Christopher Meredith reports on a writer’s month in Novo Mesto, a city on a bend of the Krka river close to the border with Croatia
We all love snow. It had started falling when I left Wales on the Monday, the fifty-mile late-night drive to the airport bus winding through Powys and the Gwent hills in a darkness flickering with drifting bits of silver. After nine or ten hours of the purgatorial nullity of buses, queues and the holding-pens of airports, I felt a jag of excitement when the plane dropped below the formless clouds and suddenly we could we see Slovenia below us, close and brilliant with detail, the clustered steeples of immensely tall fir trees ermined with the weight of the stuff, cars with their headlights on moving on whitened ways.
In Ljubljana airport my lift, Vesna Kelbl who runs GOGA publishers’ bookshop, was a little late because of the snow. As she drove me the seventy kilometres or so along snowy roads to Novo Mesto, where I’m staying, we talked over plans for my month’s visit and much else. Vesna’s funny, sharp talk about ‘synthetic nationalisms’ (which she’s studying), and plans, and the bears that live in these forests generated a welcome thawing of my travel-numbness.
I watched the rolling snowplastered landscape and thought about this road. Keep on going past Novo Mesto, not very far, and you cross the border into Croatia and quickly come to the capital Zagreb. It’s almost a cliché that Slovenia is a country on a crossroads. Diagonals through Ljubljana run through many of the major cities of Europe. The linguistic crossroads is equally extraordinary, with Slovenia’s related Slavic languages to its south, Finno-Ugric in Hungary to the east, the German of Austria to the north, and Italian to the west. Many Slovenes I’ve met are good linguists and can speak fascinatingly about the variations of Slavic languages, sometimes with a sharp sense of irony.
Over a decade ago at a book fair in Brittany I shared a stage with the great Slovene writer Boris Pahor. He was very old even then and I was amazed when planning to come to Slovenia to discover that he’s still alive and active. Pahor who’s a hundred this year, has seen five or six empires and dispensations come and go in his land. His book about his time in concentration camps, Nekropola, republished in English recently by the Dalkey Archive as Necropolis, is a tough, compelling read of great directness and power. It strongly suggests that Pahor’s survival had something to do with his skills in languages: he worked as a translator for inmate-medics in the camps. I concluded that it was both the fortune and the misfortune of the Slovenes to be on a crossroads for much of history, and it was Wales’s fortune and misfortune to be on a by-road.
In St Malo he spoke in French. Small, bald, spare and bespectacled, he reminded me a little of the old English actor Robertson Hare, but he had an unmistakable energy. It seemed to me that a young Slovene author also on stage with us that day, who’d switched to writing in French, was a little cowed by his uncompromising moral presence. My brilliant interpreter, Jocelyne Bourbonniere, self-effacingly discreet, sat near me and whispered in my ear like a reminder of mortality as Pahor spoke in defence of small languages. At one point the interpreter paused and sniggered before translating one sentence. ‘A dialect with tanks,’ she murmured, ‘is a language.’
Vesna, like many Slovenes, speaks excellent English. Just as when I was in Finland recently, I was both grateful for and terrified by the ubiquity of the English language. A friend of hers ran over a bear once, she said. She, Vesna, had been in a car following.
I said I’d love to see a bear. Vesna looked at me and shook her head. She was twirling her hair with one finger while she drove.
It was a baby bear, she said. Her friend kept driving, but she stopped. The bear was trying to get up. She mimed an injured baby bear trying to get to its feet, dabbing the heel of one hand drunkenly against the dashboard, then went back to twirling.
She wanted to help, she said. Didn’t know whether to get out and try to rescue it somehow, or ring someone, or maybe run it over to put it out of its misery. Then, she said, her phone rang and it was her friend in the other car. She mimed an anxious face and a telephone-hand. Vesna, get the fuck out of there, the mother bear is coming. And she spotted the mother and another cub on the verge and drove away fast.
She went back to twirling, this time with both hands, then remembered the car and resumed steering on the slathered road.
