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Slovenian saga of beauty and cruelty

With his trilogy "Die Zugereisten," Lojze Kovacic bequethed a novel of the century to Slovenia

Slovenia hit the headlines in June 1991, with a shock that shook the entire continent. The republic was in the throes of a movement for autonomy, and its militia had occupied the border posts to Italy and Austria. There were skirmishes with the Yugoslavian People's Army, whose fighter jets overflew the bordering countries on their missions.

Many who had thought they were living in eternal peace could hardly believe it - war in the heart of Europe! But the Slovenians were lucky. Belgrade's ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, quickly relinquished the province, and the small model republic, freed from sharing its wealth with the poor South, could start off along the path toward the European Union. Several months ago now the euro replaced the tolar as the country's official currency.

If you ask about traces of Slovenia in world literature, locals like to mention that no less a literary light than Ernest Hemingway immortalised the region around the city the Germans call Görz in his novel "A Farewell to Arms." Today Görz is divided in to the Italian Gorizia, with its pretty old town, and the Slovenian Nova Gorica, with its socialist architecture. But it's a bloody memorial: the romantic mountain countryside of the Soca Valley (Italian: Isonzo), with its surging white-water streams, was the location of atrocious battles during World War I which left more than a million dead. Today you can find out more about it in the war museum in Kobarid (Kaporetto, Karfreit), a little town snuggled between the Alps and the Mediterranean.

Peter Handke, descending from Carinthian Slovenians on his mother's side, long ago declared Slovenia the "ninth land" behind the seven mountains. The country combined a magical landscape with the ideal image of a socialist alternative world - founded on the partisan heroism of World War II, and lacking the grey veil of the GDR. Handke then perceived Westernisation as a disappointing profanity - which in turn had a very disillusioning effect on his Slovenian readers. As is well known, the poet then continued on to Serbia.

Apart from Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian authors are almost unknown outside the country. Who has ever heard of the classic authors France Preseren - whose memorial stands in the heart of the capital Ljubljana - or Ivan Cankar, both highly honoured at home?

Slovenian literature has long been taken up with the hard rural life. It is infused with a whiff of bondage and dunghills, and doesn't so much as hint at today's Euro-affluence. No stranger to this trend is a major Slovenian novel which has at long last appeared in German: the trilogy "Die Zugereisten" (the newcomers) by Lojze Kovacic. Written in the 1980s, the work was voted "novel of the century" by the country's critics. Right at the beginning, the author has the narrator and his family torn from their bourgeois life in Basel and literally plopped down into the mud of the father's birthplace.

"This is how we left Basel" runs the first sentence, simple and seemingly harmless. By the time you've finished the powerful autobiographical work it gains a strong note of tragedy - this is how they left Basel in 1938, and began a long story of suffering. "After thirty years in Switzerland they threw us out."

Lojze Kovacic died in 2004. Like his narrator, he was born in Switzerland in 1928. That's where his father, a Slovenian furrier, immigrated in 1910 with his wife, a German from Saarland. The couple had had their share of horrific experiences. During World War I his business was demolished; the anti-Serbian mood in Switzerland spilled over into many Slovenian emigrants. Nevertheless it was soon flourishing again, and the family became prosperous, with a house and two shops that filled the papers with half-page advertisements. There was a radio, a gramophone and a piano for the children. And they sent money to the poor brothers back home.

Then came the great depression. While things were good, Kovacic senior had neglected to take on Swiss citizenship. Now, as war was approaching, the non-citizens, at least the impoverished ones, were "escorted out," as Swiss bureaucratese had it.

The novel describes the family's arrival in Slovenia with phantasmagorical energy. It is pitch black, the provincial railway station lies abandoned, surrounded by nothing but black forests. Although they'd sent a telegram to the boy's uncle, they wait for him in vain. They tromp across muddy fields, through twisting river valleys, up and over hillsides in the scanty light of matches. Around them nature rustles, creaks and gurgles as if they had been set down in an archaic bog.

The newcomers are met with hostile ill-will. The uncle's eyes twinkle with derision, a taunting sneer plays across his mouth. He will beat the young boy half to death with a chain. Everything, everyone seems to be wearing masks, evil surprises lurk around every corner. A sparrow with its eyes plucked out is thrown in through window of the "newcomers" as an anonymous threat. "They hung from its beak like squashed raisins. Anger, horror and revulsion rose up in me."

Ghastly things happen in the vicinity: a drunken woman strikes her gnome-like husband dead with an axe. Even nature seems to take on evil traits, in the unruly rivers that cascade down from the mountains: "The Krka surged like a carriageway from hell.... a car, half a hay shed, once even an ox struggling and gasping for breath... everything flowed by at a devil's pace and crashed against the banks."

