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Aleš Debeljak, from Six Slovenian Poets

Slovenian Writers and the History of Emancipation

In July 1991, Slovenia was one of the six constituent republics of what was Yugoslavia. Except for political experts, academics and adventuresome German, Italian, and British tourists, few people in the West really knew then what Slovenia is or what its culture is like. In the fog of Cold War, it was but a marginal part of East European terra incognita. Slovenian culture by and large flew below the radar of Western public perception. Today, the country is a member of European Union.

A brief outline of the vagaries of Slovenian collective existence is thus in order, to clear the ground for the kind of appreciation of poets and poems that will engage with the texts on their own terms, rather than in the context of the tradition they come from.

After all, each poem's intimate desire for a handshake with a reader is nothing if not an expectation of response. These poems hope that an elegantly crafted phrase, a disturbing vision, or a flash of meaning will speak to the unknown reader, Slovenian and non-Slovenian alike. From the communication between two individual imaginations, the poet's and the reader's, stems the fragile tissue of common experience that may last only as long as the act of reading or it may linger in memory, watering the source of empathy. And it is precisely the empathic drive, the ability to step into someone else's shoes, the capacity for co(m)passion, that justifies the pursuit of that perfect moment in which a poem will not be condescendingly noticed for political-historical reasons, but for its own ideas and aesthetic qualities.

Still, the country's history does provide some clues for an understanding of the poems. Let's return to July 1991 when Slovenia made the headlines all over the Western world. Its mercifully brief 'ten-day war', together with larger convulsions of the Yugoslav break-up, brought about a major change on the European map. Riding on the heels of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of the communist ancien régime, and German unification, it was Slovenia's public plebiscite, rooted in a natural law of self-determination, that formed the legal foundation for its acquisition of independence from the moribund Yugoslav federation. For the first time in the history of this tenacious Southern Slavic people, Slovenians were free to live in a state of their own. This paramount event had been hoped for and, against all odds, anticipated by many Slovenian writers.

Like in other Central and East European countries, writers in Slovenia were traditionally invested with the obligation and the attendant risk to act as the keepers of the national flame, the guardians of the moral, social and spiritual values. Specifically, it was the language itself that represented the most cherished national treasure. Why?

Because Slovenians lacked full-fledged political, economic, or social institutions that would have helped maintain a sense of national belonging. The latter was comparatively more upheld in those countries that have historically attained some form of statehood or another. Slovenians have been less fortunate. They have lived under regimes of royalist, fascist, and communist varieties, though failing to reach the goal to which all European nationalisms aspired, the nation-state.

But Slovenian people, their language, and books had been around long before the independent Republic of Slovenia was established. Squeezed in between the Germanic, Italian, and Hungarian cultures and often predatory political regimes, Slovenians were forced to adopt a defensive attitude. In a nutshell, their life historically revolved around the challenge of survival. A distinct language was more or less the only buffer against a threat of collective obliteration. Small wonder that today close to three thousand books are published annually in this tiny population of two million, where 'elite' poetry books routinely come out in five hundred copies (the equivalent of 15,000 copies for Great Britain), while the print runs of 'popular' books of verse reach three thousand copies.

The transition into corporate capitalism of course brought about profound political, economic, and social changes. Yet literary writing in post-communism remains relevant. Forests that cover more than fifty percent of the land continue to provide material for printing paper and contradictions of a collective life continue to provide material for literary visions.

These visions are framed by processes of long duration.1 The dominant one must be seen in the history that lacks splendid military victories but is replete with linguistic resistance to foreign rule. For all practical purposes, Slovenian history is a history of the Slovenian language. It is a language which in addition to singular and plural also uses a rare dual form. In other words, it's made for intimate, personal, and erotic confessions.

Although written records in Slovenian (sermons, confessions, poems) sporadically appeared from the eighth century on, these were but fragments. It was fifty years of the Protestant Reformation that gave Slovenians a systematic orthography, alphabet, and standardized language. The first book in Slovenian appeared in 1550. Slovenian literature was given birth by Primož Trubar, a Protestant preacher, who published twenty-two vernacular books in Germany where he fled from religious persecution in his native land. Thanks to his efforts, Slovenians could read the Old and New Testament in their mother tongue half a century before the publication of King James Bible.

