(Image Credit: MacMillan Publishers)
When Austrian writer Peter Handke received the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, the choice stirred a hornet’s nest. From choosing to speak at the funeral of Serbian ethno-nationalist politician Slobodan Milosevic – who at the time of death had 66 charges of crimes against humanity leveled against him – to being an unabashed apologist for genocidal crimes in his works, Handke has had more than his fair share of controversies.
If the Nobel Prize set people wondering “why” Handke, a reading of “Don Juan” left me speculating “how” Handke. An unnamed and awestruck storyteller, himself possessing unmistakable strains of misogyny, pays a nauseating tribute to the orgies of a remorseless philanderer. The book is an anathema to morals. The protagonist Don Juan, comes hurtling, literally, into the house of the narrator, (an inn-keeper), hotly pursued by a couple on a motorbike. It is later revealed that Don Juan has taken a peek at the couple making love. This story sets in motion a train of immoral reminiscences. On each day of the week following the day on which Don Juan came crashing into the chef’s house, he describes the adventures he experienced on the same day a week earlier.
What follows is a reprehensible account of Don Juan’s ‘conquests’ of various women. The inn-keeper not only justifies the coquetting habits of his guest, but also disgustingly portrays him as a saviour of women. Marveling over Don Juan’s ability to unleash desire in a woman by his gaze alone, he argues that Don Juan is by no means a seducer. Every woman who is under the thrall of the adulterer’s gaze, realises how loneliness has enveloped her. She also understands that the beginning of the end of such solitude is when Don Juan’s eyes have locked in on her. From Caucasus to Norway with a brief stop in Damascus, Don Juan goes on a seducing spree. From a bride in a random wedding, to a shrew in a desert whom he tames in the only manner he knows, his sexual escapades induce astonishment in his host.
In addition to his insatiable sexual process, Don Juan possesses yet another unique ability. Random people, irrespective of status or stature become his servants, facilitating and fueling his carnal deeds. One such servant, has, as his inveterate custom, an irresistible longing for ‘disfigured’, and ‘ugly’ women. The reprobate comes close to getting lynched by a mob (unfortunately he escapes a deserving end), when found in a compromising position within a closet with a mentally challenged woman. The symbolic, literal and figurative climaxes that are ascribed to Don Juan and his subservient women punish the reader by jarring the bones.
Such vile objectification of the feminine threads through the book like a plague decimating a region. But Handle’s conscience (if at all such a thing exists), I am sure would not be affected one tiny jot by what his pen has scrawled. For, in an interview given to the publication, Drama Review, Handke, boldly claimed, “Morality is the least of my concerns. To me, morality in a society that – however moral its pose – is hierarchically organized is simply a lie, an alibi for the inequalities that exist in society.” Pretty rich from a man who places women in the hierarchy of the damned and to be mercilessly exploited.
As women are dehumanized, the male chauvinist is revered. Even birds, insects and animals of all ilk flock to Don Juan like iron filings to a magnet. Cats rub against his legs, butterflies settle on him and treat him as the spout from which to satiate their thirst by sipping on his sweat (gag reflux alert) and crows drop twigs and leaves on his feet. Awed offerings.
The sole reason that I ploughed through this abominable work is due to an uncompromising resolve not to let any book remain unfinished. But after “Don Juan”, this resolve has, putting it mildly, diminished (if not dissolved), significantly . Well, there is a first time for everything.