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.

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