However, after the aggressive counter-Reformation, it was Roman Catholicism that became the dominant religion. Its entrenchment in Slovenian culture was facilitated by the royal House of Habsburgs, the Catholic rulers of the Austrian, later Austro-Hungarian, Empire to which Slovenia traditionally belonged. The Napoleonic regime came between 1809 and 1813. The French instituted the Slovenian language in elementary schools, promoting it as the idiom of the middle class to an extent that would have been inconceivable to the German-speaking Habsburgs. Though brief, this historical moment was fruitful. French Enlightenment inspired the first accomplished Slovenian poet, Valentin Vodnik (1758-1819). Although a Roman Catholic priest, Vodnik did not write exclusively for religious purposes, but was devoted to the mundane life and natural world, too.

However, the relentless pressure of Germanic culture and continuous political subjugation made it difficult to envision Slovenian survival. The oft-mouthed prediction at the time had it that the Slovenians would pass into oblivion as a distinct ethnic community. It was not to be. Early in the nineteenth century, Slovenian literary journals began to be published in Ljubljana, the focal point of modern Slovenian life. The national self-consciousness reached its predictable peak in Romanticism, not lagging behind the other Central and East European peoples in 'the spring of nations'.

France Prešeren (1800-1849), the most celebrated Slovenian poet, best encapsulated the community's longing for freedom and independence. Admittedly, his work in English translation at times sounds like a Byronian derivative, but for the Slovenians, Prešeren is central. A liberal-minded lawyer, he wrote in German, the Central European lingua franca, as fluently as in Slovenian. Slovenian, though, was more than his mother tongue. It was his language of choice, signalling a political investment. Prešeren is thus more than a literary icon. He's the founding father of modern Slovenian self-understanding. He addressed all Slovenians and prompted them to recognize themselves as members of a single distinct community, beyond the attachments to various local regions of their largely rural existence.

Prešeren's A Toast to Freedom is today the national anthem. Back in 1848, the censors in imperial Vienna correctly identified the emancipatory spirit of this poem in which Prešeren called for the free union of all Slovenians and its necessary defence, including the use of violence. Paradoxically, he published only one poetry book that sold pathetically, a mere thirty odd copies in his lifetime. Yet he managed to accomplish both a symbolic unification of the ethnic collective and a radical invention of high aesthetic standards. In poems in which national and individual destiny blend into a universal message of freedom, Prešeren turned his mother tongue from a means of expression into the political foundation of national identity.

Ivan Cankar (1876-1918), the most important Slovenian fiction writer, was a legitimate heir to Prešeren. Having spent a decade in Vienna, Cankar obsessively addressed the role of the artist as outsider, often drawing on the tensions between the provincial home and the cosmopolitan polis. His departure point was a realization that the national identity was articulated in Romanticism, while a critical vivisection of its suffocating features was now in order. Cankar rose to the challenge. His short stories, novels, plays, and essays undermined many Slovenian myths while creating new ones. For example, Cankar's fictional mother who sacrifices herself to support her son, enveloping him in a stifling dialectics of guilt and affection, has become a pillar of the local mass psychology.

Just as Cankar predicted, the First World War and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 compelled Slovenians once again to make a decisive choice: either 'go it alone', an act for which they were ill-equipped, or seek refuge in a new state, that is, together with other Southern Slavs, except the Bulgarians. The die was cast. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians became their common home. It was later renamed Yugoslavia. At a first glance, the new union offered an ideal solution to the small nation. After all, it was only in this political union that Slovenian became the language of instruction at the newly established Ljubljana University. Despite very relevant institutional advancements, Slovenian aspirations for autonomy soon collapsed. Serbian, the language of the Belgrade-based court and the most populous nation, was imposed as the language of public and official communication across the union. Slovenian was reduced to a second-rate language. The introduction of vicious royal dictatorship in 1929 only deepened the frustrations.

But Slovenian persistence did not let up. Vibrant cultural life reflected the aesthetic trends of Paris and Vienna, Munich and Prague. Literary debates on expressionism, constructivism and surrealism were, however, imbued with political hues. This uneasy bond between politics and literature became a question of life and death after the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941.

