Mere Words, Mere Art — Slovenian Literature: Ten (Plus) Novels

Context N°23

Erica Johnson Debeljak

To become acquainted with the literature of a nation, especially one as small as Slovenia, is inevitably to become acquainted with the fears, neuroses, and preoccupations of that particular nation and its people. In Slovenia, a country of two million that until 1991 had always been part of larger and more powerful multilingual entities (first of some version of the Habsburg Empire for nearly a millennium and then of some version of Yugoslavia for seventy-five years of the twentieth century), such preoccupations revolve around identity, pride, and resistance.

For Slovenians, identity resides most palpably in language and by extension in literature. Indeed it was predominantly the tiny and perennially threatened Slovenian language that kept this small tribe together over the centuries. Never taken for granted, it became the heart and soul of the people and, although the following list of books includes only novels, poets are the high priests of the Slovenian people, and poetry their temple. Pride resided in rural poverty, in the countryside, in the struggle of this diligent race of hardworking peasants to wrest survival from a beautiful and varied land that was at times miraculously fecund, at times simply brutal. Resistance, for twentieth-century Slovenia, can be located first in the struggle of the Littoral Slovenians against their Italian occupiers (this occurred in the aftermath of World War I when Austro-Hungary was dismantled and a third of Slovenia and a slice of coastal Croatia annexed to Italy), and later, and more crucially perhaps, during the crucible of World War II, when Partisan forces took to the verdant woods and rugged hills, and fought against the occupying Italians and Germans. Recall: in all of Europe, only Yugoslavia liberated itself from Nazi Germany without the help of either Russia or America.

With the fall of both communism and Yugoslavia, the unexpected birth of the Slovenian state in 1991, and the subsequent rise of market capitalism, all three of these genetic markers—language, rural poverty, and resistance—have entered a period of looking-glass reinterpretation. Now that the long-suppressed dream (of independence) has come true, the primary ingredients that went into its realization matter little to a new generation that takes independence and freedom, the Slovenian language and shopping malls to be their birthright.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

The following is a list of ten Slovenian novels of the twentieth century. The selection, as always in such lists, is subjective. One slight departure is that item ten on the list is not one book but many, a brief sub-survey of significant works that have been published in the post-1991 period and may or may not acquire the towering stature of the others. Time will tell. But the post-independence era of Slovenia, with its new set of fears and neuroses and preoccupations, must be given its due.
1. Hiša Marije Pomočnice, Ivan Cankar, 1904 (The Ward of our Lady of Mercy, translated by Harold Leeming, DZS, 1976)

Ivan Cankar (1876–1918), Slovenia’s preeminent turn-of-the-century prose writer, was amazingly prolific during his relatively short writing life. From 1899 to 1918, Cankar published thirty-three books in a broad variety of genres. Perhaps because he emerged from a background of hardship himself—he was one of seven children born to a far from prosperous family—the tone of his work is generally dark and his recurrent themes are those of injustice, poverty, and the plight of society’s most helpless victims.

The Ward of our Lady of Mercy provides little relief from the darkness. It tells the story of fourteen little girls in a convent hospital, left there by their parents to die of various ailments, many of syphilis passed on by the abusive parents and caretakers themselves. The novel, though its principal themes are religion and death, ran into trouble with the censors and critics at the time of its publication (one famously calling it “refined pornography, brought to artistic perfection”) because of the erotic content of two chapters detailing the sexual abuse of some of the convent’s inmates. But the novel ultimately belongs to its transcendent main character, Malchie, whose death is depicted as a sort of mystical transformation, a final redemption from life’s hardship and misery, and more broadly a sacrifice for all humanity, even the most cruel and oppressive.

 

2. Alamut, Vladimir Bartol, 1938 (Alamut, translated by Michael Big-
gins, North Atlantic Books, 2004)
Alamut, named after an eleventh century Persian fortress, is both an unusual work by Slovenian standards, given that relatively few exotic historical sagas have been written by Slovenian authors, and one of the most well-known novels outside of the country’s borders, having been translated into over fifteen languages. The novel tells the story of the historical figure Hassan-i Sabbah and the Hashashin warriors, considered by some to be precursors of today’s Islamic suicide bombers. The protagonist of Alamut is the young and idealistic ibn Tabir, who arrives at Hassan-i Sabbah’s fortress intent on becoming a warrior in service to Hassan only to discover that the indoctrination of soldiers is based on fabrication and the drugging of recruits. The fortress grounds contain a contrived garden paradise replete with houris, the virgins that await Islamic martyrs after their deaths.

Vladimir Bartol (1903–1967) was an ethnic Slovenian from Trieste and, during the years that he wrote Alamut, Slovenians in Mussolini’s Italy were not allowed to speak their own language, their Slavic surnames were forcibly Italianized, Austria was annexed to Hitler’s Germany, and Stalin’s purges had reached their murderous climax. Certainly it is the provocative content of Alamut that accounts for the wave of post-9/11 translations (into the English and Hebrew languages, among others) and yet the novel’s success is above all due to the universality and timelessness of its message: a screed against all forms of fanaticism.

