Shade of the Shadow

Necropolis by Boris Pahor. Translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins. Dalkey Archive Press (2010): 182 pages.

You Do Understand by Andrej Blatnik. Translated from the Slovenian by Tamara M. Soban. Dalkey Archive Press (2010): 94 pages.

The Succubus by Vlado Žabot. Translated from the Slovenian by Rawley Grau, Nikolai Jeffs. Dalkey Archive Press (2010): 200 pages.


As sun faded on July 13th, 1920, to be Slovene might have meant catching a glimpse of shaded figures stalking narrow alleys, aggressors amassing gradually in the famous Oberdan Square, hearing mumbled pejoratives and the occasional piercing slur echo against the glittering baroque architecture of the ancient port city of Trieste. Already decrees had been enacted and ratified banning Slovenian schools and businesses, laws prohibiting the use of Slovenian language in government institutions and courts of law. Century-old family names had been forcibly changed into “more suitable” Italianate ones.

The growing crowds surge and break. The smell of smoke carries on the chill breath of the marine winds. Fire!—a young woman cries. The Narodni dom, the Slovenian National Home, glows orange above the dim profiles of other buildings. The hard soles of boots seem to pound from around every corner. The palazzo designed by Max Fabiani, where stand the theater, galleries, and bank, burns as well. A skirmish erupts outside of the library. Men, darkly clad, those shaded figures of the group, pry at the locks. A few older men attempt to bar their illegal entry but are repelled. Arms sweep across the dark shelves; heaps of manuscripts are loaded into wheelbarrows and carted down the stairs. A mound of literature grows in the silhouette of the square.

How sweet it might have been to see the books freed from their musty shelves, enlivened by the crisp night air, to see their stature stretch higher than a man beneath the statue of Verdi—that musical prince and lover of social order—the embodiment of so much information contained in that square, the physicality and sheer mass of human knowledge. And then the orange glow. Again the scent of smoke on the wind’s chill breath. The sound of women weeping, books flaming beneath the bronze of Verdi.

The idea of an independent Slovenia traces a direct route from the earliest printed book in the Slovenian language, Abecedarium, an eight page educational pamphlet by Protestant Reformer Primož Trubar. A national identity without a nation, Slovenia has struggled for unified statehood since its inclusion in the Holy Roman Empire. The fight for Slovenian political autonomy was taken up by its writers, its ethnic and cultural traditions defended by its poets.

Since its earliest days as a peasant language used by Slavs settling in the Eastern Alps, Slovenian has been under constant threat from the more widely spoken German, Italian, and Serbo-Croatian. In an essay from 1999, published in the anthology The Imagination of Terra Incognita: Slovenian Writing, 1945-1995, essayist and scholar Dr. Aleš Debeljak eloquently states that “The history of Slovenia is thus emphatically not the history of great victories, but the history of tenacious guerilla resistance to foreign rulers: literary and linguistic guerilla resistance…. In the absence of a nation-state of their own, the only real home for Slovenians was carved out in their language and creative imagination” (“Slovenia: A Brief Literary History”).

During a period of relative amity Slovenes instigated Europe’s first democracy, referenced as an influence by Thomas Jefferson when writing the Declaration of Independence. From the 7th Century until the 15th, ruling dukes did not pass the royal line through inheritance but were elected by ennobled commoners. The ensuing years under Hapsburg rule would see Slovenian sovereignty severely diminished. After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ethnic Slovenes, born in the early part of the last century, might at various times have been a citizen of Slovenia, Austria, Italy, Hungary, or Yugoslavia. So too went the vicissitudes of governmental influence and infringements upon Slovenian language.

Slovenian literature might best be known to the outside world for the skirmish that arose during the turbulent 1990s between Slovenian writer Drago Jančar and Austrian Peter Handke concerning the unity or breakup of an integrated Yugoslavia. Jančar has written often in defense of writers continuing to work in their native “small languages” and for the necessity of translations. Perhaps it is not a mystery why there are few translations in America—the complication of foreign rights and cost of compensating a competent translator diminish a publisher’s bottom line. One might easily argue that the most severe threat to Slovenian literature now comes from administrative expense.

It seems appropriate that a new series of literary translation from Dalkey Archive, a press committed to both translation and to keeping classic works of literature in print, would begin with Slovenian. A country whose struggle for autonomy has lasted since before the turn of the first millennium, whose language has been under threat since long before the ascendency of English as the “world’s language,” has perhaps devised a nifty solution to the problem of America’s translation deficit. The Slovenian Book Agency has provided financial support in order to fund a literature series, offering Dalkey a marketing budget which allows the books to do more than simply languish and disappear into the void of another publishing season.