Having lost credibility, the royal family and its government fled into exile. Most, though not all, writers joined the anti-Nazi guerrilla units, the partisans. They printed their books, newspapers, and magazines in makeshift print shops, set in liberated rural and forested areas. They organized literary readings, published periodicals and, by design, engaged in nationalist and communist propaganda.

After the war, several writers rose in the political hierarchy. A renowned poet, high-ranking partisan and Christian Socialist, Edvard Kocbek[2] (1904-1981), was Vice-President of the Slovenian government and a minister in the federal Yugoslav government until he fell out of favour. Educated in Slovenia and France, Kocbek was the first to expose the most fiercely guarded communist secret: the war of liberation was, to a considerable degree, a civil war as well. Simultaneous with the anti-Nazi struggle, a tragic fratricidal war of 'reds', communist-led partisans against 'whites', Axis-collaborators took place primarily in and around Ljubljana.

After the war, uniformed collaborationists and their civilian sympathisers retreated to the Allied-controlled southern Austria. The Allies under the British command returned them to Yugoslavia. There, up to twelve thousand people were soon thereafter indiscriminately killed by special units of Josip Broz-Tito's communist regime. Against the official imperative of silence, Kocbek's was a dissenting voice. He publicly denounced the criminal act of wild vengeance. The poet ultimately won over the statesman and Kocbek thus remained indebted to the legacy of Prešeren. Only after he lost direct access to the mechanisms of power was Kocbek able to tell the full truth.

In a way, the civil war was a reflection of traditional antagonism between secular liberalism and Roman Catholic conservatism, the two major mental paradigms in Slovenian history. As a difficult yet crucial topic, it occupied many writers even though it necessitated the use of Aesopian metaphors, designed to fool the regime's censors. The late fifties and the early sixties were periods of creative eruption. New literary journals were established. They gradually became strongholds of independent intellect, facilitating a growing political dissent that in 1964 exploded in a massive popular protest. The communist elite put the demonstrations down, banned the magazines, and arrested several people, including Tomaz Šalamun[3] (1941-). Šalamun is today the most internationally admired Slovenian poet. At the time, however, he was a fledgling enfant terrible with parodies of canonized patriotic poems to his credit. Šalamun's talent for poetic absurdity, irony and playfulness made it possible for him to declare, following his spiritual godfather Arthur Rimbaud, that all dogmatic tradition is the 'game of countless idiotic generations.' His contested emancipation of verse from under the shackles of singular nationalist obsession had far-reaching consequences for the nascent autonomy of writing.

As a result of a political clampdown, in the 1970s writers retreated from the public arena to rediscover 'language as the house of being'. They explored the limits of lyrical and narrative technique, the vertigo of linguistic transgressions, and the exodus of the coherent plot. In these works irony and poetic wisecracking were employed as protection against, not as a challenge to, external reality.

After a decade of passivity, the patience of critical intellectuals wore thin. The early 1980s saw the launching of another new magazine. Its very name suggests the manner in which it opened a public debate: Nova revija (The New Review). The poems, novels, testimonies, and short stories that writers managed to publish despite tacit censorship, gradually peeled away layers of institutional lies. The leading poetic voice was that of Dane Zajc[4] (1921-2005), a doyen of dark premonitions that maintain a magical appeal while addressing the painful loneliness of modern man. The horrors of Titoism, a political system much admired among the Western left, were laid bare by critical historiography and the truth about Goli otok (The Naked Island), the Yugoslav Gulag that swallowed many opponents of the regime, was finally made public. The communists' grip on power began to loosen.

In the larger Yugoslav state, Serbian political appetites came to be seen as a threat to the other nations in the federation. The communist-dominated Serbian government usurped the federal administration, appropriated more than half of the federal hard currency reserves, attempted to alter the educational curriculum in favour of Serbian authors, and imposed brutal apartheid on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Slovenia called for a political cohabitation that would satisfy the constituent nations but retain the Yugoslav frame. A confederation, an asymmetrical federation, a commonwealth, etc. were all on the table. The increasingly arrogant Belgrade authorities, alas, glibly dismissed them. Slovenia had to choose: either to remain under the heel of corrupt communism or to establish an independent state.