 

3. Minuet za kitaro, Vitomil Zupan, 1975 (Minuet for Guitar, translated by Harold Leeming, DZS 1988; Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)
Vitomil Zupan (1914–1987) has the ideal biography for a postwar Slovenian/Yugoslav writer. He was interned by the Italians during World War II, managed eventually to join and fight with the communist Partisans, and then, for all his trouble, was jailed after the war by the same communist Partisans as a “suspicious intellectual.” But if his life story is stereotypical of a postwar Central European
dissident, his writerly voice is anything but: it is casual, self-deprecating, sardonic, and even sexy. If Cankar is Slovenia’s Emile Zola, Vitomil Zupan is its Henry Miller.

Minuet for Guitar takes place in two distinct time frames: the first during World War II, when a young Slovenian soldier, Berk, fights with the Partisans while retaining a commitment to liberal rather than communist values, and the second in Spain, some thirty years after the war, when Berk strikes up a friendship with a former Wehrmacht officer who fought against him on the very same battlefields. The voice of Berk is so fresh it makes the reader really see the bucolic European countryside engulfed in fratricidal war, makes the reader feel the terrible detachment of the soldier swept along by impersonal historical forces while facing his own personal extinction each day. Balancing Zupan’s “noir” irony are the erudite philosophical musings that punctuate and deepen the work.

 

4. Spopad s pomladjo, Boris Pahor, 1978 (A Difficult Spring, translated by Erica Johnson Debeljak, Litterae Slovenicae, 2009)

If, despite independence, the deepest source of Slovenian identity is that of the eternal minority—a minority in Austro-Hungary, in Yugoslavia, and now in the European Union—then Boris Pahor (1913) is more than a writer: he is Slovenia’s patron saint and protector. An ethnic Slovenian born in Trieste, Pahor was arrested by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to the concentration camps, an experience that became the subject matter of much of his later literary work (work that is often compared to that of Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz). And yet arguably of equal importance to the Slovenian people has been his tireless advocacy of minority languages and cultures in Europe.

Mesto v zalivu (City in the Bay, 1955), Necropolis (1967), and A Difficult Spring (1978), taken together, comprise a trilogy of Pahor’s war experience. The first presents the crucial weeks when a young Slovenian intellectual in Trieste must decide how to engage with the totalitarian forces closing in on him. The second is a harrowing nonfiction account of the experience of the concentration camps. The third, A Difficult Spring, is a more intimate novel that could be classified either as Holocaust or sanatorium literature. It deals with the existential choice—between life and death, love and darkness—faced by Radko Suban, a deportee returning from the camps who spends several months in a French sanatorium and falls in love with a pretty, trite, and flirtatious young nurse. Her capriciousness strikes him as a betrayal of the camps and all who died there, and yet also as the very source of life.

 

5. Galijot, Drago Jančar, 1978 (The Galley Slave, translated by Michael Biggins, Dalkey Archive Press 2011)

Drago Jančar (1948) is a towering figure in contemporary modernist Slovenian fiction. Like many Slovenian writers of this caliber, he writes prolifically and in many genres, but is best known for his novels, short stories, and plays. Jančar was a dissident in socialist Yugoslavia, jailed for his activities, and his literature often deals with the individual in confrontation with repressive institutions and a chaotic world. He was instrumental in Slovenia’s movement toward independence. Jančar’s novel The Galley Slave is a dark Central European equivalent of the picaresque novel. It tells the story of Johan Ot’s wandering from Germany into Slovenian and Mediterranean lands. Though it takes place in the seventeenth century, it reflects the contemporary human condition of loss and exile.

 

6. Vampir z Gorjancev, Mate Dolenc, 1979

Vampir z Gorjancev (The Vampire from Gorjanci), an extremely popular novel later turned into a film, is set in the 1970s in a region under the foothills of the Gorjanci Mountains, which separate Slovenia
from Croatia. In this groundbreaking work, Mate Dolenc (1945) departed from the prevalent existentialist mood of Slovenian literature of the day and adopted a romantic realist style that allowed him to switch back and forth between real and fantastic registers. The novel tells the story of an artistically minded student whose pursuit of knowledge leads him from the urban center to remote villages permeated by rural folklore, where he encounters the realm of the undead, and specifically, the beautiful and ethereal Leonora. It never becomes clear whether Leonora is a real character or a metaphor for the unattainable, the world just beyond our reach. Despite Vampir z Gorjancev’s popularity and prescience (beating the current vampire fad by some twenty-five years), Dolenc abandoned this fantasy world, his later novels dealing with naturalist themes such as the Adriatic Sea and its numerous islands, a realm that after Slovenian independence and the breakup of Yugoslavia also existed just beyond the reach of Slovenians.

