Picks and Pans Review: Across

updated 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Peter Handke

This novel, an elaborate improvisation on the theme of thresholds, is chilling and profound. A schoolteacher in an Austrian village of canals and rural settings takes a leave of absence to write a paper. He studies archaeology, focusing his attention on the thresholds of ancient buildings. It is he who is the narrator of what begins as an accumulation of mundane detail—about weather, trees, people, pets. One evening on his way to his monthly card game with friends, he finds that someone is painting swastikas around the village. The paint is not yet dry. "Could, then, this freshly sprayed sign be a symbol of peace? No, a swastika is a swastika. And this sign, this negative image, symbolized the cause of all my melancholy—of all melancholy, ill humor and false laughter in this country." The narrator finds the graffiti artist and kills him with a stone, and in doing so crosses a different kind of threshold. Handke, an Austrian, has written seven other novels and two volumes of plays. In light of the recent election of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, with his Nazi-tainted past, this novel seems positively prophetic. Like Kafka, Camus and Sartre, Handke has set out to define contemporary man in terms of his dismay. Across accomplishes this in an acutely disturbing and effective way. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.95)

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