New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.
LibraryThing member icolford
Peter Handke's 1990 novel Absence is perhaps the most dreamlike of his shorter works, a brazenly experimental fiction in which he seems content to let his characters loose and see where fate takes them. The setting is Europe at some unspecified time, though certainly post-World War Two. The four characters (an old man who scribbles cryptic symbols in a notebook, a very young and mostly silent soldier, a man of middle age who is a gambler, and a young woman who may or may not be emotionally unbalanced) set out from four separate places in an unnamed city and converge on a train compartment. Here they seem to recognize that some inexplicable fellowship exists among them, and when the train stops in the countryside they disembark as a group. Their subsequent wanderings take them through a variety of rural settings. They picnic on the edge of a lake, they endure a heavy storm, they take refuge in a cave. Perhaps the gambler is leading them somewhere. Or maybe it's the old man. Along the way, each delivers one or two lengthy soliloquies touching upon the path he or she has taken through life, and their impressions of themselves and the people and situations they have encountered along the way. Initially, the narrator is merely an observer recording what is happening, but about midway through the book, the narrative perspective shifts into the first person and the narrator begins to speak as if he is one of the group. There is no attempt at explanation, and indeed the essential nature of the story does not change. In the end, the reader feels that these lives have unfolded in the only manner possible. The novel is elegiac rather than dramatic, and a literal description of the action would, to be frank, make little sense. But strangely enough, at the end we relinquish these characters with reluctance, though we have known them for a very short time. As with his earlier fictions, in Absence Handke again pushes against the boundaries of prose narrative, performing a high-wire act with deceptive ease and grace.