Charged with a mournful, aching beauty, the opening passages of Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar’s 2007 novel, Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, clearly set the tone for the story that will follow. The scene is one drenched with misty melancholy. It is late March, 1945. A grey, foggy sky hangs low over the landscape, and a sense of weary dread has settled over the residents of Sóbota, a quiet town, or varaš, nestled on the plains of an otherwise forgotten region of eastern Slovenia, lying between the Mura River and the Raba Valley. The area which had, until the implementation of the Final Solution almost exactly one year earlier, been home to the majority of Slovenia’s small Jewish population, is presently under Hungarian occupation. Now, with rumours that the Russians are advancing and the Germans retreating, no one is certain what to expect next; no one knows what the currents of history are carrying their way.
That night the story of good men and women could barely stand up to the devious wind dispassionately erasing the words on the faded monuments of the law. This mysterious force was stronger than the storms and deeper than the floods that were once talked about here. It came as a vague feeling, or a long, harrowing dream, which burrowed into people’s souls even before they fell asleep or drank themselves into a stupor.
Available in English for the first time in an attentive and sensitive translation by Rawley Grau who also translated Šarotar’s Sebaldian-styled epic Panorama, this earlier novel is a tale of remembrance, told from a distinctly cinematic perspective, that of a timeless all-seeing eye hovering above the earth, capable of taking in good and evil alluded to in the brief prologue. Not unlike the lens of a camera.
The result is a simple, painfully human story that revolves around two key dates in 1944 and 1945. Touching on critical moments in the lives of a handful of characters — an Auschwitz survivor and former shopkeeper’s return in search of some semblance of home, a young girl’s first infatuation, the secret an aging prostitute has kept from the only other woman still left at the Hotel Dobray, the complicated emotions of the arrogant but ill-prepared leader of a sorry group of fatigued Hungarian soldiers awaiting certain defeat, and an ambitious and prosperous businessman’s unlikely twist of fate – it is a narrative that glances into hearts but never settles for long. The effect is a slowly simmering evocation of the impact of war on a community ground down, torn apart and ultimately upended by events orchestrated from afar. Inevitable because, in the end, we all know how this story ends, the sleepy varaš is ever altered, its Jewish population is all but decimated, and its national identity rewritten. However, unwinding the story as he does, employing careful repetition, connecting events and characters forward and back in time, and gradually revealing a little more with each passage, Šarotar creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of poetic tension.
Central to the story is Franz Schwartz whom we first meet on the road to Sóbota. It has been almost exactly a year since he and his fellow Jewish citizens had been rounded up and sent off, the men to work themselves to death in camps, the women and children to more immediate termination. He knows he will never see his wife and son again, but having escaped the camp he has no place on earth to return to than the town where he was once a proud and successful retailer.
The cold, gaseous sphere hung motionless over the town. The houses, the plane trees and poplars that lined the streets, the bell towers, the man – all were left without shadow. The sharp, blinding light had painfully imprinted an image of the morning on the consciousness of Franz Schwartz. In a succession of short exposures, one after the other as if he was blinking his eyes, the pages of a large photo album were being turned inside him. He stood in the middle of the intersection, entirely alone.
Images of all the familiar streets, buildings and structures return to him, but he carries neither joy nor despair at the prospect of being back. The town has changed and he knows he cannot risk being seen until he gets his bearings.
Meanwhile, Budapest has recently fallen and the Hungarian occupation is on borrowed time. The small military unit presently housed at the Hotel Dobray, under the incompetent command of József Sárdy, secretary of the Office of the Special Military Tribunal, is despondent and all but defeated. They await the advancing Red Army with apprehension. About the only townsperson holding out optimism for the future is Josip Benko, the owner of the local meat factory, former mayor and indefatigable entrepreneur.
As the story unwinds, evidence of a network of complex emotions, complicated loyalties and chronological connections begins to emerge. When the narrative eventually slips back to April of 1944, Franz’s family background and the heartbreaking magnitude of his loss is illuminated. Piece by piece a portrait of the slow motion tragedy that spread over this part of central Europe is brought to life. It is, at once, part of a much larger story and yet distinct and, to the author, inherently personal.
The power of this tale lies in the telling. The somber but lyrical narrative is allowed, when needed, to “creep along like a low-flowing river.” Words are chosen carefully, emotions are numbed, stifled sounds speak volumes. The strains of a song that can no longer be sung or performed permeates the memories of a number of the characters. The music of silence is a recurring motif.
The omniscient, distanced third person perspective of the all-seeing eye only serves to heighten the emotional intensity. Šarotar masterfully maintains this intensity, letting it reverberate like the a violin strung too tight, right through to the end, as all the threads and stories are wound together but ultimately left unresolved, hanging in the air. He ends his narrative with a timeless, unanswerable question. One that, as nationalism is making a resurgence, we would do well to attend to.
Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau, is published by Istros Books.