Repetition, by Peter Handke. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 246 pp. $18.95. In Peter Handke's previous novel, ``Across,'' the central character asks whether ``repetition,'' so often viewed as negative, might instead be viewed as good. ``Could not one ... speak of refreshing repetition as opposed to wearisome repetition?... The possibility of repetition as opposed to the danger of repetition?'' he says. ``Here is my other word for repetition: `rediscovery.'''
Rediscovery and renewal are at the heart of Handke's new novel, an evocative, many-layered treatment of a familiar theme: a youth setting forth to find the world and himself.
Filip Kobal's journey takes place in the summer of 1960 when, not yet 20, he leaves his village in southern Austria for Slovenia. In part, Filip is ``on the trail'' of his brother Gregor who vanished in Slovenia 20 years before, during the war. Though Filip never really knew Gregor, who was 20 years his senior, throughout his childhood the missing brother was so honored and talked about that he seemed always present, ``an additional voice in every conversation.''
Filip is also on the trail of his Slovenian heritage. The Kobals were banished from Slovenia in the 18th century, after one ancestor helped lead a peasant revolt, and Filip associates this exile with his father's inability to be at home anywhere. Like his mother, he sees Slovenia as a ``magical'' country where the Kobal family might recapture their ``true selves.''
From the first then we are aware that Filip is looking for ``his place in life.'' His account of his journey, written 25 years after it occurred, shows a boy who sees himself as everywhere an outsider and has yet to find value in the role. Though he has begun to write, to become a storyteller, to perceive the nature of the artist's work, he is still afraid both of being known and of being alone.
Though set in the present day, Filip's journey has a timeless, primordial quality, the aura of a fairy tale, to which the narrator at times compares it. His first, nightmare-ridden night in Yugoslavia, for example, is spent in a tunnel where he dreams that though forbidden to stop talking he cannot complete a single sentence, an episode that evokes a passage through the underworld.
As Filip travels deeper into Yugoslavia, he feels himself experiencing the world differently: he finds his ``natural gait,'' he moves with the ``flow'' of people, history, time.
The sense of a mystical experience intensifies as Filip turns to two of his brother's books, which he has brought with him. One, a copybook on fruit-growing Gregor kept while at agricultural school, is not, Filip discovers, simply lecture notes but ``the record of a young scientist's independent research,'' an account of how Gregor built his magnificent orchard from a single tree. Filip reads it as a ``story about a place and its hero.''
The second is a Slovenian-German dictionary. As Filip follows the words his brother ticked off, an entire people and their vision take shape, and in his experience of naming the world - his ancestors' naming of the world, all peoples' naming of the world, the ``epic of words'' - he is exhilarated by language, its meaning and its power. He appoints his brother - ``who had the gift of bringing words and through them things to life'' - his ``forebear,'' and accepts his own role as storyteller: ``reader and onlooker in one... the third party on whom everything hinged.''
On the final stage of his journey, in the Karst, a woman greets him as ``the son of the late blacksmith, returned home at last,'' and takes him home. At last, recognized, known, Filip can lay claim to his own life; attached to other lives, he can ``straighten up in my turn into a grown-up, a man.'' He returns home with compassion and love for his parents, with gratitude for having been born.
Recounting his journey in middle age, Filip observes that it is a story he could not have told at 20, because it was ``not yet a memory.'' Memory, he says, makes experience known - ``nameable, voiced, speakable''; memory ``situates experience in a sequence that keeps it alive, a story which can open out into free storytelling, greater life, invention.'' Stories, he suggests, are rediscoveries; they repeat, and renew. Filip's story is both his own and a prototype.
``Repetition'' is a complex, thoughtful, and poignant book. A personal story of a particular individual struggling to come to terms with his particular life, of one storyteller struggling to find his voice, it is also an expansive and joyous meditation on storytelling itself.
Gail Pool is a free-lance book reviewer.