Rural life. Everywhere you look, horse dung, cow paddies, puddles of excrement: "The world was a toilet under bare skies." The mother wrings her hands at the demeaning circumstances. She can't forgive the father for their Slovenian misery. The family is a disharmonious band thrown together by destiny. The parents are already "Methusela-age". The father was in his mid-fifties, and the mother only five years younger when the late-comer Alojz Samson was born. Now the mother has lost all her teeth, while the father is "entirely grey, old like a grandfather." There are two sisters. Gritli is twelve years older than the boy, Clairi sixteen. Clairi has an illegitimate child with her: Gisela, with the damaged hip.

Things don't get any better with the move to Ljubljana. The family lives in bitter poverty, sleeping four in a bed. The father sleeps on the table, it's better for the back, he says. But soon he's contracted tuberculosis, and he'll never get over it. They move from one dismal lodging to the next, mostly by night so the passers-by won't scoff at their pitiable belongings. Clairi prostitutes herself to assuage a landlord intent on throwing them out. The father toils away silently and comes to nothing, the children wander about the town like beggars peddling his furs. Although connoisseurs admire the father's masterly handwork.

Alojz, known mostly as "little lad", experiences childhood as an underdog, like the oft-humiliated Anton Reiser in the eponymous novel by Karl Philipp Moritz. Yet he's also defiant and ready for a scuffle, disdaining the "mummy's boys with their little shovels and buckets." And of course the worst childhood is always the most fertile from a literary point of view. Because the charm of every novel of childhood and education is the discovery of the world and the consciousness-building confrontation with life.

The reader gets a strong impression of the city through which the young Alojz roams: Ljubljana with its markets and slaughterhouses, its barracks and bourgeois homes, its ornate bridges and poets' monuments. Farmers, workers, teachers, politicians, German soldiers - all sorts of figures appear and disappear in short, sharp portraits from this human bestiary.

Embarrassment is a leitmotiv of the trilogy. Alojz is ashamed of his clothing, for example the "nun's boots" which he has to wear for lack of anything else. Above all he's ashamed whenever he opens his mouth. Slovenia has hardly more than two million inhabitants, but its language is one of the most difficult in Europe, with six cases and the dual form. Add to that the pronunciation and you've got a true challenge.

For the young boy, it's a "strange, slurpy language," full of "sounds you make when you eat and drink." And it sounds even stranger when he tries to speak it, causing the Slovenian children split their sides laughing. "Their laughter wasn't friendly, I saw that soon enough." At school derision accompanies him everywhere he goes.

The youth is also embarrassed by his German parentage. Germans - members of a people seeking to put the whole world out of joint - draw either admiration or hatred, increasingly the latter. Wherever Alojz goes, he is met with shouts of "Haylhitler". The father sympathises with the dictator, and because the family doesn't want to lose out once again and hopes for some advantage, the youth is forced to join the Ljubljana Hitler Youth against his will.

The first volume closes with scenes of panic and plundering. But although it's the Germans who have defeated the Kingdom of Yugoslavia with their usual Blitzkrieg attack, it's Mussolini's troops who are the first to march in, in the summer of 1941. The second volume tells of life under the occupation, which has a distinct libidinous quality to it. The Italian soldiers flirt and smooch with everything that's young and wears a skirt. Couples copulate in the cinemas, and movie-goers have to be careful or they'll slip on the love juices. For Alojz there's much to observe. For him, too, the time for the first erotic tempests has come.

Tatjana, almost his girlfriend, has to do it with a whole trio of boys although she really only likes Alojz. But friends are friends, and in the gutters of Ljubljana children's games and love games are strangely amalgamated. Experiences of sexual initiation belong to stories about growing up, and this book is no exception. Yet the extreme ambivalence of perception is both wilful and fascinating. Aversion, irritation and metaphysically charged desire come together in the Kafkaesque description of sexuality.

The second volume climaxes with the day-long biological and racial examination which the family has to undergo in the special train belonging to the Nazi "resettlement commission." The goal is to determine which Carniolan "Volksdeutsche" - or German nationals - are fit to become "Reichsdeutsche" - full members of the German Reich. Those who undergo the harrying procedure witness the excrescences of the resettlement madness with thoroughly mixed feelings. The mood is conflictual, name-calling and invective are rife, one is quickly either a "Slovenian pig" or "German pig."

At the end of the grotesque examination the Kovacics are congratulated as "full citizens of the Third Reich." The children are given swastikas and jam tarts. But now the mother no longer wants to go back to Germany: "I've had it with the whole thing."

Meanwhile the ailing father literally breathes his last. During his attacks, the family has to "push him half-way out the attic window so he can get a few gasps of fresh air." The long illness was followed by a painful death. And war approaches. Increasingly often the "flying fortresses" drone over the city with their payload; increasingly talk comes round to hostages who've been shot, summary trials and farmers murdered in the villages, bestialities in which the Wehrmacht and the partisans outdo each other, of an undeclared civil war that leaves as many victims as the fight against the occupiers.

