Thursday, 25 February 2010

Living the High(-rise) Life in Slovenia

For my stay in Slovenia I spent a fascinating few days in the company of a diverse group of individuals in Fužine, apparently one of the less salubrious areas of the capital city, Ljubljana.

The author, Andrej Skubic, is also an accomplished translator; and it came as no surprise that he has translated – amongst others – the gritty urban Scottish author Irvine Welsh of ‘Trainspotting’ fame. Whilst this novel is not derivative of Welsh’s breakthrough novel, there is a certain focus on the immediate first-person narrative, told in local dialect (which the translation into English captures well), which Welsh also typifies.

However, whilst Welsh tends to go for a range of different narrative voices in his works; they are generally from the same socio-economic background (i.e. working class Edinburgh) - whereas Skubic paints a much wider social palette. His protagonists range from the 16-year old Janina (the daughter of a Montenegrin immigrant, finding her own identity in an alien environment), to Igor (a former bus driver now striking out into entrepreneurial flat-letting - most of the protagonists live within a particular towerblock in Fužine), through to Vera (a retired professor of linguistics at Slovenia’s University, and a divorcee forced to re-appraise both her younger and present life through a chance contact with a former friend and colleague).

Most interesting to myself however - and possibly also to Skubic himself, as this character forms the main narrative focus of the book – is Pero. Pero is a former counter-culture heavy metal freak who displays a touching bewilderment that his former youthful friends have either become ‘respectable’ by getting jobs and families; or have died through excess of drugs or drink. We first meet Pero in a desperate state of isolation and alcoholism in the aforementioned high-rise. A possible redemption is hinted at in his decision to raise himself out of drink-induced stupor and contact his old crowd; and at first we are led to believe this may be an option. However, it soon becomes clear that his ‘crowd’ have moved on (whether through social inclusion, death or drug addition) and Pero is left alone…leading to a poignant series of vignettes where Pero refuses to accept this and describes imaginary social outings with his old friends who are not there for him.

Gluing this disparate narrative together (which all takes place within 24 hours) is the build up between a football match taking place on the day of the very first football match between independent Slovenia and Yugoslavia. This match is an obvious metaphor in terms of ‘Yugo’ / Slovenian tensions, with some characters (e.g. Vera and Janina) indifferent to the outcome, and others such as Pero and Igor placing a huge degree of importance on it. Skubic as an author ramps up a charged sense of tension around the match itself which never ignites (Igor has an verbal confrontation with an adversary which never erupts into violence in the book), and it has to be said that Fužine’s more nefarious inhabitants come off as much more restrained than Welsh’s casual exponents of violence based in Edinburgh.

Ultimately, this novel is not a didactic one – i.e. it presents a number of perspectives of Slovenian lives and views without being judgmental. However, the metaphor of the football match seems – to me – to be saying that there are inevitable divisions in Slovenian society (along class and ethnic lines) but they do not need to be ones which lead to violence. Even the two opposing characters who we are lead to expect a fight between in the book whilst the match is on (Igor and Mirkovic) diffuse the situation (albeit not on friendly terms). They find a way to each save face without violence. Indeed if the football match is seen as a metaphor for the potential divisions in Slovenian society, it is telling that the final result – so important to the opposing factions – is never even revealed in the book (we find out that 6 goals have been scored, as Janina counts the fireworks from her room, but we do not know which side has scored the goals). And maybe that is the point of the book: countries and societies will inevitably have their differences; but these can actually lead to common ground rather than conflict. A football match has people that want one side or another to win, but surely they are all unified in being followers of football?

And on that note, I depart Slovenia via Ljubljana airport and make my way to Hungary; touching down in Budapest but then making my way via a series of trains (of varying quality and reliability - a bit like London trains!) to a small village in South-east Hungary, courtesy of the acclaimed gothic novel: "The Melancholy of Resistance" by the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A meeting of past and present in Montenegro

For my stay in Montenegro I travelled around some of the more rural areas of this country known as the ‘Black Mountain’. This is a fascinating country in many ways, from its turbulent past, to its majestic scenery – and the fact that it is one of the newest countries on my travels; having only achieved independence from Serbia in 2006.

