On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House is Nobel Prize-winning author Peter Handke's evocative, moving, often fantastic, novel about one man's conflict with himself and his journey toward resolution.
During one night shift, an unnamed, middle-aged pharmacist in Taxham, an isolated suburb of Salzburg, tells his story to a narrator. The pharmacist is known and well-respected, but lonely and estranged from his wife. He feels most comfortable wandering about in nature, collecting and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms.
One day he receives a blow to the head that leaves him unable to speak, and the narrative is transformed from ironic description into a collection of sensual impressions, observations and reflections. The pharmacist, who is now called the driver, sets out on a quest, travelling into the Alps with two companionsa former Olympic skiing champion and a formerly famous poetwhere he is beaten and later stalked by a woman. He drives through a tunnel and has a premonition of death, then finds himself in a surreal, foreign land. In a final series of bizarre, cathartic events, the driver regains his speech and is taken back to his pharmacyback to his former life, but forever changed.
A powerful, poetic exploration of language, longing and dislocation in the human experience, On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House reveals Handke at his magical best.
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On a Dark Night I left my Silent House
By Peter Handke, Krishna Winston
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1997 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main
All rights reserved.
At the time when this story takes place, Taxham was almost forgotten. Most residents of nearby Salzburg couldn't have told you where it was located. To many of them, even the name sounded foreign. Taxham? Birmingham? Nottingham? And in fact the first football club after the war was called "Taxham Forest," until it climbed out of the lowest category and received a new name, then, over the years, worked its way up in the standings and even became "FC Salzburg" (by now it may have backslid to an earlier original name). Although in the center of town people often saw buses with TAXHAM on their destination sign drive by, neither more full nor more empty than the rest of the buses, hardly a single townsperson had ever sat in one of them.
Unlike the old villages in Salzburg's orbit, Taxham, founded after the war, never became a tourist attraction. There was no cozy inn, nothing to see — not even anything off-putting. Despite having Klessheim Castle, the gambling casino, and the official reception mansion just beyond the meadows, Taxham — neither a section of town, nor a suburb, nor farmland — had been spared all visitors, from nearby or from any distant parts whatsoever — in contrast to all the other villages in the region.
No one came by, even briefly, let alone spent the night. For there was never a hotel in Taxham — again in contrast to Salzburg, both the town and the province — and its "tourist rooms" consisted of niches, refuges, hideaways of last resort, available when everywhere else the signs read "no vacancy." Not even TAXHAM, the name that formed a ghostly trail of light on the front of the buses circling until late at night through the now darker, more silent center of Salzburg, seemed ever to have lured anyone out there. No matter whom you asked, including the most open-minded and especially the most broad-minded, said, when questioned about Taxham, "No," or merely shrugged.
Perhaps the only strangers who went there more than once were my friend Andreas Loser, teacher of classical languages and self-nominated liminologist, and I. The first time I visited Taxham, I found myself on the main thoroughfare, called "Klessheim Avenue" (no trace of castle or avenue), and stopped in a little shack of a bar, where a man railed for hours about how he'd been itching to kill someone: "No help for it!" And it was Andreas Loser who, one winter evening in the almost empty restaurant at the Salzburg airport (in those days almost larger than the arrival hall), whispered to me, "Look, that's the pharmacist of Taxham sitting over there!"
Since then my friend Loser has gone who knows where. And I left Salzburg long ago. And at the time when this story takes place, the pharmacist of Taxham, with whom we got together quite often after that, hadn't been heard from in almost as long — whether that was like him or not.
* * *
That Taxham seemed so inaccessible stemmed from its location, and the settlement itself was also responsible.
Something that's happening to all sorts of places these days was characteristic of Taxham from the beginning, namely being cut off or at least made hard to get to from the surrounding area and neighboring towns by all sorts of transportation lines — especially long-distance ones — impossible to cross on foot or by bicycle. In contrast to towns now, which get squeezed only little by little into such a spandrel world, isolated and hemmed in by the expressways proliferating on all sides, Taxham had come into being with such barriers already in place. Although it lay in a broad river valley and on the threshold of a city, it rather resembled a military camp, and in fact, its immediate vicinity, with the German border very near, actually had three military bases, one of them within the township itself. The rail line leading to Munich and beyond, one of Taxham's barriers, had been there far longer than the village, and the highway, too, had been built even before the Second World War, as the Reich autobahn (decades later the Reich eagle, carved, along with the date of construction, at the entrance to the tunnel-like underpass, still had the swastika clutched in its talons), and similarly the airport, built during the first Austrian republic, made it hard to reach the site of the future village.
Built into this transportation-corridor triangle, reachable almost only by circuitous, inconvenient routes and through underpasses, Taxham appeared as an enclave, and not only at first sight.