There are conspiracies in back rooms and attacks on the open street. Anti-communist organisations spring up to counter the socialist orientation of the resistance movement: the Slovensko domobranstvo, the Slovene Home Guard, the White Guard. Who to support? Disorientation grows, and occasions for betrayal increase at lightning speed: "Everyone avoided having any sort of opinion... everyone was a backbiter... people are by nature informers, they were born like that, you can't change it."

This "chronicle" is a work of narrative vehemence, and it's no coincidence that even the way it looks on paper, with the many ellipses, is reminiscent of the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Here too we have the furore, the breathless anger, the brute force. The bitter-comical sense of catastrophe and the polemical flashes of wit also remind one of the novels of Thomas Bernhard.

As with Bernhard, even as the horizon darkens, the narrator's future - we know what will become of him - secretly brightens. Interspersed are episodes from a young man's bildungsroman, telling how he starts to read, write and mingle with the cultured. Literature becomes a "reserve of freedom," and the "painfully transplanted" second mother tongue becomes a means of creating art.

Scenes like those from a folk festival usher in the third volume: Tito's partisans are here, liberation! "Never were so many happy faces to be seen, strictly speaking a soft, screaming, rose-coloured mass." But while flowers are strewn over the streets and people dance and sing, "desires of revenge and slaughtering frenzy" run rampant. Old scores are settled in the forests: the communists fill the karst caves and crevices with the corpses of their adversaries. Twelve thousand members of the Home Guard who had fled to Austria were sent back over the Karawanken mountains to a certain death at the hands of vengeful compatriots.

Cruelty is daily fare. In one scene from the novel a fresh human head is revealed in a travelling bag. "Ha ha ha, laughs Bostjan, they've got what they deserve, the Whites..." Tito's state was founded on massacres - but until recently no one talked about them. Kovacic describes them in the 1980s, which shows just how courageous he was.

A mass meeting of the youth organisation, described in nightmarish terms, derails into an overt cleansing action. Betrayal, back-biting and denunciation increase once more to fever pitch. The new era brings with it permanent danger for Alojz. With his half-German origins and membership in the Hitler Youth, he is an open target for attack and blackmail. The family barricades itself into the attic apartment, as if that could help.

In a night-and-fog operation, his mother, sisters and niece Gisela are all expelled to Austria. After all, the father had "opted" for Germany. Only the boy is allowed to stay. But because he had allegedly sold "people's property" - in his desperation he had sought to convert his father's legacy into cash - he soon ends up in jail.

He is then allowed to continue his education in a boarding school, and prove himself laying railway track on the "youth stretch," from Samac to Sarajevo. Fabulous scenes describe the drudgery in the searing heat and the absurd system based on over-filling the quotas: "The miners pledged to mine more coal, and the conductors to drive faster than stated in the schedule."

Kovacic impressively catches the mood of the early years of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. At night in the first summers after the war, Tivoli Park is full of young lovers. Couples moan and pant in every bush, as if their goal was to make up for the wartime population deficit as quickly as possible. Political optimism is not only decreed - it fires the imagination of the young with hope for the new socialist world, despite the tinny, empty-sounding phrases they use to describe it.

The young man's enthusiasm, however, is truly ignited by the Slovenian countryside, even if it is covered with rusty war machinery. As a correspondent for Mladina - the magazine with the youth in its title, and which later, with its bold and critical investigative journalism, had a decisive hand in the Slovenian independence movement - he travelled through the country in the years after the war. There he sees with astonishment how diverse the small country is in climate and landscape, with alpine regions, Adriatic coastline, Toscana-like vineyards and the Central European Prekmurje Plains. A land of fantastic variety, almost magical.

Cultural politics in the country, by contrast, are sobering. Authors are bound to the dictates of socialist realism. Poems about cement and screws are called for, the sunny literature of the five-year plan, not dark, late-Romantic prose about the death of one's father. This however is exactly what the seventeen-year-old produces, to the horror of the culture bureaucrats: "Pessimistic bungling," "rotten, conservative experiential emotionalism," are just a few of the terms used for his undesired efforts. He should turn his back on self-description and face the new time, he was told. Before this backdrop, the trilogy appeared as a major gesture of defiance: nothing but a description of himself. Yet precisely for this reason it is also a brilliant panorama of his time, which brought him nothing but resistance from day one.

Above all the first two volumes are masterpieces. They are bitter, but grippingly intense in their description. With 600 pages, the third volume is roughly twice as thick as the first two. Although it lacks their density, it makes up for it with subversive irony.

Kovacic's goal was to describe a person as carefully as a botanist describes a plant. "Die Zugereisten" is a mnemonic sleight of hand of botanical exactitude, a weighty historical document whose significance will only grow. Because the 21st century, like the 20th, cannot fail to be one of "newcomers."

"Die Zugereisten. Eine Chronik," a novel by Lojze Kovacic. Translated into German from the Slovenian by Klaus Detlev Olof. Drava Verlag, Klagenfurt.


The article originally appeared in the May issue of Literaturen.

Wolfgang Schneider is a freelance literary critic living in Berlin.

Translation: jab. - let's talk european