Most fascinating of all are the people we meet within the book that represents Montenegro here: “A Stranger’s Supper: An Oral History of Centenarian Women in Montenegro” by Zorka Milich (a US citizen of Montenegrin origins who speaks fluent Montenegrin). In this book, written in the 1990s, Milich recounts conversations that she had with a number of Montenegrin women who were over 100 years old in 1990, and so remembered over a century of their countries history – mostly consisting of war and conflict. It is ironic that more was to come in 1991-1995 in the Bosnian and Croatian Wars, and NATO bombing of the country in 1999…

Milich conducts the dialogues here in the form of a series of interviews which, with each individual, cover key themes such as arranged marriages, war, blood feuds, death of loved ones, the rigours of domestic and farm work (both of which fell to the women – the men were almost always at war or preparing for war), and child birth. It is impossible not to be affected by the stories told here, with their hardship, tragedy and – in some cases – almost unimaginable cruelty. What is especially affecting is the stoicism of the women here, they get on with the hardships of their lives because that is how life was and is, on the ‘black mountain’.

Whilst it is obvious that these women lived in a heavily patriarchal society, Milich is even-handed in her approach to these tales – she avoids using these accounts to pursue wider feminist arguments, and puts the society into the context of the country’s history – she also demonstrates, through the interviews themselves, how the women were themselves a part of maintaining the status quo of this society: women who had children out of wedlock – or who could not bear sons (a cardinal sin in this male-dominated society) – were equally ostracised by their female counterparts as by the men.

If there is one weakness to this approach that Milich takes, it is certain inflexibility in the format of her interviews. She asks the same questions of all of the women, and to varying degrees the responses are the same – early marriage to a stranger, difficult childbirth of many children (not all of whom survived), a life of hard toil and war and a regret in later life that they remain as a burden to their family. Whilst not to undermine the fascinating content of these tales, this does lead to a sense of repetition by the end of this book – although perhaps Milich was attempting to show here that a Montenegrin woman’s lot was universal in the 20th Century – be she Orthodox Serb, Muslim or Catholic.

Above all what comes across here is a revelation that conditions of living – especially for women – which one might assume died out in Europe in the Middle Ages, persisted well into the last century and beyond. That is not to say that this book is not without its flashes of humour however – there is universal horror expressed at the suggestion that these women may have kissed their husbands and bemusement at the freedoms of the younger generation… indeed perhaps our later generations have something to learn here from the humility and lack of materialism of the lives depicted here: whilst living harsh lives, the women here are able to take pleasure in the essentials of life, in answer to the question, “What was the happiest day of your life?”, one woman answers:

“ The happiest day of my life is today. I have a grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I have sons. One came to visit me today, and he bought me a gift… People live better today than we ever lived. I would not want to go back. I cannot do better than I am now. Nothing is missing.”

Words of hope for the future from a 102-year-old woman (although words that were followed by a further decade of war in this tiny country. One can only hope that this nation-state will find peace in the wake of independence).

And so I take my leave of this fascinating, but troubled, country. I take a direct flight from Podgorica Golubovci airport at 15.15 and just over an hour later I am touching down in Ljubljana’s “Jože Pučnik Airport” (formerly Brnik Airport) in Slovenia. From here I take a taxi 20km south to Ljubljana itself, finally arriving in on of the less salubrious neighbourhoods on the outskirts of this capital city – a suburb of high-rise tenements known as Fužine. My stay here in Slovenia will encompass a novel by Andrej E. Skubic, a Slovenian writer and translator. The novel is "Fužine Blues": which follows a single day in the life of four people in Fužine, the infamous ghetto in Ljubljana, a unique day, 13th June 2002, the day of the very first football match between independent Slovenia and Yugoslavia.

I thank the Slovene Writers Association ( for their help in not only suggesting this book, but also sending me a copy at their own expense. I look forward to updating on this leg of my trip soon.