegory, wearing veils. A female banker and former film star, wealthy and cosmopolitan but missing her brother and her daughter, leaves a northern river port to cross the Spanish mountains on a pilgrimage into European history and literature and her own past. She is on her way to La Mancha, where an author waits to "narrate" her story, for a generous fee. If La Mancha suggests Cervantes, Homer and Boccaccio also come to mind. And Voltaire and Celine. And Jonathan Swift and the Brothers Grimm. We stop overnight in imaginary cities, forests, caves, and "Zones," in the middle of civil wars. We are asked to admire olive trees, oyster shells, the "smoke-colored sky-blue" of stained medieval glass, the Middle Ages generally speaking, and Mother Nature across the board. We are encouraged to be skeptical of journalists and other cardsharps, "ready-made" and "prefabricated" images, the conventions of traditional narrative, and, of course, language, too, that inauthentic and authoritarian shuck. Half the sentences seem to end with question marks, as if to repudiate themselves. Much is made of an Arabic grammar, as if an alternative history of Islamic conquest shadows the pilgrim like a raptor's wing. And there is a very funny paragraph on cell phones.

Handke has gone on such allegorical voyages before. In A Moment of True Feeling (1975), the Austrian press attache wanders all over Paris sucking on a peach stone and looking for an alternative identity. In The Afternoon of a Writer, the novelist leaves his room and his cat for a winter walk in urban ruins that turn out to be language itself--traffic din, sibilants, cuneiform, chords, squeaks, and silence: "The snow in the air could have been flying seeds, the snow on the ground could have been fallen blossoms. The rounding of the image gave emptiness a radiance." In Absence (1987), an old man, a young woman, a soldier, and a gambler quit a nameless city in an unnamed country, fleeing castles, statues, and catastrophe, on a trek into a twilight zone of dunes, chimeras, and labyrinthine caves, where their guide deserts them and the author abandons his book: "We remembered how in childhood we had often hidden from others because we wanted them to look for us." But never before has Handke gone on at such inordinate length, 480 pages, before arriving at that same old postmodern solipsism that feels sorry for itself because it no longer believes that anything else is real, certainly not Srebrenica.

Doris Lessing is no slouch at pilgrimming either. THE CLEFT (HarperCollins, $25.95) is, by my count, her twenty-sixth novel and fifty-sixth book, but I've probably missed a couple, and at least one, Retreat to Innocence, she herself suppressed. She's still in the speculative-fiction mode that gave us last year's The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. Except that instead of imagining a remote future and another ice age, she dreams the prehistoric past, as a Roman scribbler at the time of Nero tries to reconstruct it from hearsay, hindsight, tall tales, fossil traces, and documentary fragments. Once upon a geologic time, in comfy caves above the convenient beach, a race of women, calling themselves Clefts, didn't need men, called Squirts, at all. Somehow, the sea-wind seeded these sluggish mermaids, and when they chanced to deliver themselves of a male "Monster," they'd either try to render it girlish through genital mutilation or feed it to the eagles.

Never mind how an exceedingly childish colony of Squirts would come to subsist unseen and deer-suckled in a nearby valley, with very little language and fewer housecleaning skills. Nor how Maire, before becoming a matriarch and a mother goddess, discovered the existence of this colony and the secret of the co-opted eagles. Nor why more venturesome young Clefts dally in the valley before returning to the beach mysteriously with child. Nor what we are supposed to make of the first fire, first murder, first orgy, first sports contest, and first tenderness. What matters is what happens when a man named Horsa takes over as the boss of the Squirts and decides to circumnavigate the island. Brave, cunning, and curious he may be, but Horsa forgets that even "children of the eagle" need to be clothed and cuddled. Off to quest they go, in caravans, on rafts, with catapults and seashell splinters, singing and crying. But flies swarm, babies swoon, friends die, mountains explode, and Horsa is disrespected. In this maze of tunnels, caves, wells, and underground rivers, Clefts and Squirts alike discover longing, wanting, dreaming, comfort, grief, and powdered bones.

Lessing, as she so often does, begins with stereotypes and ends with archetypes. No serious writer is less seductive of her readers. Instead, relentlessly, she grinds us down to acquiescence. This, she says, is how it is and always has been with men and women. Only children and terminal naifs believe in such fantasies as free will or liberal humanism or existential psychology or historical determinism or the Holy Ghost or the Enlightenment. The pilgrimage becomes a carousel.

For reasons that Colin Thubron is reluctant to explain, even to the imaginary third-century Sogdian trader in indigo and salt with whom he argues in his head when his travels leave him feverish, the author of SHADOW OF THE SILK ROAD (HarperCollins, $25.95) is forever on his difficult way from a rock to a hard place. Or Ulan Bator to the Great Wall. Or Samarkand to Herat. He is not a pilgrim. He travels "for understanding," for "mystery," for "significance," because he's "afraid of nothing happening," and because the idea of a "Pure Land" in foreign religions "seems beautiful ... as if it were a place we once had, but was lost." After forty years on the road his hinges creak, but still he inches forward from Xian in the middle of a SARS epidemic to Tibet, where the monks hate China. And from Kashgar with its streetside mosques, painted pillars, potted flowers, and Uigur skullcaps to Bukhara with its teahouses and blue turbans. And from the white marble tombs of Gazargah, shrine of the Sufi Ansari, to the sunken walls of Tus, devastated by Tamerlane in 1390, where the mystic al-Ghazali and the poet Firdausi are buried, to the Seljuk oasis of Nishapur, in order to consult the shade of Omar Khayyam. After which, dread Alamut, down which the Assassins of Hasan-iSabah descended to kill caliphs and khans, unto, finally, Antioch, second in its Chinese-silken grandeur only to Alexandria and Rome.

It's an exhausting journey and a marvelous book. Along the way, Thubron introduces us to an Islam not the least bit bloodthirsty. But that's the Silk Road for you, where they traded over the centuries not only in salt, indigo, amber, and tin but in cultures and myths and poets and gods.

Alex von Tunzelmann's INDIAN SUMMER (Henry Holt, $30) is the best narrative historical account I've seen of the grubby end of the British Empire and the bloody beginnings of independent India and Pakistan. Von Tunzelmann is old-fashioned enough to look at the political incompetence of the English and the communal convulsions of the Indians through the prism of a love triangle--Dickie Mountbatten, well-born clotheshorse; his wife, Edwina, filthy rich and idealistic; Jawaharlal Nehru, Brahmin politician and disciple of Mohandas Gandhi--yet also severe enough to remind us that a million died while these people hanky-pankied, as well as sardonic enough to keep glad company with such novelists of politics and personality as the Evelyn Waugh of Sword of Honour, the Joan Didion of Democracy, and the Susan Sontag of The Volcano Lover. To be sure, von Tunzelmann is harder on Gandhi than the Mahatma deserves. (Saints are supposed to make life difficult for the rest of us.) And she seems to love Nehru almost as much as Edwina did. (Really, Kashmir wasn't his only blind spot; what about Indira?) But since I agree with her about the windbag Churchill, she gets to say whatever she wants to about Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who may never have wanted a separate Pakistan and certainly not an Islamic theocracy.

Indian Summer should speed you on to Ramachandra Guha's magisterial INDIA AFTER GANDHI: THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST DEMOCRACY (Ecco, $34.95) and William Dalrymple's Gibbonesque THE LAST MUGHAL: THE FALL OF A DYNASTY: DELHI, 1857 (Knopf, $30). Then waiting for you in the library wings are Paul Scott's Raj Quartet, in a new two-volume Everyman edition, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, a novel so transcendent it makes you wonder what ever became of the young man who wrote it.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:Harper's Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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