Crossing the Sierra de Gredos: A Novel

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9780374281540: Crossing the Sierra de Gredos: A Novel

On the outskirts of a northwestern European riverport city lives a powerful woman banker, a public figure admired and hated in equal measure, who has decided to turn from the worlds of high finance and modern life to embark on a quest. Having commissioned a famous writer to undertake her "authentic" biography, she journeys through the Spanish Sierra de Gredos and the region of La Mancha to meet him. As she travels by allterrain vehicle, bus, and finally on foot, the nameless protagonist encounters five way stations that become the stuff of her biography and the biography of the modern world, a world in which genuine images and unmediated experiences have been exploited and falsified by commercialization and by the voracious mass media.


In this visionary novel, Peter Handke offers descriptions of objects, relationships, and events that teach readers a renewed way of seeing; he creates a wealth of images to replace those lost to convention and conformity. Crossing the Sierra de Gredos is also a very human book of yearning and the ancient quest for
love, peopled with memorable characters (from multiple historical periods) and imbued with Handke's inimitable ability to portray universal, inner-worldly adventures that blend past, future, present, and dreamtime.

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About the Author:

Peter Handke was born in Griffen, Austria, in 1942. His many works include The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, My Year in No-Man's Bay, and, most recently, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, all published by FSG.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Crossing the Sierra de Gredos
1She 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 co...

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