The supernatural power of forgiveness: Absolution by Aleš Šteger

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.

Panorama by Dušan Šarotar—My Numéro Cinq review

My most recent review for Numéro Cinq is now live.

I have only been writing critical reviews for a year and this particular piece represents my most ambitious review to date. The ability to reach into a literary work, to tease out what makes it interesting, what makes it tick, or perhaps what does not quite gel, is a function of a certain chemistry. As a reviewer, when I find that hook— that angle—it is a wonderful feeling. But sometimes the surface is too smooth and I find it difficult to get a critical foothold, and it has nothing to do with how much I might have enjoyed a particular book. I can still write a review, but I wonder if I have done the book justice.

Panorama, by Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar, is a book that, as a writer, I feel I was meant to read and write about. At the end of the day there was so much I wanted to explore that I wondered if I could pull it off. This is a work that owes an admitted debt to W.G. Sebald; it is a novel that straddles the sensibilities of what we, in English language literature, insist on dividing into fiction and nonfiction—as if one is more true or more valid than the other. This book has, for me, finally opened up and challenged my resistance to blurring those lines in my own writing.

When I think about it now, I am beginning to see this novel as a series of narratives (or if you like vignettes and short stories) recorded by an unnamed narrator. But the narratives function as meditations on a number of key themes, and the stories shared by the characters encountered are neither discrete nor chronological. The narrator’s journey provides an overarching framework, but his account closes, not at the end, but in the middle, and some threads are never fully resolved. Like life, they are left to be.

Here’s a taste of the review, please click through the link at the end to read the rest. A second link leads to an excerpt:

At the Crossing of Words, Landscape & Memory: Review of Dušan Šarotar’s Panorama — Joseph Schreiber

panorama-cover

Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.

One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.

Continue reading here:

Read an excerpt here:

Innocence betrayed: My Father’s Dreams by Evald Flisar

Adolescence is, at the best of times, a period of turbulence. Hormones take over, driving hopes, desires and emotions. For Adam, the fourteen year-old narrator of My Father’s Dreams puberty becomes a twisted, surreal experience as he finds himself swept up in a world in which the line between dreams and reality becomes dangerously blurred. In this dark multi-faceted tale, Slovenian author Evald Flisar sets the stage for a story that is oddly out of time and place—a contemporary novel that evokes, in its backward rural setting and naive tone, a feeling of gothic horror or psychological drama that would be perfectly at home in the literature of the early twentieth century. But themes running through the narrative that are distinctly modern in their context and execution create an atmosphere that is eerily discordant and profoundly disturbing.

fathersdreamsAdam is a loner. He lives with his parents in a small rural village in an unnamed country. He describes his mother as shrill, over emotional and unduly concerned with social appearances. But he adores his father, the local doctor, unreservedly. He is the centre of his universe and he cannot imagine that he would ever cause him any harm. Adam spends his free time devouring books borrowed from his father’s library, a wide range of classic literature that runs the gamut from Zane Grey to Goethe to de Sade and Kafka and more. Not one to make friends easily, his sole confidant is his assumed brother Abortus, a jarred fetus who “lives” in his father’s secret laboratory in the basement of the health centre.

As puberty hits, Adam is increasingly beset by vivid dreams. He is unaware of just how odd and unnerving the content is until he allows it to fuel a school assignment. His teachers and his mother respond with shock. However, his rich dream life quickly becomes an object of fascination—or perhaps manipulation—for his father. Before long Adam finds that he is losing the ability to define the intersection of dreams and ordinary life:

. . . soon I was having too many dreams, and they began to suffocate me. Daily hallucinations merged with nightmares so imperceptibly that I was finding it harder and harder to draw the line between them. Afraid that I would sink in the burgeoning swamp of my own imagination, I began to flee in the direction of hard reality, grasping at anything that could be seen, felt, heard, or smelled. Soon I became so oversensitive that I registered the slightest rustle, the tiniest change in light, the least noticeable smell.

Over the course of the summer, the content of his dreams continue to haunt his days and nights. They regularly feature a familiar theme. Time after time he finds himself observing his father engaged in sexual activity with Eve, an attractive young teenaged girl from the city who is staying with her grandfather for the school holidays.

His father had warned him not to discuss his dreams, but encouraged him to record them. In his journals, Adam documents his thoughts and dreams which, with the blurring of his sense of reality, he has come to understand as being one and the same… the dream context granting immunity from the content of his thoughts which are peppered with images of sexual arousal and a desire for revenge against his parents. He quickly learns that these diaries are better kept hidden. And he has the perfect location—behind his jarred little brother, with whom he shares all of his secrets without reservation. With adults he is cautious to edit his responses to their queries about his dreams which are then subjected to Freudian and Jungian inspired debates. The only adult with whom he dares to approach an honest account is Eve’s kindly grandfather, who listens with a sharp concern that Adam notices but fails to appreciate.

During his strange dreams, Adam sometimes questions his ability to fall in and out of a hallucinatory state as well as his peculiar ability to exercise some agency, but he invariably seems to be able to assure himself that he is dreaming and, as a result, safe from any real danger. He continues to trust his father implicitly even when during an intentional “shared dream” proposed as a potential cure, he finds himself abandoned in a strange town with two young women:

The mist is now all around us, I can feel it on my cheeks; it is cold. The church clock delivers eleven strikes. There is no sign of Father. They are closing the inn, we have to leave. Like shadows we slink off along the the road leading into the centre of the town. It’s a very small town, almost a village. I am tired and sleepy. I am beginning to worry that Father might not return. Where will I sleep? It’s a strange thought, asking oneself where one will sleep in a dream, but the night is cold, and my worry is almost real. We roam around, passing houses, shuttered shops, and silent buildings. The church clock announces the time: half past midnight. And still there is no sign of Father.

