When I finished reading the novella “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” I wasn’t sure how to approach this work by Peter Handke. Did I like this book or not? Should I have perhaps started with one of his more recent works, instead of one of his earliest (as far as I can see, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” is his fourth book)? In any case, even at this moment, I am not sure in which direction this review will go…
Peter Handke has a substantial number of novels under his belt, as well as numerous awards throughout his fruitful literary career, culminating in the Nobel Prize in Literature last year for, uh… “influential work that with linguistic ingenuity explored the periphery and the specifics of human experience” (“Yes, yes, logical… wait, for what exactly?” – note from the subconscious). Of course, his becoming a Nobel laureate also stirred controversy, both in literary and political circles. Handke accused the West and their media of portraying Serbia as the culprit for everything and openly stood in defense of the Serbs. He believed that the war in the former Yugoslavia was wrong, that it should never have happened, nor the subsequent bombing, and that the breakup of Yugoslavia should have been prevented. Peter Handke has always had this specific trait of provoking literary and political circles with his rebellious attitude (“Provocative… doing everything contrary to others… a rebel… this guy seems like he was born in these parts, not in Austria…” – note from the subconscious).
Now, let’s turn to the review itself…
Meet Josef Bloch, a former goalkeeper, now a former construction worker. Actually, he thinks he’s lost his job, since no one in the workers’ barracks (except the site supervisor) paid any attention to him when he showed up.
From that moment, his life seems to become even more meaningless (since, while reading the book, I couldn’t shake the impression that his life didn’t have much meaning to begin with). He wanders around Vienna, eats sausages, reads newspapers and piles them on tables in cafes/hotels/restaurants, constantly makes phone calls from various booths without any concrete intention (most often calling his ex-wife), gets into fights, gets beaten up, tries to take women to bed, keeps going to the cinema and partially follows the plots of movies, ends up in bed with a cinema cashier, kills the cinema cashier for no apparent reason, eats rolls with sausage, takes a bus to a small border town (“Wait a minute, WHAT? How can you lump murder and rolls in the same breath, what’s happening here???” – note from the subconscious).
Roughly, the story does indeed go in this kind of monotonous direction. In fact, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” doesn’t really have a concrete plot. We follow Josef Bloch and try to understand what’s in this man’s head. We are never sure whether he is engaged or extremely detached from this world. He imagines that people are watching and following him at every step, that they deliberately speak disjointedly to him and constantly tell him nonsense, trying to manipulate him, that everyone behaves strangely, while he behaves normally and logically.
In fact, you can’t help but feel that Josef Bloch is some kind of passive-active observer in his own life, and that he is, simply, a pathetic person and a weakling who is not even aware of his actions or their consequences. He clings to fragments of his past that seem very disconnected, such as his goalkeeping career (though we’re not even sure if he ever had a career worth mentioning). It might be that he is, in fact, a very sick and dangerous person. Generalizing people, passivity, the absence of color in his life, the inability to emotionally (and even normally verbally) connect with people, commenting on things inappropriately, paranoia, and even situations where his paranoia has its own paranoia.
And now, is he a sick person who needs medical help (prison is definitely in his future if he’s caught) or did something happen in his past that made him the person he is now? But again, what kind of person can so easily assume they’ve been fired? Why are his conversations with his ex-wife short, and it seems like she’s cautious when talking to him? Many questions revolve around Josef Bloch.
“The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” is a fairly short novel, around 130 pages. It was published in 1970. So, exactly half a century ago. Handke was about 28 years old when he wrote this novel. How to interpret his writing style, this kind of strange “absence”? Was it influenced by the time, his youth and literary experience, the environment in which he grew up, or perhaps the then literary style of the German-Austrian school? Or maybe he deliberately wrote in a way that conveys emptiness and marginality? Perhaps a better answer can be given by those who have read another of his novels.
In fact, now I realize why I’m familiar with this feeling of anxiety and emptiness! It has similarities with the adventures of Josef K. in Kafka’s “The Trial”. That feeling of being caught in some machinery, where you have no control, where everything is impersonal, even yourself… Is that how Josef Bloch, our former goalkeeper, feels too? Who knows…
However, when you read some reviews, you see that people are very divided about this book. It’s not a masterpiece, but neither do they deny that there’s something in this novel, something that reminded them of Kafka’s “The Trial”. So to be honest, I will remain neutral about this book. And we’ll see how his later works turn out. 🙂
And you, dear reader, what are your thoughts on Josef Bloch and his “adventures”? 🙂
(Originally reviewed: 25/01/2020)
Price of the book in Serbia: Makart | Delfi | Dereta | Laguna
Ratings (and purchasing) on international sites: Goodreads | Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK) | Waterstones | Barnes & Noble | Audible (US) / Audible (UK)