Under thick-lying and still falling snow the centre of Novo Mesto is rather beautiful, with the towers, spires, clocks and finials of the Town Hall, a Franciscan monastery, and a cathedral church punctuating its whitened roofscape. The small, quiet, old town is piled on a small hill pinched in an impossibly tight ox bow of the river Krka. As the newer industrial parts of Novo Mesto have grown on the other bank, southward across two bridges, this gives the old town the feeling of being almost an island. The wide main street runs up a small hill from one of these bridges, Kandijski Most, turning into the main town square, the Glavni trg. The shop fronts at the top end of the square, and Hostel Situla where I’m staying, are arcaded with low, flattened arches. Many buildings are painted in pastels and yellow ochres. The deep pads of snow softening the roofs hung like albino thatch that first day. That together with the white ridges on the black leafless branches of the trees in the town square gave the town a Breughel-ish look.
Vesna, a thoughtful host, took me for coffee to GOGA’s cafe-bookshop, through one of those arches in the square. In a partly glass-roofed courtyard people sat drinking coffee and smoking, the red blankets provided by the cafe over their knees, a little snow sieving through the gap in the glass overhead. Later she and Nastja, who also works for GOGA, took me on a lightning tour of the old town.
But it was the following day when I’d recovered from the bus lag that I was able to look round when fully conscious. On the way into town from the motorway, you see a large bronze of a partisan, a knee thrust forward, his arms forking the air in victory and liberation. That day the snow had settled on his thigh and gathered between his upraised arms so that his head had vanished.
On the hill above, the church of St Nicholas turned out to be a bit smaller than its imposing position led me to think. The outside of the nave and the belltower, square at the base surmounted by an octagonal section and then a spire, is a yellowish buff colour. The exterior of the nave and presbytery are in natural stone with a polygonal apse and deep, weathered offset buttresses running higher than the long lancet windows. Inside the chancel, which stands at an odd angle to the nave, is a Tintoretto (or alleged Tintoretto depending on which book you read) of St Nicholas. It looked impressive to me but you couldn’t get close to it. A rope across the chancel steps has a notice telling you it’s alarmed.
Outside, a notice said: “The appearance of the church is somewhat uneven”, and “the navel originates in the first half of the fifteenth century”. I supposed that anyone whose navel originated in the first half of the 15th Century would have a somewhat uneven appearance by now. Outside the south door of the chancel was the bronze bust of a cleric. They’re big on bronze busts here, often quite impressive ones, of local notables, sacred and secular. You find them outside the Town Hall, the monastery, and elsewhere.
But the cleric, like the rooftops and the partisan, was transformed by snow. A few days later I’d see an ordinary bronze head with the regulation skullcap, but for now, as the snow still fell, he was wearing a luxurious high white collar that curled up over his head and bent forward, like the curved saffron hats Tibetan monks sometimes wear, or, come to think of it, like a Smurf’s hat. Behind him, the two points of a cypress echoed the gesture of the temporary headgear, bending with the weight of snow so that they looked like a couple of yetis, perhaps as imagined by Dr Seuss, standing guard.
That joker, the snow, obscuring and caricaturing both the partisan and the cleric, made me suddenly connect these two images. This is a crossroads of ideologies too. Aesthetically at least the partisan came out of this looking a lot less silly. But the bronze eyes still staring through the gap in the snow troubled me more.
Dogs and Toddlers
I was sitting in my flat on the top floor writing one of the most boring sentences in the world when I heard the shouting outside.
The three-roomed writer’s flat is in Hostel Situla. Numerous writers have stayed here, including the already almost legendary Maruša Krese (‘š’ is pronounced ‘sh’; the stress falls on the second syllable in ‘Krese’.) Krese, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 65, is known not only for her writing but for the humanitarian work she did in the Bosnian war in the 1990s, driving vanloads of supplies back and forth across two borders from here to the war zone. The people I’ve met here love to laugh, have a sharp sense of irony, and some have an almost Finnish power of self-deprecation mixed with a sense of the absurd that amounts to cynicism sometimes. But everyone I’ve talked to about Krese speaks with an uncomplicated, direct, and moving admiration.
The flat, by an arrangement of stairs and locked landings, is oddly isolated. There’s no phone to reception and no doorbell on either of the two locked landings. You could hole up here and have a very quiet time. A few writers-in-residence, my publisher-hosts told me, have done just that, vanishing into this hideout and only reappearing in order to travel home. One of them is rumoured to have slept almost the entire time. If Lord Lucan is alive he could well be a Writer in Residence in a place like this. Having no wish to be the mad Welshman in the attic (that I can do at home), I’ve got out quite a bit, walking, giving talks in a school, and doing the public stuff of being a writer.