An enclave of what? Belonging to what? It was primarily, and certainly more conspicuously than anywhere else around Salzburg, a colony of war refugees, expellees, emigrants. In any case, the pharmacist was such a person, a member of a family that had run a pharmaceuticals factory in the east, first under the Hapsburg monarchy, then in the Czechoslovak Republic, then under German occupation. More details, I said, I didn't want to know for this story of his, to which he responded, "That's fine! Leave it vague!"
And after the war, new arrivals like this hadn't merely settled in the spandrel between the long-distance train tracks, the highway, and the airfield, on what was left of farmland there, specifically the farm known as "Taxham" — long since gone — but had screened themselves off even more, barricaded themselves in.
After getting past the external obstacles, you came upon a sort of second encircling barrier, not preexisting but created intentionally. Whether beyond the railroad embankment or beyond the runway fence: Taxham appeared to be surrounded a second time, in its inner sphere, by embankments, and above all fenced in, if not with wire then with dense hardwood hedges as tall as trees, so tall that almost the only thing that showed above them was the tower of the one Catholic church, a postwar structure of worked stone (the Protestant church remained invisible from a distance).
The strips of land between the two systems of barriers, the externally imposed one and the internally added one, served as a football field, a park, or a scruffy open area, where you could see the pale ring left by the circus that came to town for a few days every year; altogether, these stretches had something like a bulwark about them.
* * *
And in another respect, too, Taxham was a forerunner by half a century, though on a much smaller scale, of many of the new housing developments known today as "new towns": hard to find your way in, and even harder, whether on foot or by car, to get out again. Almost all the routes that promise to lead you out then turn off and take you around the block or wend their way back past cottage gardens to your starting point. Or they simply dead-end at yet another impenetrable hedge, through which open land and whatever leads elsewhere can just barely be glimpsed, even if the street is named after Magellan or Porsche.
In fact, because of the adjacent airport, most of the streets (or rather access roads) of this bushy-hedged village of Taxham bear the names of pioneers of flight, like "Count Zeppelin," "Otto von Lilienthal," "Marcel Rebard" — presumably foisted on the immigrants after the war, without consultation; they themselves would probably have preferred "Gottscheer Strasse" or "Siebenbürger Strasse," but who knows? The only aeronautical street name that would have been really suitable, according to my friend Andreas Loser, was "Nungesser and Coli," after the two pilots who attempted the first trans-Atlantic flight and vanished soon after leaving the continent behind.
* * *
And in a third respect, too, from its beginning Taxham anticipated a contemporary phenomenon, so to speak: Just as today it's more and more common for people not to live where they work, it was already the rule fifty years ago for those with jobs in the spandrel- and hedge-colony to have their house or apartment somewhere else — not far from Taxham, but at least not in the village. The retailers and restaurant owners came only during the day, to run their businesses. Even one of the priests assigned to the settlement, a man I knew well, came there only to celebrate Mass, and actually lived in Salzburg, where he wandered around aimlessly (I've heard meanwhile that he gave up his post long ago).
* * *
The pharmacist also had his house outside of Taxham, near one of the farm villages close to the border-marking Saalach River, just before it flows into the Salzach, in the natural spandrel or "point" there.
Yet he was fond of the place where he worked. His life unfolded in the triangle between his house by the river embankment, the pharmacy, and the airport, where in the period when we first met — his story takes place during another time altogether — he regularly ate his evening meal, sometimes with his wife, sometimes with his mistress.
The pharmacy, founded by his much older brother, had been the first business after the war in the new or temporary settlement of Taxham, indeed the first public institution open to all — before the school, the two churches, even before any shops. Not even a bakery preceded it (initially bread could be purchased at the original farm). For quite a while the pharmacy was the only place providing "services to the public," the postwar new arrivals. According to my acquaintance, people at first made disparaging jokes about this medicine hut in the no-man's-land, but gradually it became the provisional community center.
Even decades later you could still feel some of this: Although by now every trace of agriculture had disappeared and the pharmacy no longer stood alone but was flanked by church towers and supermarkets, it still let you imagine — more than see — a center of town.
Yet this impression certainly didn't come from the building itself. From the outside it looked like a tobacco shop or newsstand. And inside it had neither the dark, cleverly laid out, almost museum-like elegance of many older pharmacies nor the light, bright variety — where am I? in a solarium? a perfumery? a beach stall? — of so many new or recent pharmacies. It was almost alarmingly devoid of color or decoration, with not a single item, whether medicine or toothpaste, specially displayed, and the entire stock kept at a distance behind rather massive and ungainly barriers and glass-fronted cabinets, as if the items weren't wares for sale but an arsenal off limits to the unauthorized, monitored by two or three white-clad guards. It didn't even have that special threshold at the entrance, which, according to Andreas Loser, was so characteristic of pharmacies almost the world over — here you had no sense of elevation, no stumbling block, but instead drawings, ornaments, and patterns, richer than at the entrances to houses and quite a few other pharmacies, and a hollow even deeper than in church doorways; you found yourself inside the medicine warehouse just like that, without crossing a threshold.