Curiously (or not), the dreams involving his father and Eve cease as soon as the latter returns to the city in September. With autumn’s arrival his mother makes increased efforts to salvage the family, while his father’s behaviour becomes more erratic and threatening. Adam’s “dreams” begin to seem more like a protective psychological suggestion or even a defense mechanism evoked to cloud his perception of the events he observes or experiences. But again, he never openly contemplates this. His narrative, offered from a future perspective, looking back, belies a folkloric sense of innocence that cannot entirely be trusted. It casts a strange shadow across the work contributing to the odd tone. Dark topics such as addiction, suicide and pedophilia lurk at the heart of this tale amid the supernatural, surreal and grotesque elements. As a result the reader is left to navigate a slippery substrate that, even as tensions build to to a horrifying conclusion, refuses to yield to clear interpretation. The result is a complex, unnerving, unforgettable novel.

Novelist, playwright, essayist, and world traveler, Evald Flisar is one of Slovenia’s best known writers. Translated from the Slovene by the author and Alan McConnell-Duff, My Father’s Dreams is published by Istros Books. In their new collaboration with Peter Owen Publishers, they will be releasing Flisar’s Three Loves, One Death in November.

Caught in a vicious circle: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović

As Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, the intensely powerful new release from Istros Books opens, it is the summer of 1991 and 11 year-old Vladan Borojević has, to date, enjoyed an almost idyllic existence in the seaside town of Pula. He and his young friends view the realm of adults as something separate, of interest only if someone is missing an arm or leg, or sports a long beard, excessive tattoos or some other particular curiosity. None of them are aware of the deep seated tensions within their native Yugoslavia that are about to start to fracture and begin a long, bloody period of unrest that will ultimately tear the uneasy Socialist state apart. On the day that he and his friends find the local men gathered around the TV set shouting at the politicians on the screen with an intensity normally reserved only for critical sports matches, Vladan senses something is amiss. His anxiety increases when his father arrives home looking empty and distracted:

“My father never drank at work, and I heard him say, countless times, that only in Yugoslavia would people drink more while at work than after work, and that this would send the country to an early grave. But that day he held me so powerfully in his muscled arms that I thought, in all seriousness, that he must be drunk.”

Vladan’s father Nedelko, of Serbian background, is a proud member of the Yugoslav People’s Army. His mother is a strong willed Slovenian woman, who, against her parents’ wishes, left her homeland and married her young soldier. The stirrings of political insurgency put an immediate end to their happy domestic life in Pula as Nedelko is seconded and the family is moved to a hotel in Belgrade. When it becomes clear that this little trouble is not about to just blow over, Vladan’s father disappears from his life. He and his mother will eventually end up in Slovenia, and within a few years news will come that his father, now a General, has died. Or so he is led to believe.

yugoslavia-my-fatherland_5595627fccf62_250x800rSeventeen years on, Vladan is still living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but restless and unable to find his footing. He tosses his father’s name into Google. What he discovers turns his fragile world upside down. General Borojević is not dead, but rather he is a fugitive, wanted for war crimes. Rattled by this news Vladan sets out to find his father tracing a trail that links figures from his father’s past, a relative, an assumed identity, and clues to where he lived or may yet be. When his search leads him back close to home, the bits and pieces he gathers raise even more questions, and force him to look deeply inside himself to determine if he even wants the answers he had craved.

This is one of the most impassioned novels I have read in a long time. The author, Goran Vojnović, is a Slovenian poet, screen writer, and film director. He draws on this background to roll out a complex story that deftly weaves back and forth in time, negotiating the highly charged ethnic and geographic divisions that have long defined and divided the Balkan region. With Vladan he has created a recognizable, contemporary narrator who welcomes the reader into his journey with a mixture of vulnerability and wry humour. Traveling on the cheap in a car that just barely manages to cough from point A to point B, his descriptions are often priceless, like this stop at a roadside café:

“I sat at a table covered in a white cloth, as well as aged coffee stains, which lay over an even dirtier red tablecloth. A plastic ashtray sat in the middle, alongside a vase containing plastic flowers from the Yugoslav Mesozoic period. I had to wait, of course, to earn the right to pay for a sour coffee, hand-mixed with a disposable thin plastic spoon, amidst this particular ambience. It was my first time in such a setting.”

Whether he is looking back to his troubled childhood and adolescent years and his increased alienation from his mother, or looking forward to what truths may or may not lie ahead; his emotions are painfully open and honest. Even if he sometimes leans toward the melodramatic, it is hard to resist being pulled into his account of a life torn apart twice over and the pain of the very difficult dilemma he will ultimately face.

Yugoslavia, My Fatherland tells a multi-layered tale. The tragic dissolution of the Borojević family is traced out against the trauma and conflict that would rend the states of the Balkan region apart and still threatens further division in certain areas. He encounters many who bear wounds too deep to heal. But it is much more than that. Questions of personal and national identity are central. Vladan is not only seeking an understanding of himself and his relationship to his ethnic heritage, but he is striving to reconcile his memory of a loving father with a fugitive war criminal. A very human longing for closure and healing drives him to seek out and confront the man who used to be his father, whoever he is. However, somewhere along the way he will have to stop to measure the costs and decide what he is willing to risk.

Translated from the Slovene by Noah Charney, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland is original, ambitious in scope, and another welcome addition to the catalogue of independent UK publisher Istros Books.