A Time Capsule: Peter Handke's 1989 Yugoslavia
Photos by Scott Abbott & Zarko Radakovic
In Peter Handke's novel Repetitions Filip Kobal rides a train through a Karawanken Mountain tunnel to get from Villach, Austria to Jesenica in Yugoslavia. Out of the cultural terrorism of Europe into the fabled "Ninth Land" of Slovenia. We can't exactly duplicate Filip's trip with our Opel Kadett; but Zarko Radakovic and I decide to drive through a parallel tunnel.
Somewhere near the tunnel we make a wrong turn and find ourselves driving along a long lake parallel to the mountains. Only fifteen minutes away, through the tunnel, is the promised land. Back and forth we drive, sometimes sure of where we are because of correspondences between countryside and map, then suddenly, inexplicably, repeatedly lost. The tunnel is carefully marked on the map, as is the Autobahn leading to it, and the name "Karawanken Tunnel" stands in tiny red letters next to the marks that mean "mountains." We can see the mountains. We can see the lake. We can drive through the streets of St. Jakob. But the map's promised 7.6-kilometer tunnel ("toll required") is simply not there.
Finally we throw away the text and ask an Austrian policeman how to get to the Karawanken Tunnel. When he understands that we want to drive through a tunnel to get to Jesenice he smiles so broadly that his thin moustache quivers. No such place, he says, not until the Yugoslavs finish their half.
We'll have to drive over the Wurzenpass.
At the border in an alpine meadow at the top of the pass, Zarko speaks with the guard and pulls the car into a parking lot. You need a visa, he tells me, and leads me into a low, dark, dirty monument to bureaucracy. Zarko answers questions put to him by a uniformed official. I watch several men pay what looked like huge amounts of money at another counter. How much will a visa cost? There are long silences while the official flips through several old notebooks. Habsburg vintage? Josef K. and the Castle? The official reads my passport page by page. My ears register the tiny sounds of a burocrat's radio playing somewhere in the building, broadcasting the immortal voice of Engelbert Humperdink: "Please release me, let me go, I don't love you any mo." With a flourish the official stamps my passport.
Now the border is crossed, Jesenice just ahead, and Filip Kobal's first experience awaits our retracing. Zarko is home. And yet not home, he explains. This is Slovenia, and the people here speak Slovenian. They learn Zarko's native language, Serbo-Croatian, in school....