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Small Is Beautiful

Even in the Balkans, as the Slovene experience demonstrates.

By 8.31.09

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The Prophecy and Other Stories
By Drago Jančar,
(Northwestern University Press, 143 pages, $16.95 paper)

As the Paris Conference of 1919 drew to a close, the European and American mandarins having re-drawn the world's borders to their putative satisfaction, a myriad of minor nationalities and ethnic groups were experiencing considerable existential trepidation. One such group, the germanophone population of Slovenia in the northwest Balkans, opted to pursue the timeworn policy of seeking out American succor. A delegation from this beleaguered community paid a visit to the 26-year-old diplomat Nicholas Roosevelt (cousin to Theodore and related more distantly to Franklin) at his posting in nearby Vienna. Having no desire to join the incipient Yugoslav kingdom, the germanophone dignitaries asked if their territory might perhaps be annexed to the United States. Roosevelt passed this desperate request along but, as the reader is already aware, no action was taken, and Slovenia remained a member of the so-called "Balkan pot-house," rather than becoming a far-flung American territory like Samoa or Guam. Meanwhile, though the die was already cast, conservative Slovenes railed against Belgrade, and habsburgtreue Slovenes waxed nostalgic about Austro-Hungary. The dragon's teeth that were sown would produce decades more of nationalist struggles and Balkan conflagrations.

The rather melancholy summit in which young Nicholas Roosevelt and his Slovene supplicants participated underscores the sheer vulnerability of small nations and sub-nations caught up in global upheavals. But in these geopolitical minnows' precariousness, and in their exertions (and occasionally martyrdoms), there is a surprising amount that can be gleaned. Often dismissed as without consequence -- Woodrow Wilson's envoy in Paris, Colonel House, was said to have known "literally nothing about the Adriatic and cared even less," while more recently Mark Krikorian, criticizing NATO's expansion into the western Balkans (Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania), has asked how it could possibly be in the United States' interest to defend "one pissant Balkan dump against another pissant Balkan dump" -- bantam countries like Slovenia nevertheless provide lessons of wide moral and political applicability. An apt place from which to learn some of these lessons would be The Prophecy and Other Stories, a recently translated and published collection of short fiction from Slovenia's foremost novelist and public intellectual, Drago Jančar.

Jančar, who played a significant role in the Slovenian independence movement, soliciting international support, organizing rallies, and furnishing manifestos, produced the seven short stories that comprise this collection between 1985 and 2004, a period roughly spanning the time between the publication of what arguably remains his finest work, Severnij Sij (Northern Lights) (1984) and the international recognition he received when awarded the Herder Prize in 2003. Selected and capably translated by Andrew Baruch Wachtel, these stories are each marked by Jančar's overarching goal of connecting the minutia of Slovene and Balkan affairs with wider political and intellectual currents. This does not mean that Jančar maintains delusions of Slovene grandeur; in the 1993 novel Posmehljivo poželenje (Mocking Desire) Jančar's character Gregor Gradnik acknowledged the temptation to heap abuse "on Slovenia, for being small and having nothing but small people in it" (as well as "on Europe, for being a grotesque, powdered hag"). Still, Jančar's body of work, to which The Prophecy and Other Stories serves as a useful introduction, stands for the proposition that even the seemingly quisquilian struggles of a "Balkan dump" (an ugly and also inapposite phrase, incidentally) have a great deal of import. It was the mid-20th century novelist Vladimir Bartol who divided his fellow Slovenian writers into two camps: the nationalists, who expressed "the anguished lament of their own time," and the cosmopolitans, who utilized a much wider historical and political lens. Bartol, a soi-disant member of the latter camp, would find himself congratulated on the street for his "translation" of the Middle Eastern-themed novel Alamut, a book he had in fact authored. Few believed, as Bartol's translator Michael Biggins put it, "that a Slovenian could develop a story so completely outside of their own historical experience," but such a thing was of course entirely possible.

Jančar, a cosmopolitan successor to Bartol, exploits the tension between perceptions of Slovenian parochialism and the wider world in two of his more successful short stories in The Prophecy and Other Stories. The oldest of the pieces, "Two Photographs" (1985), begins in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with an old woman -- speaking "some Slavic language, Russian or something like that," a bystander observes -- clutching the images of her husband and son, two desaparecidos, killed during the Second World War and the Argentinean "Dirty War" respectively. The elder Gojmir Blagaj had evidently fought with the Axis-sponsored Slovene Home Guard, and was put to death in a pit in the forests outside Kočevje by the victorious communists. His son would disappear in distant Argentina, having enlisted in the radical Ejército Revolucionario Popular before being betrayed by a collaborator. Thus, for Jančar, the outbreak of civilizational tertiary syphilis (as Thomas Mann characterized it in Doctor Faustus) that took the life of the first Gojmir Blagaj would, through the "third world war between the left and the right," infect succeeding generations. Such a conflict resembles the mythological Cave of Trophonius, inasmuch as "whoever had seen its terrors," "and whoever had escaped from it bore a shadow for the rest of his life."