But that day I was in my not-quite-ivory not-quite tower. From the dormer window I can see the little finialled cupola of the Town Hall and the spire of the monastery, and if I stick my head out I can see, up the hill, the buttressed apse of the small cathedral and its spire. Its bells ring the quarters. But mostly there are snowy roofs. Not ivory. Much whiter than that.
I subsidise my nasty habit of writing poems and novels by being an academic. Part of the price you pay for that is that you regularly have to take part in the Most Boring Sentence in The World Competition. This consists of administrators sending you forms to fill in the purposes of which are usually not explained and which usually you can’t understand. At first you ignore these forms for as long possible. Quite often no one ever notices that you’ve done this, but there are times when, like a bladder infection, they keep coming back, and then you have to treat them with the Sentences. Part of the process is that the Sentences should usually contain nothing at all. This is tricky. But occasionally you have to sneak some meaning into them unnoticed, and this is tricky too.
I admit that I volunteered to do this particular form. But having volunteered I was given a Deadline, and Deadline equals guaranteed bladder infection. So there I was doing the Sentences. I was coming to the smuggle-sentence, the one where I actually had to say something. This is the one that should be especially boring. The prize must surely be to say something you really needed to say but to put it in a sentence of such exquisite, Byzantine tediousness that no one will ever know.
I imagine that in some secret, infernal award ceremony the military genius who came up with the phrase ‘collateral damage’ was given a covert gold statuette for this stupendous achievement, and then made a tearful acceptance speech thanking all the world for its wonderful lack of recognition.
I’d been labouring on this bilge for three hours. Shame stops me from telling you the exact wording of what I was in the middle of writing as it came towards midday. Let’s say it was something like: ‘…secondly, thematically and in terms of ideas, we will use this to explore through a case study a major but under-recognised area in recent and contemporary ideas, that is the nature of the relationship between inner, individual experience and larger historical forces…’ For Most Boring Sentence in the World purposes this is far too transparent. I’ve removed some of the spires, bells and unnecessary buttresses. But it was something like that, only buried deeper in baroque wordage. With the cursor winking after the word ‘forces’, I heard noises out in the street.
There was shouting, and horns blowing and whistles. A drum.
I looked at the date and time in the corner of the computer screen.
When you’re in a new country, surrounded by a new language, you pick up your bearings from all kinds of signals. Without real literacy or the basic knowledge of how stuff works you have to become almost as smart and observant as a toddler or a dog, and on the whole I’m not.
Wasn’t there something about a protest today? A public sector workers’ strike. Deep in the Sentences, I’d forgotten about it.
I put on a coat and moved a bit faster than usual down the concrete stairs and out through the locked landing.
In sunlight and a slow thaw, perhaps forty protestors had gathered outside the restaurant across the cobbled square, the Gostišče na Trgu. People in blue tabards marked ‘SVIZ’ waved banners and placards. Some blew on blue plastic horns and one had an old fashioned football rattle. A good-natured crowd began to gather. The protestors smiled shyly and kept up energetic noises as some of us took photos. Cars passing through the square slowed and drivers rubber-necked. Now and then a pair of hands raised a drum, a sort of cross between a tambourine and a bodhrán, and thumped at it with the panache and lack of skill of a primary school kid.
It wasn’t that noisy and it wasn’t that crowded, but there was none of the faint embarrassment I’ve sometimes detected at organised protests. There was an unmistakeable energy in the air. Slowly, more public sector protestors filtered into the trg from the narrow Rozmanova ulica. After fifteen minutes or so there were perhaps three or four hundred people gathered. Some photographers had got into the gostišče and were taking pictures from an upstairs window.
The demonstrators were mainly health workers, I was told. Then the teachers arrived, orderly and quiet. Mirjam, a teacher who had arranged for me to talk at her school came and chatted with me.
Later I got someone to translate some of the placards. ‘UBOGI NAROD KI PRIDHODNOST VIDIV % NEV OTROCIH!’ – ‘We pity the nation that sees the future in % not in children!’ ‘JANŠA, NISMO TVOJE OVCE’ – ‘Janša, we are not your sheep’.