To Dalkey Archive’s and the Slovenian Book Agency’s great credit, the first three titles are well chosen: one grave title—a Holocaust memoir which probes the possibility of empathy while remaining hopeful; an enjoyable collection of short stories—almost unrecognizable as anything other than short, pithy flash fiction popularized in American creative writing classes; and finally, a novel of superb deftness—the interrogation of an archetype and the profound emotions from which it is spawned.

The memoirist, Boris Pahor, was a Slovene who bore witness to the excision of his language and literature and saw his buildings burn on July 13th, 1920, in the city of Trieste, then part of Austria-Hungary. Pahor was born in that ancient city in 1913 and part of the minority Slovenian population that made up as much as 25 percent of its residents. As a young man he was forced to attend Italian schools.

The fall of Italy in 1943 was the call to arms for Slovenians, and Pahor abandoned his post to become a partisan of the burgeoning anti-fascist movement in Trieste. He was arrested by Gestapo agents in ’44, sent to Dachau, then to Natzweiler-Struthof in Alsace-Lorraine. When Normandy fell, Pahor was returned to Dachau and served as a medical attendant. The camp of Dora was in need of medics, so there he was sent, then on to Harzungen, and finally to Bergen-Belsen.

Necropolis, Pahor’s 1967 memoir, shows a man plagued by questions of language. He recognizes the Slovenes’ innate “talent for learning languages,” but is unable to say whether their capacity is a “sign of psychological wealth, of an active and multifaceted mind, or whether it simply is an elasticity that we’ve acquired over the centuries through incessant bowing, scraping, and accommodating.” Because of his facility with language, Pahor was able to serve as a doctor’s interpreter and was thus spared more risky work in the mines and other camp labor.

The author’s experience is nearly impossible to contemplate. It’s fraught with near misses, risks to save others that, if discovered, would certainly have meant his death. And yet, an interesting moment arises in the midst of these descriptions of destruction, “when skin turns to parchment and thighs are as thick as ankles, then the mind flickers like a dying battery”: the author pauses to contemplate his forced complicity upon realizing that “the corpses not only fed me, they clothed me, too, because I gave them charcoal and carried them out of the barracks.” The anguish that surrounds him keeps him alive as he steals food and garments from the dead; as a medic Pahor is afforded a level of superiority and relative safety so long as the throngs of sick and wounded continue to need his assistance. These horrors also supply him as a writer.

In a way, the frame of Necropolis may be more interesting than its canvas. The novel’s late inclusion in the holocaust canon, and the fact that it details a lesser known but similarly persecuted ethnic group, may be as remarkable as what is detailed within its pages. The book begins with the author’s return to the camp where he was housed, the Natzweiler-Struthof, now a monument to those who lost their lives there. The author strolls the terraced hills, from barracks to medical bunker, down to the crematorium, but is unable to join the tour group, always curiously behind or intersecting their path. Meanwhile the tales of concentration camp atrocities are related in non-linear flashback, neither attaching to character or location, a device at times off-putting, but certainly true to Pahor’s experience of memory.

The insight of the mature man returning to the scene where his life was irreparably altered, one could argue utterly destroyed, are valuable. We are shown the distastefulness of those who gape at the site where so many thousands lost their lives. “What meaning can it have for these tourists? Unless you were to bring in one of the work shifts that left the camp three times a day for the tunnel, and have these Sunday visitors go with them.” The reader begins to feel very much like a sightseer as we are shown intimately these atrocities. We are given the special dispensation of confederacy with Pahor, an interiority that sets us above those who listen blandly to the tour guide’s description, and yet Pahor feels that “the proximity of the tourists agitates me.” One wonders if their curious position as a reader might be equally offensive to the author.

Though he was liberated in April of 1945, one can only but intuit that Boris Pahor in many ways never left the prison of the camp—perhaps the tragedy of all survivors. More even than the guilt of never having experienced such atrocity, as is the reader’s likely experience, is the guilt of having survived it, the true paralysis for the author. “I want to say something now to my former companions but cannot. I am alive, and that fact makes my best thoughts insincere, my best feelings impure.” What comparisons can be made when speaking of genocide? What are the thoughts or feelings available of a reader—empty sympathy? “In speaking of human society,” Pahor says, “we have to be very careful with our similes and analogies.” We cannot hope to fathom these losses. And yet we read with the nip of possibility, an aspiration toward understanding.

Pahor implores us that he doesn’t “begrudge [the tourists] the simple pleasure they were taking at the foot of the twentieth-century Golgotha. On the contrary, I am all in favor of a happy, cheerful life.” Yet who can believe words which strain so obviously, heartbreakingly. We are left only with uncertainty, unanswerable inquiries about the legitimacy of our voyeurism. Perhaps Pahor leaves us with one vague answer—that the alternative, to not seek understanding, must certainly be worse. For tourists and readers to turn away would equate to another sort of genocide. There is nothing banal about evil, Pahor seems to beseech us—its glimmer unites us all. Perhaps with enough literature, enough memorials, we can leave the painting as well as the frame to view the world again.