Another story, "The Specter from Rovenska" (1998), likewise situates Slovene adventurers well outside their Pannonian comfort zone. In this, the most developed of the works on offer, a megacephalic Slovene stone mason enlists in the expedition to place Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian on the Mexican throne. Given ten gold coins and a piece of cloth embroidered with the phrase "for faith, fatherland, and emperor" (the second component seeming altogether out of place when applied to the "wild and distant Mexican territories"), the master mason Ivan Glavan sails from the port of Trieste to far-off Vera Cruz. There, a detachment of fifty Slovene scouts defeats local insurgents at Orizaba, a victory compared to another famous (perhaps the only other famous) Slovene victory over the Turks at Sisek in 1593. As the imperial forces collapse in the face of constant attacks by "los chicanos," the Slovene forces, led by Glavan, are faced with the dilemma of whether to "act with infamy, or quit the place," as Jonathan Swift put it. When the Viennese daily Die Presse gets wind of the sanguineous exploits of the "specter from Rovenska" -- who, for instance, hung "two republican generals, one mestizo and one small proprietor, from a high branch" after hearing of "wounded Austrians [cooked] slowly over a low fire like suckling pigs" -- the Emperor will order Glavan's execution, though it will be Maximilian's own sentence that will serve as the culmination of this story of "pitiful and senseless fate."

Closer to home, in "The Prophecy" (1998) Jančar describes the paranoia experienced by a conscript at a Yugoslav military base in the 1970s who, in a bathroom stall, views some vulgar graffiti which in time will be revealed as an allusion to the Book of Daniel's "Mane, Thecel, Phares" passage ("God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and your kingdom will be divided"). In a grubby latrine, the writing was quite literally on the wall with respect to the fate of totalitarianism in the Balkans. "A Tale About Eyes" (1998) also addresses Balkan enormities, here through the device of the bowl of human eyes the Croatian fascist Poglavnik ("Headman") Ante Pavelić purportedly kept atop his desk. In "Joyce's Pupil" the reader encounters the jurist Boris Furlan, who learned English from the Irish "Professor Zois," engaged in anti-fascist resistance in Trieste, served as the Slovene voice of Radio London, later became the dean of the law school in Ljubljana, but who would eventually be haled into court by the post-war communist authorities and "tried not merely by working people but by all men, by all humanity," according to a local paper. This exemplary intellectual would, after a spell in solitary confinement, be drowned by a communist mob screeching "Speek Eengleesh," a telling example of Thomas Hobbes' maxim that all too often "Man to Man is an arrant Wolfe."

A more contemporary look at Slovenia is provided by "The Man Who Looked Into a Tarn," the tale of an accidental human rights activist whose role is unappreciated in an increasingly liberal post-independence republic. Jože Mlakar, desperate for attention, is reduced to opining to sports broadcasters that a local soccer team "should not be playing with a single attacking forward because as a result they weren't able to do any playmaking in the middle of the field," depriving the fans of goals and thus constituting "a terrible violation of human rights, which are spoken of in international conventions, the Geneva ones and others." The struggle in Slovenia having more or less been won, Jančar can afford occasionally to strike an ironic pose; the need for the noble sentimentality of the Romantic poet France Prešeren, who insisted to his countrymen that "Less terrible is the black earth's bosom/Than days of slavery under the bright sun" has to a certain extent passed. Yet the horrors of the past, documented so thoroughly in this collection, have left an indelible mark on the Balkan psyche, a fact that policymakers like France's Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who reacted disbelievingly to the sharpness of the ongoing border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia, should keep in mind.

These stories by Drago Jančar describe an ever-present past, an immense burden on countries small as well as large, but the narrator of "The Prophecy" surmises that "today all those ancient kingdoms and their armies no longer interest anyone, and by tomorrow we too will be forgotten and no one will understand these stories." This passage, overflowing with typically Mitteleuropean melancholy, may have an element of truth, but I prefer to think of the late medieval danse macabre frescos at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Hrastovlje, freed from underneath the imprisoning plaster in 1949 after a sleep of centuries, including half of a nightmarish twentieth, at a time when their admonitions concerning the inevitability of earthly torments, and the attendant prospect of justice, should have been understood. May the same be true of the admittedly obscure, but to my mind timeless, cultural contributions of Drago Jančar.

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About the Author

Matthew Omolesky specialized in European affairs at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy's graduate program, and received his juris doctor from The Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. Formerly a researcher-in-residence at the Institut za Civilizacijo in Kulturo (Ljubljana), he is presently a researcher for the Laboratoire Europeen d'Anticipation Politique (Paris) and a specialist in international human rights law.