The first speaker, standing under a cutout of a chef with a stacked plate of food pinching a cutout index finger and thumb together in a cartoon gesture that said everything was fine, was a lightly bearded man with a drawn, determined face and receding dark hair. This was Uroš Lubej, a local teacher of philosophy and one of the main organisers of the protests nationally. He’s going to get a hefty fine for organising these things, someone told me. His short speech drew regular enthusiastic applause from the crowd. He’s calling Janša a fascist, someone told me.
After Lubej, several nurses took the mic. It was clear even to me as an honorary toddler that these women weren’t used to the public platform. Their lack of gestures and the flatness of their delivery in this usually expressive and rhythmic language showed that. Their choosing to speak, it seemed to me, was all the more powerful because of this.
When the speeches were over people stood around for a while. One group of protestors formed a smiling circle ad hoc and started to sing.
They were singing partisan songs, someone told me.
It was only when most people had drifted away that a police car crept slowly through the square. Most police were on strike too.
What’s not reported outside this country is that the prime minister, Janez Janša, is widely despised and distrusted. The unanswered corruption case against him and his lack of a real democratic mandate, especially as his coalition falls apart, is tangled in public perception with the austerity measures he’s bringing in, the kinds of measures the IMF’s been criticising recently. The conundrum is worsened by the fact that the leading opposition figure, Ljubljana’s mayor Janković, faces weirdly similar corruption charges. In the last few days Janša’s appointed himself finance minister as well as PM because vanishing allies have left him with so few choices. This rather bears out the feeling among people I’ve spoken to that he will not resign. The irony of a man facing financial corruption charges taking over the finance department isn’t lost on the people.
In European terms Janša aligns himself with the centre right, but on the ground here his few remaining allies are the farther right and the church. The Vatican was the first state to recognise independent Slovenia and the return of nationalised land to the church is seen by some as a kickback. In the 1980s, during the pressures that led to independence, Janša was a hero, subjected with others to a ludicrous trial and imprisoned briefly for involvement in some secret military documents found in the offices of the radical magazine, Mladina. Now he’s lambasted in the same magazine. The cover of a recent number depicts him as one of those blank incurious stone heads on Easter Island which he rather resembles, his back to the volcanoes erupting behind him. He’s rocked and chipped by the blast but stolidly imperturbable. ‘After me, the Deluge!’ the caption runs. Even with the mixed metaphors it’s a devastating image.
Lubej isn’t the only one to refer to him as a fascist or neo-fascist. Even former allies have used the tag. While Europe and other governments may not care much what Janša does so long as he keeps the economy going, the mass of people are incredulous that he should remain in power without a majority and with an unanswered corruption charge against him. He has a habit of calling anyone who opposes him a communist (he was once a party member himself), and to everyone’s amusement in this sharp-witted country he’s called them ‘communist zombies’. Predictably the zombie has entered the iconography of protest against him. But while this scatter-gun name-calling remains among his tactics to stay in power, he’s a polarising force.
A few days after the amiable protest in Glavni trg I stood in Congress Square in Ljubljana, the capital, with a leading Slovenian writer, Stanka Hrastelj, who described to me how she’d seen water cannon used against protestors there before Christmas – the first time ever in Slovenia. She didn’t get hit, she told me. All she got was a whiff of CS gas. Neo-fascists, I was told, had moved into the crowd to provoke the police.
This was uncharacteristic. There are lots of protests here, all peaceful, I’m assured, many smaller than the Novo Mesto public workers’ outing, and people may even be getting protest fatigue as Janša toughs it out.
The little demo in Novo Mesto was all over by about 12.35pm, done with much the same quiet efficiency as most things in Slovenia. I stayed in the streets a while, tasting the air a little differently. The ridges of the roofs were slipping their scalloped red tiles through the thawing snow. Back in my flat I thought of dogs and toddlers, and of the writers, the ones who’d holed up here, and then of Maruša Krese loading up her van and getting on the road. I turned to the smuggle-sentence again. ‘…to explore the nature of the relationship between inner, individual experience and larger historical forces…’
I am not an elf
I was in a pub in Brecon once when four Dutch tourists came up to me and said: “Excuse us. We have been told you speak Welsh. Could you please sing us one of your famous Welsh songs?”
I probably was the only person in the bar that night who could speak Welsh, though there are more Welsh speakers in Brecon than you might think. I’d been under cover but somebody had grassed me up. I had to think quick.
