At home and abroad, Drago Jančar (1948) is considered to be the best-known as well as the most important Slovene contemporary writer. He’s also the most frequently translated one, steadily making his way among the classics of literature.
Jančar entered the literary arena in 1971 with his short prose collection Romanje gospoda Houžvičke (The Pilgrimage of Mr. Houžvička), followed three years later (1974) by his first novel Petintrideset stopinj (Thirty-five Degrees). It was a year that profoundly marked his life as he ended up being jailed for three months for “spreading hostile propaganda”. Though he was prevented from publishing in Slovenia for a while, his reception in Belgrade was in fact the opposite: there, he received the Literary Youth of Serbia Prize for his composition on the plays of Borislav Stanković (1876-1927) which he had also been translating. Be as it may, his career underwent a rapid ascent in 1978 with the publication of the influential historical novel Galjot (The Galley Slave) that had a resounding impact throughout the regions of former Yugoslavia. In 1980, the book was translated to Serbo-Croatian language (Belgrade: Narodna knjiga), and in 1984 also to Macedonian (Skopje: Makedonska knjiga).
In the eighties, in addition to his novel Severni sij (Northern Lights, 1984) accolades were directed especially at his short prose. Jančar’s short stories collected in the book Smrt pri Mariji Snežni (Death at Mary-of-the-Snows, 1985) were pronounced by the critics to be the apex of modernist Slovene short prose. Some of the stories were published in Serbo-Croatian already in 1984, in Sarajevo, under the title Snovi i nasilja (Dreams and Violence).
Around that time Jančar also grew in prominence as a playwright. In addition to his drama theatre debut Disident Arnož in njegovi (Dissident Arnož and his Band, 1982), his most successful play was Veliki briljantni valček (The Great Brilliant Waltz, 1985). The latter was met with massive applause and catapulted Jančar to the very pinnacle of Slovene and then-Yugoslavian drama, having been translated and magazine-published in Serbo-Croatian the same year (Veliki briljantni valcer). For its sublime artistic treatment of the conflict between totalitarian authority and the intellectual, The Great Brilliant Waltz received awards in Slovenia (Grum Prize) as well as Serbia (Sterija Award). In addition to the Ljubljana premiere and the Maribor staging, the play was staged in 12 theatres throughout former Yugoslavia. His subsequent plays Daedalus and Zalezujoč Godota (Stakeout at Godot’s), both from 1988, both also dealing with the issue of the violence of authority over the individual, were likewise immediately translated into Serbo-Croatian.
In the nineties, Jančar published three highly successful novels: Posmehljivo poželenje (Mocking Desire, 1993), Zvenenje v glavi (Ringing in the Head, 1998), and Katarina, pav in jezuit (Katharina, the Peacock and the Jesuit, 2000). The expert public was again impressed by the works, as evident by the Kresnik Award for best Slovene novel that was awarded to both the latter two, which also got translated to Croatian relatively soon (Zujanje u glavi, Zagreb: Durieux, 2000; Katarina, paun i jezuit, Zagreb: Profil International, 2004). In 2002, the Slovene director Andrej Košak made an eponymous feature-length film based on Ringing in the Head.
The nineties were also a period when Jančar gained additional prominence with his internationally visible essays, predominantly addressing the current civic issues of (post)communist societies such as the Slovene one. The essays, too, were award-winning efforts, quickly securing their place among paramount domestic essayist works. His collections Razbiti vrč (The Broken Jug, 1993), and Egiptovski lonci mesa (The Fleshpots of Egypt, 1995), received the Rožanc Award for best Slovene essay.
Recent times saw the publication of four more Jančar novels: Graditelj (The Builder, 2006), Drevo brez imena (The Tree With No Name, 2008), To noč sem jo videl (That Night I Saw Her, 2010), and Maj, november (May, November, 2014). The works The Tree With No Name and That Night I Saw Her were again received exceedingly well in the ex-Yugoslavian space. Some Croatian critics described the former (Drvo bez imena, Zagreb: Meandar, 2010) as Jančar’s most illustrious novel yet. For the book That Night I Saw Her, characteristically exploring Jančar’s favorite topic of an intimate story taking place in a fateful historical moment, the native of Maribor was granted yet another Kresnik Award, his third already. It was translated into Croatian (2012), Serbian (2014) and Macedonian (2014), as well as being praised greatly throughout Europe, receiving several international awards and nominations.
In 2012, a couple years short of its 30th anniversary, the Great Brilliant Waltz returned to home and international stages (Zagreb, among others). The work hasn’t lost any of its contemporary and socially-relevant sharpness, though now, the conflict between authority and the individual acquires an air of critique of today’s capitalist ideology, in ways no less repressive than the iron regime of old. Perpetual relevance is certainly one of Jančar’s unchanging qualities as his works appear to age splendidly well, a good indication of his emerging road to immortality as a classic of world literature.
By Alen Širca