"The Eagle" — that was the name of Taxham's pharmacy, chosen by the founding brother, who'd long since moved west, to Murnau in Bavaria, and established himself, along with his daughters, sons, and grandchildren, in the "Red Boar Pharmacy." But given its appearance, somewhere between a newsstand and an electric-company utility building, a more appropriate name would have been "the Hare" or "the Hedgehog," as the current owner acknowledged, or, if he'd had his druthers, it would have been called "Tatra Pharmacy," after the land of his fathers.
No, what set the flat structure apart from the others, which even for Taxham were far more prepossessing, was its location there at the center of the village, now almost as built up as a town: surrounded by an expanse of lawn disproportionately large for the masonry hut — almost a meadow, sparsely dotted with trees, old but not very tall, and shrubbery ditto, like relics of a former steppe. "Sometimes in the morning, when I'm going to work, I see smoke rising from the cottage there," says the pharmacist in his not purely Austrian way of expressing himself.
* * *
He was also fond of the trip back and forth, between his house by the river and his hedged-in shop, and of the evening trip from there along the runway fence to the airport, and so on (until one day there was no more and-so-on). He either walked to work or drove one of his big cars — always the latest model — but also occasionally rode a bicycle, black and heavy, a "Flying Dutchman," his back very straight, and a couple of times I saw him riding a motorbike along the country lanes; he was splattered with mud yet strangely reflective, as if returning from a fierce hunt (and once, in a dream, he landed in front of the pharmacy in his private blimp, shimmying down a rope into the steppe grass).
* * *
Of course, the people of Taxham stopped in to see him before going to the doctor's, perhaps also hoping to spare themselves a visit. What's less well known is that as a rule they would ask for advice and help afterward as well. "More and more the doctors have become specialists. And sometimes I think I can see the big picture that they miss nowadays. And besides, with me the patients needn't fear a referral or an operation. And sometimes I can even really help them."
* * *
That could happen and did happen above all when he crossed off medications, instead of adding or substituting others — not all the prescriptions on the doctor's list, but one here and there. "My task is primarily selecting and eliminating. Making room, not on the shelves but in people's bodies. Making room and channeling currents. And of course, gentlemen, if you insist, I have everything in stock." At night the shop — barred, locked, barricaded — seemed like a bunker ("which you'd have to dynamite to get into").
And in fact there were quite a few people in the village whom he was able to help this way — "also because they let themselves be helped this way." And since his reputation didn't extend beyond the village — "Heaven forbid!" — it was clear at the same time that the pharmacist of Taxham was by no means a miracle healer.
* * *
The local residents were hardly out the door when they promptly forgot their gratitude, and therefore him as well. Unlike family doctors, businessmen, or football players, he wasn't a recognized figure on the streets and in the few pubs. No one talked about him, recommended him to others, sang his praises, or made fun of the pharmacist the way they do in the classic comedies. People who ran into him outdoors, outside his realm of competence, either ignored him — quite unintentionally — or failed to recognize him, even if just a few minutes earlier they'd gratefully shaken his hand across the "counter" inside.
Part of the reason was that whenever possible the pharmacist didn't go out in his white lab coat but rather in hat and suit, with a pocket square, and looked right past the pedestrians, of whom there weren't many in Taxham, keeping his eyes fixed on treetops, crops, and raindrops in the dust, and therefore, according to the childhood superstition, remaining invisible. And it must also be said that he, too, as soon as he left his bunker in the evening, never recognized any of the people outside as his customers, clientele, or patients — at most as Herr or Frau So-and-so. Unlike a doctor, who remained "the doctor" when he left his practice, the Taxham pharmacist ceased to be a pharmacist as soon as he locked up his shop.
Who or what was he then? One time I saw children running toward him. And although children usually run faster as they approach strangers, these children slowed down as they came near him and looked up at him, away from him, up at him.
* * *
At the time when this story takes place, it was summer. The meadows around the airport and around the hedged-in settlement beyond had already been hayed once, and by now the grass was high again, easy to mistake from a distance for the grain that was hardly grown in the region anymore; unlike the spring grass, it had almost no flowers, and depending on the wind, its green showed streaks of gray, or the other way around.
It was also the time of year with almost no fruit, the cherries having been harvested already or plundered by the birds, especially the ravens, and the apples being far from ripe, except for the nearly white-skinned early apples, though such trees were rarer than ever.
Excerpted from On a Dark Night I left my Silent House by Peter Handke, Krishna Winston. Copyright © 1997 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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