 

7. Prišleki, Lojze Kovačič, 1984

Prišleki (The Newcomers), Lozje Kovačič’s (1928–2004) epic and panoramic trilogy, was voted “the Slovenian novel of the century” by literary critics. It turns stereotypes on their heads, as novels of the century should do—stereotypes such as the dignity of rural poverty, the unifying sanctity of the Slovenian language, and the noble heroism of resistance. It also reverses another one of the other great preoccupations of twentieth-century Slovenia—emigration. According to some estimates, more than one quarter of the Slovenian population left Slovenia during three great waves of emigration, but the newcomers of Lozje Kovačič’s masterpiece move inexorably, unwillingly in the opposite direction.

Prišleki is the (autobiographical) story of a family forcibly returned to the Slovenian homeland in 1938. The patriarch, a furrier, had emigrated with his German Saarland wife to Switzerland in 1911 where they achieved a certain bourgeois respectability, but then at the height of the global economic crisis, the Swiss authorities “escort” them out of the country. This experience, narrated through the eyes of the youngest child, a son, is one of nearly unmitigated misery. Rural poverty holds no dignity for the family of newcomers. Rather it offers a surreal and terrifying landscape of mud and shit, bogs and grim forests. The Slovenian language, far from being a unifier, is used against the boy who speaks an accented version of it. Resistance is not possible as the family remains perennially suspect because of their Germanic roots. In short: the newcomers belong nowhere.

 

8. Filio ni doma, Berta Bojetu, 1990

Berta Bojetu (1946–1997) is a decidedly rare phenomenon in postwar Slovenian literature, a Jewish woman writer. It would be difficult to decide what element of her identity is more remarkable: being one of the few women who dared enter the masculine temple of Slovenian letters, or being a member of Slovenia’s almost nonexistent Jewish community (most having been expelled, not during World War II, but during the Middle Ages). Bojetu wrote two novels during her lifetime that are representative of Slovenian postmodernism: Filio ni doma (Filio is not at Home) and Ptičja hiša (The Birdhouse, 1995). Filio ni doma is a dystopian feminist novel, full of violence and dark brooding, that takes place in a village on an unnamed Mediterranean island. The upper part of village is populated by women and children, and the lower part by men. The novel’s main character has a granddaughter, Filio, and an adopted son, Uri. Uri is soon segregated to the male part of the island where he is socialized in practices of bestiality, homosexuality, and, above all, brutality toward women. Uri and Filio eventually come together in their effort to leave the monstrous society of the island.

 

9. Namesto koga roža sveti, Feri Lainšček, 1991 (Instead of Whom the Flower Blooms, translated by Tamara M. Soban, Litterae Slovenicae 2002).

Feri Lainšček (1959) is one of Slovenia’s most popular contemporary novelists. His work sells well, receives many awards, and is frequently made into successful films. Lainšček is a decidedly regional writer, coming from Prekmurje, Slovenia’s eastern flank, the plains of Pannonia, bordering Hungary and famously populated with storks, Gypsies, and a dialect that nobody else in Slovenia understands. Instead of Whom the Flower Blooms, Lainšček’s most famous work, tells the story of Halgato, a young Gypsy boy who struggles to escape the fate of his family—his father was killed by Yugoslav UDBA (the local equivalent of Soviet KGB or East German Stasi) and his mother is a faithless beauty—and transcend his doomed community—poor fiddlers, tinkers, and knife sharpeners who ply their wares and services across the bleak grassy plains, all too often succumbing to violence and drink.

 

10. Post 1991—A New Era of Southerners and Women

An amazing shift has taken place in the eighteen years since Slovenian independence. As Slovenians became the king of their castle, the majority at least within their own country, internal minorities began to demand voice. Namely, Slovenian fiction has seen an increasing emphasis on the experience of the ex-Yugoslav minority within Slovenian society (the so-called southerner: mostly Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims). The two most noteworthy books in this category are Andrej H. Skubec’s Fužinski bluz (Fužine Blues) and Goran Vojnović’s Čefuri raus!, the surprise winner of 2009’s Slovenian equivalent of the National Book Award. One caveat about these books is that they may well be untranslatable, much of their vitality and humor relying on the mélange of southern Slav languages, and on the juiciness of southern slang, registers that are all but lost in translation.

The other development since 1991 is the emergence of a veritable army of Berta Bojetu’s figurative daughters: women writers in Slovenia. There are a host of talented young women writers, uncowed by the dominantly male character of the literary scene, who write with an entirely fresh voice, sometimes humorous, sometimes simply more straightforward and well-rounded than their male counterparts, though generally not as darkly dystopian in their subject matter as Bojetu. Worth including in this category as both novelists, and perhaps equally importantly as short story writers, are Maja Novak (Feline Plague), Suzana Tratnik (Tretji svet), Polona Glavan (Noč v Evropi), and Mojca Kumerdej (Fragma).

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