Three from Slovenia: Andrej Blatnik’s You Do Understand; Vlado Žabot’s The Succubus; Boris Pahor’s Necropolis

How many writers can you name from Slovenia? Living or dead, doesn’t matter. Let me take a guess and say zero. Maybe you came up with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. So one. It’s okay—until very recently that’s all I had, too.

Illinois’s Dalkey Archive Press aims to fix this collective blank spot with its newly launched Slovenian Literature Series. A co-production with the Slovenian Book Agency, the three attractive paperbacks included in the series this year shine very different lights on the Central European nation (capital: Ljubljana; population: 2 million). In fact, the set doesn’t have much of a cohesive mission statement beyond showcasing that diversity and range of voice—which, I suspect, is precisely the point, and a laudable one at that. Even the smallest of countries contains multitudes, and they don’t have to all get along.

Most recognizable to metropolitan North Americans will be Andrej Blatnik’s 2009 collection of ultra-short fiction You Do Understand ($16, trans. Tamara M. Soban). The book reveals a familiar world of social niceties and subtle romantic protocols, but Blatnik doesn’t stop there. Instead, he keeps burrowing, in the process tapping into the vast pools of awkwardness that threaten to hit the surface at any moment.

The collection is fluidly arranged, with select words and ideas bleeding from one story into the next, but no single piece lasts more than a couple of pages. Some of the stories involve magic, and take on the quality of fables. Most, though, are snapshots of tangled urban life.

Each of the pieces is as immediate and briefly tasty as a piece of Juicy Fruit. A community of sorts starts to take shape, too—though this effect strangely reverses itself if you go overboard, and read more than a dozen or so in one sitting. Most of the content blends together; after a while, your jaw gets sore from all that chewing.

For a darker, thoroughly more unnerving perspective, there’s Vlado Žabot’s extraordinary 2003 novel The Succubus ($17.50, trans. Rawley Grau and Nikolai Jeffs), which focuses on Valent Kosmina, a retired man who’s taken to putting on his fanciest outfit and jutting down the streets of an unnamed city, pretending to have appointments all over town. Kosmina’s own neighbourhood is perpetually covered in fog (exacerbated by the exhaust fumes from a nearby slaughterhouse), and his wife, who spends all day tranquilized and watching soap operas, doesn’t provide much in the way of stimulation.

What begins as a cynical social satire quickly turns into a full-on horror show when a murder is committed in a well-to-do suburb that Kosmina takes late-night walks through, and he realizes that he would make an ideal suspect in the case. From here a kind of runaway nightmare logic takes over, with Kosmina’s hallucinations intermingling with his already-distorted everyday life. He’s not afraid of being framed for murder, really; he’s afraid that everyone will find out he only owns one nice suit. Before you know it, he’s pulled the reader off the cliff with him. It’s too bad Kanye West already snapped it up, because a good alternate title for Žabot’s book would be My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Compounding all of this is the titular succubus, a dangerously young-looking girl who Kosmina first sees peeking back at him from the centrefold of his tabloid. He’s ashamed of his attraction to her—plus she’s linked in his mind to the murder, which he reads about in the very same newspaper. So when the demons take over, this black-haired nymphet is leading the charge.

The Succubus is able to sustain its full-speed-ahead paranoid streak for the full 200 pages. The reader is stuck with images of haunted penthouse lofts and Kosmina smashing cognac bottles on his apartment’s floor, all while he calmly thinks, “This is what a man does in his own home with his own things if that’s what he feels like doing.”

Žabot’s portrait is all too convincing, though I imagine Slovenia’s tourism board will probably want a word with him. If any part of the country is actually like this place, I’m setting my passport on fire right now.

Dalkey’s series is surprisingly well triangulated by its third entry: a re-issuing of Necropolis, Boris Pahor’s 1967 account of the 14 months he spent in a series of German concentration camps at the end of World War II. Stark, and simultaneously lucid and disorienting, Pahor revisits his time spent as an impromptu medic—he was almost literally selected at random from a group of hundreds—as he wanders the grounds of one of the camps, since converted into a memorial, as a free man, years later.

Necropolis has many of its own virtues, as well as the same basic one as every Holocaust memoir: it forces the reader to get stuck in the head of a prisoner for a few hundred pages. Pahor makes you study the carnage and brutality for much longer than you’re used to, and he won’t let you blink. The truly astonishing thing turns out not to be how many people died in the camps—it’s how many survived, in what conditions, and by what thin margins.

The book also provides, almost by accident, the crucial historical context that helps bind the series together. In his prologue, written expressly for this new edition, Pahor describes the tumultuous history of the ethnic Slovenians who’ve lived in the same place for twelve centuries, helpless as the map keeps getting redrawn around them.

These Slovenians had their homeland bandied about, from a possession of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to that of Italy following the First World War (this area now surrounds the Italian city of Trieste). Under Italian rule they met a series of fresh injustices, including the razing of their cultural centres and the banning of their national language in public places, even though, as Pahor notes, at that time there were more Slovenians living in Trieste than in Ljubljana.

It’s mildly comforting to learn that Slovenians are subject to the same petty squabbles as North Americans. But the most revealing fact about Slovenia itself comes from this prologue, where the fictional bonds of unlikely communities and the lingering presence of unforgotten ghosts are shown to have real-life roots—ones that run at least a century deep.

(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, November 25, 2010)

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