I said, “Tell you what. You sing me one of your famous Dutch songs first and then I’ll sing you one of our famous Welsh ones.”
The four Dutch tourists looked at one another and then went into a huddle. Luckily for me and civilisation, between them they couldn’t think of a single Dutch song they could remember all the words for. They did start one or two half-heartedly but they trailed off like a slow school hymn on a rainy Tuesday.
In the end one of them turned to me and said: “We can do the Beatles.”
I sang them something anyway, and then they really were embarrassed and squirmed interestingly. I noticed the barman smirking. So he was the one who’d ratted on me.
It wasn’t long after I got to Slovenia when somebody said: “Say something in Welsh.”
Even though the über-politeness of these people and their skill in language meant I’d heard a lot of English, they’d also given me many free samples of speech in Slovene, so this time, I supposed, I couldn’t quibble. I had to oblige. Not feeling very inventive, I recited a short poem. Not one by me.
Oh my God! They said. It’s Elvish!
People around the table in the little courtyard shivered, smoked furiously, and discussed my Elvishness. Tolkien is big among the young here. Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for. When he meets his namesake outside the gates of heaven I hope this Slovene-Welsh affair will be on the chargesheet.
Regularly since then I’ve been asked to “Say Something in Welsh.”
“I know an elf!” somebody said.
“My brother’s going to the fancy dress evening as a Hobbit,” somebody said. “He already looks like one. He’s just growing his hair.”
“I am not a Hobbit,” I said.
“No, you’re not a Hobbit,” somebody else said. “You’re an elf.”
Luckily for me, people over the age of about thirty seem Tolkien-proof, but the question recurs. Here’s the thing. These people know about languages. This is the meeting place of four major language groups. The dialects of Slovene, I’m told, reflect the influences of Italian, German and Hungarian on the fringes of this small country. Most people are attuned to the overlaps and differences between Slovene and the other south Slavic languages, and they’re good at listening to shades of difference in emphasis and pronunciation. Some people I’ve met are pretty scathing about fellow-Slovenes who speak merely one language. Also, there are only two million Slovene speakers inside the borders of the country. They know about living inside a ‘small’ language. That is something recognisable.
So the request to perform doesn’t as it sometimes does, make me feel like a strange specimen in a jar being reached down from a shelf in a biology department. I don’t get the feeling of curious eyes staring into the aspic not realising that I’m actually staring back. There is, instead, connection. I’ve done a couple of radio interviews here in English, one for the VAL 202 station and one for the Slovenian Third Programme. In each the interviewer had prepared painstakingly and in each they asked me to say or read something in Welsh. The thoughtfulness of the discussion leading up to that both times made the sense of connection and the valuing of language clear. In each case the interviewer would have to translate my English words to be voiced for broadcast. The pains of language were at the centre.
The highpoint came when I was asked by the poet Barbara Pogačnik to read a Welsh translation, by Angharad Price and Tina Mahkota, of a poem by Maruša Krese at an evening celebrating recently dead poets at the Cankarjev dom, a big cultural centre in Ljubljana. The evening was of course in Slovene, with a writer and two leading actors reading and me tagging along, the uncomprehending toddler. I was cued in to do my bit. I had no idea how this big production, with mics, sound-effects, music, and back-projection was going down at first. Then the effortless authority of the actors became clear as they read. The applause at the end was huge. Babel can be a place of connections.
The low point was in a third radio interview, to be broadcast in English and conducted by an Englishman. Somehow I felt we were back in the biology department. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps it didn’t help that he started by calling me ‘boyo’ and trying to do a Welsh accent. That made the Say Something in Welsh Moment less comfortable. You expect this stuff with these gigs occasionally, but it was disappointing to get the here-we-go-again feeling. It’s nice to be back in England, I told him. Still this was to be broadcast mainly for Slovenes. Essentially I could be making the same connection.
At the big anti-government demonstration in Ljubljana last week I happened to see a placard with VRAN among its words. I asked Luka, who’d been present at the first Elvish event in that shivering courtyard, what it meant.
“A black sort of bird.” He didn’t know in English, he said.
“Yes, a crow.”
I don’t remember now what the rest of the placard said. This extraordinary link seized me. I told him that it was exactly the same word in Welsh, pronounced the same way, with a long ‘a’.
So listen, you young Slovene Hobbit-fanciers. I am not an elf. Or if I am, you are too.