On a lighter note is Andrej Blatnik’s You Do Understand, a deceptively simple collection of flash fiction seemingly built around an idea that what we share is an increasing predominance of missed connections—flailing and failing emotion. Most of these snippets—ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages—focus on the relationships of men and women, crimes enacted by each gender upon the other, hopeful glances in dark bars culminating in hazy, regretful mornings-after, often narrated by men either shocked by the boldness or blaséness of women. Some of the work amounts merely to jokes or groaning one-liners, but amongst the bawdy occasionally lies the wistful:

You would laugh at us when we practiced fretting chords on our guitars. Your fathers would give a shrill whistle from their balconies and you would hurry home for dinner. Then one evening our fingers managed to string together a melody and you began to hang around a little longer from then on. Your fathers glowered at what was going on below. They used to play the guitar themselves; they know what was coming. You began to let yourselves be kissed on the mouth. Occasionally one of you would lift up her top. You fathers would stroke their loaded weapons and suffer.

Amidst these lonely calls and randy responses of misfiring relationships are hints of something deeper, people touched by war and suffering while in the flower of rebuilding and vibrancy—the scars of past difficulty, the oppression of totalitarianism. Such begins one piece titled “Own Stories”:

All of these concentration-camp guards, reading books about the meaning of life. About enriching their inner world, about the gift of endless serenity. All these guards, tears coursing down their cheeks at such wonderful realizations while they wait to be relieved. All these guards, hoping that someday—years from now—life will give them an opportunity to write their own stories as well.

The combined potency of these dollops hints at a writer capable of a wide-range of voices, a diversity of interests, and of marked power. A writer to watch—recently chosen by Aleksandar Hemon for inclusion in the Best European Fiction 2010—from a blossoming Republic, tackling war and romance in the information age, where it’s easier than ever to connect but harder than hell to make a connection.

Finally, the true gem of the series, Vlado Žabot’s The Succubus. If the Dalkey Series never released another Slovenian book, for this novel alone English readers would be indebted for years.

The succubus is elemental—an archetype dating back to at least the legend of Lilith in Jewish mythology. Etymologically the word succubus can be traced to the 14th century. In Žabot’s hands the succubus is a manifestation of contemporary fear, of aging, employing the enthralling and sinister guilt of Dostoyevsky, the abased collision with nascent sexuality of Nabakov. The succubus preys on the lonely, the fearful, at once providing the gift and danger of imagination.

The Succubus begins with the consultation of an ominous weather formation amassing at the base of the mountain outside of Valent Kosmina’s window. Based on these variations of the cloud, Valent “eventually found himself making prediction about what the day would bring.” His wife suffers from an addiction to soap operas and tranquilizers, is growing prematurely old in their retirement, and “often seemed like some alien creature”; but Valent amuses himself by going for strolls in the ritzy neighborhood of Brežine—“for it was only in Brežine that he managed to feel, at least to some extent, truly a gentleman.”

Soon this retiree, having little with which to occupy himself except a sad masquerade of importance, is embroiled in a complicated situation far graver than the ennui of his former life. A murder has taken place in Brežine. The body of a wealthy and respected widower is discovered, the cause of death an unusually precise surgical incision on the neck. The murder is not a robbery, and Valent recalls his recent stroll where he had been “observed by people who would remember him, who had always taken note of him, and who would undoubtedly be able to give a precise description to police investigators.”

These strange circumstances—the increasingly ominous coincidence between the murder and Valent’s sense of guilt and suspicion—are followed by the arrival of a bright pink envelope scented with perfume from “Mr.” Mario, a former pornography peddler and current pensioners-meal delivery man. The letter, written in a rusty-red ink suggestive of blood, reads only “Set me a seal upon your heart.”

Valent is inexplicably compelled to continue his trips to Brežine and begins to notice everywhere a young girl, not much more than a child, with straight, silky black hair and soft, azure eyes, who wears the same perfume that had marked the letter from “Mr.” Mario. He is pulled by a force outside of his control, a primordial feeling of attraction and unease. He chooses to see this ineffable force, the succubus, not as a threat against he and his wife, but as the thing that was missing between them, “missing everywhere … [yet he believes that his wife] would believe it was aimed against her, against her age, and other such things not worth going into.”

All in Valent’s life begins to take on a different meaning, a presage of death disguised as a peek at salvation. The succubus gradually takes hold, and Valent’s perception of reality shifts as he continues to search for the vitality he had once known—generative life and sexuality. He is engulfed by decay even while recalling the former joys of youth. He is seized by the power of memory and imagination, not dissimilar from an unusually precise surgical incision.

While many languages teeter on the precipice of death, Slovenian literature is alive—continuing ever on with its guerilla resistance, authors fortifying their national identity with creative imaginations, perhaps now carving out a home, and market, for readers of more widely spoken languages.

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