Following passionate public debates, writers led a democratic opposition in drafting the declaration of Slovenian independence. Stimulated by such actions, even the Slovenian communists began resisting the centralized government in Belgrade. After a public referendum revealed the wish of the Slovenian people to live in a free Slovenia, the independent nation-state was declared in July 1991. A ten-day war ensued. While it ended soon, the conflict was by no means limited: it spiralled into brutal excesses and engulfed the entire region. It continues to tragically simmer despite the Dayton peace accord in 1995 that nominally ended the wars for Yugoslav succession.

Pressing public concerns no longer required the use of a cryptic idiom for the emerging writers. The emancipation from 'politics as destiny' appealed, in particular, to the writers who came of age in the 1980s. As political affairs ceased to be the focal topic, exploration of the formal, metaphysical, and imaginative possibilities became the name of the game. Refusing to view literature as the privileged platform from which political opinions should be voiced, this generation had rushed to embrace the various styles of postmodernism.

The monthly magazine Literatura was a flagship of this generation. Its name speaks of the writers' primary concern: literature itself. Nevertheless, the long-called-for separation of politics and literature did not give birth to a myopic l'art pour l'art. Inasmuch as moral habits are embedded in the intricacies of historic allegory and allusion, the urge to stress them expressly is beside the point. History and its discontents are always present, since the writer's sensibility and responsibility make their way into the text by virtue of a shared stock of metaphors and cultural tradition. The postmodern writers thus espoused a kind of Joycean non serviam to the cause of Slovenian independence. I hasten to add, though, that some writers did articulate their continuous civic and moral responsibility, but in newspaper columns and other general public forums, that is, outside the domain of literature proper.

After 1991, social and historical conditions of post-communist capitalism care less for imaginative writing and more for business, advancing the commerce of goods rather than the commerce of ideas. Literature is no longer the main site of truth and justice and, by extension, of national identity. The traditional role of the writer as shaman and spokesman for the people, recounting historical taboos, suppressed memory, individual solitude and social resistance, is in all likelihood over.

Grand ideas of the nation, community and history, attractive as they were because of their all-encompassing values, are being replaced by human-size concerns that include the exploration of the destructive side of nationalism and its effects on the mundane life of everyday people. The hereditary syndrome of Prešeren, whose work could mobilize the entire community, has lost its all-encompassing reach. Writers now face a challenge of a radically different kind: how to honour the specific cultural tradition that nurtured them and at the same time speak movingly about universal preoccupations with love and fear, longing and frustration? Instead of the ubiquitous politics, it is cross-pollinations between intimate poetic concerns and globalized popular culture that should be seen as the source of inspiration for the recent literary generation.

The post-postmodernist generation that came of age in the 1990s takes an independent nation-state as a given. This, in turn, frees the writers from received obligations of national impulse. They thus represent the first generation that enjoys the benefits of unrestricted education, communication, and travel, mapping the hitherto neglected terrain of colloquial speech, hybrid identities, and cultural sensibilities of an urban capitalist milieu. In this respect, they may have more in common with their peers from the rest of Europe and North America than with their predecessors in Slovenian cultural tradition. Either way, the poets represented in this anthology grapple with a problem that is commonly understood across the linguistic borders. How to write in an original manner that would be both individual and universal? These poets' desire for a handshake is here, hidden in the textual meanders. All their poems need now is a curious English-language reader to bring the handshake out in the open.

[1] See Aleš Debeljak, 'Slovenia: A Brief Literary History', in: Andrew Zawacki (ed.): Afterwards: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 (Buffalo: White Pine Press, 1999), from which parts of this introduction are drawn.

[2] See Edvard Kocbek: Embers in the House of Night (Lumen Press, 1999); Nothing is Lost: Selected Poems (Princeton University Press, 2004).

[3] See Tomaž Šalamun: Selected Poems, (Ecco Press, 1988) reprinted in the UK as Homage to Hat & Uncle Guido & Eliot: Selected Poems (Arc Publications, 1997); Four Questions of Melancholy: New and Selected Poems (White Pine Press, 1997); Feast (Harcourt, 2000); A Ballad for Metka Krasovec (Twisted Spoon Press, 2001); Poker (Ugly Duckling Press, 2003); Blackboards (Saturnalia, 2004).

[4] Dane Zajc: Barren Harvest: Selected Poems (White Pine Press, 2004).