Absolution, by Slovenian poet and writer Aleš Šteger, begins with a dramatic flourish, alluding to the staged performative quality of the story that is about to unfold. Like a grandly conceived morality play, the stage is set:
Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man. He hunches behind the high collar of his winter coat, hands buried in its pockets, black briefcase dangling off his right wrist. He sways a little. The pavement has not been shovelled. The man tries to balance his way along a narrow, already beaten track. He nearly falls. Behind him stretch unkempt art nouveau façades, and in the pallor of the streetlights drizzling rain turns into snow. The few passers-by are quietly spat out by the dusk, only to be swallowed again a moment later, just as quietly. The whole time the silhouette of a woman has been at the man’s heels.
It is Carnival time in the Slovenian city of Maribor. And, with a passing nod to The Master and Margarita, the devil makes a brief cameo in this opening scene. But the man with the briefcase is a more mysterious, strangely possessed visitor than the costumed Beelzebub who stumbles on the icy street.
Returning to his hometown, after sixteen years of exile, Adam Bely is a man with a mission. Together with Rosa, his beautiful Cuban-Austrian companion, he immediately sets to tracking down a series of prominent residents, claiming to be collecting interviews for an Austrian radio special about the city which has come to be known, as the “European Centre of Culture.” Each person they meet with is hypnotized or subdued by force, prodded for information about their current and past lives, and then “absolved”—a process which sets free a host of trapped souls—ultimately leaving the “victim” either dead or a raving shadow of their former selves.
Šteger’s fantastical Maribor is striving to be an ideal model of perfected sterility, but it is a false façade—as false as the masks donned by revellers during Carnival. Corruption runs deep and close to the surface. The threat that Bely has come to confront is the Great Orc, a network of “thirteen bodies inhabited by hundreds, thousands, millions of souls which protect the world from change.” These bodies belong to a cluster of powerful, influential individuals, but none of the members know the identity of all of their twelve cohorts. The octopus is the creature that symbolizes and binds this network. Bely is determined to absolve all of the members, effectively freeing the city from a most unusual curse. His conviction is derived from his involvement with Scientology. Although he claims to have left the sect, he still holds to Hubbard’s contention that people are but human animals inhabited by “flocks of murdered souls.”
I have to confess that I am at a loss to know exactly what Šteger was hoping to achieve with this novel. It is either a piece of speculative fiction, or a parody of the same. The characters are caricatures, intentionally so, but there is something decidedly odd and distasteful to the tone and execution. This is not my genre, so either I am missing the point, or this ambitious idea has missed the mark.
It must be noted that Šteger is a very gifted poet. The translation of his collection The Book of Things won the 2011 BTBA award for poetry and his wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Berlin, was long listed for the 2016 BTBA fiction award. And when he steps away from the forced dialogue and strange plot, poetic moments find their way into the text of Absolution, but for a reader coming to this book from his earlier work, those traces are few and far between.
I am not comfortable writing negative reviews. I am always ready to admit that a book that does not work for me, might be perfect for someone else. After all, this book was well received in Germany. And, for all its awkwardness, there are some very interesting ideas here. In my mind, the most striking is the sense of the compounded layers of death the lie beneath so many cities in Europe. It is tempting to reframe the human costs of centuries of conquest and war in Judeo-Christian shades of good and evil. To take an angle like Scientology (which notably emerged from the mind of the creator of some pretty questionable science fiction) is at least daring, if not entirely successful. When Bely and Rosa visit one of their target citizens, Magda Ornik, the Director of the Maribor Funeral Home, she reflects on the artificially symbolic nature of any designated cemetery:
“First, our entire country is nothing but one big burial ground. We all know that whenever you start digging with a shovel you’ll hit a grave or even a mass grave. The Romans, the Middle Ages, the Ottoman invasions, the First World War, the Second World War, the post-war massacres. Slovenia is at a crossroads. Everything comes together and mixes here, and every era provides its share of the dead.”
As a reader living in Western Canada, where the ground beneath my feet contains a long but much more sparsely distributed human history, the densely compacted strata built of the detritus of war and peace (a dramatization of Tolstoy’s novel also features in Absolution) is virtually unknown. Perhaps, then, Bely’s drive to free his city from the weight of so many murdered souls does not seem so far-fetched. As he says:
“I believe in beginnings. Every moment could be the start of something new, something fateful. If I didn’t believe that it’s possible to change the course of our destiny at any given moment, then I’d no longer be on this planet. And I’m still here. Here and now.”
Absolution by Aleš Šteger is translated from the Slovenian by Urška Charney and Noah Charney, and published by Istros Books in collaboration with Belatrina Academic Press.