Asked to investigate how the UK receives the work of the Slovenian writer Drago Jančar, I find myself asking an alternative question: Why does one of the most important and prolific writers to come out of Slovenia, even of the former Yugoslavia, barely register on the UK’s literary radar?
Now in his sixties, with ten novels, ten plays and numerous essays to his name – many translated into English – Jančar is an active intellectual and civil liberties campaigner, and is the recipient of numerous domestic and international awards.
Yet a search of the traditional organs of literary discussion in the UK draws not quite a blank but a meagre list of articles and reviews. His latest novels, The Tree with No Name, and I Saw Her That Night, seem to have passed without comment from UK critics; an interested reader has to go to US and Irish literary pages to find any insightful opinion of these books. In the UK, comment about Jančar’s work seems confined to the travel sections, as books to read on your Balkan holidays.
One piece of writing that has drawn more UK attention is Jančar’s preface to Dalkey Archive Press’s Best European Fiction 2014. And it is in this essay that one finds perhaps some clues as to why the UK has passed Jančar by.
In his preface, Jančar bemoans the current literary environment, describing ‘the flood of literary commercialization that demands and rewards superficiality, easy reading and bestsellerdom.’
While his criticism is targeted directly at developments in Eastern Europe – countries where Jančar says the collapse of dictatorships was followed by a ‘flood of mediocrity engineered by the publishing market’ – his description of the marketization of literature could well describe the situation in the UK over the past several decades.
His comments received a sharp response in The Independent’s review of the Dalkey anthology, which described his assertions as ‘windbaggery’ that would alienate readers, causing lesser-known, more literary writers to suffer. Perhaps Jančar’s sly dig at that beloved British institution, Desert Island Discs, didn’t help matters!
UK criticism is, however, nothing if not pluralistic. Novelist and literary commentator Joanna Walsh leads her 2014 Guardian piece about how the UK’s publishing market is opening up to new translated voices with a comment Jančar made at the London launch of Best European Fiction 2014: ‘We were dreaming of freedom; we woke up in capitalism.’ In his interview with Jančar for the UK’s BookTrust, Pete Mitchell asks the writer to expand on this comment. Jančar says he and his fellow Eastern Europeans had ‘imagined something else’ from freedom. Instead they saw ‘big privatisations, the publishing houses fell into the hands of new owners, and they were not interested in … complicated literature’.
Perhaps the country where JK Rowling is a treated as a ‘brand’ that can single-handedly turn a small literary publisher into a major industry player and a Booker-prize shortlisting can drive a title to the top of the charts finds Jančar’s ‘complicated literature’ of little interest.
When I was working at Dalkey Archive Press, I edited Michael Biggins translation of what many consider Jančar’s magnum opus, The Tree with No Name. That novel seems to illustrate Jančar’s points about capitalism and the commodification of literature and ideas, and is itself an example of the complicated literature commercial enterprises often shun. In the book Jančar’s protagonist, the archivist Janez Lipnik, sits in a shopping mall, surrounded by bags and shoppers ravenous for the latest fashionable goods, and is paralysed by his reflections on his country’s past. He has a cataclysmic vision, in which the shoppers push their carts towards far-off mountains where all the goods they thought would bring them joy are taken away from them. Jančar, in a short interview I conducted with him about the book, refers this image to the heaps of personal belongings he saw in the museum at Auschwitz. ‘Who’s to say that the human animal is incapable of repeating those scenes of brutality?’ he asks. ‘In my understanding of literature the big questions of politics and society are always resolved on the backs and in the souls of frail and vulnerable individual human beings.’
Perhaps for many in the UK publishing and literary industry such weighty issues seem too difficult to contemplate; perhaps Jančar’s way of contemplating them seems too complicated; perhaps, to quote his Best European Fiction preface, the ‘hyper-productive’ industry prefers ‘new-age fast food’ to the ‘fascinating and awkward merits [which] necessarily surpass the limits of “mere” entertainment and mechanical storytelling’.
Jančar does not level these accusations at the UK industry in particular. Indeed, in the Booktrust interview, Pete Mitchell states the author ‘doesn’t visibly hold it against us’ that he isn’t widely recognised by the UK literary community. But that doesn’t mean that our ignorance isn’t something we should remedy. And perhaps by reading and discussing the work of this significant European writer we will appreciate more about a continent of which we are part, and we can demonstrate that, even in a country with a highly commercialized literary environment, we are still able to value literature as the ‘modest thing’ Jančar describes, which ‘tells of human uncertainty, fear and courage, nobility and betrayal, joy and sorrow’.
By West Camel
Read other blogs about the reception of Drago Jančar in other parts of Europe: Drago Jančar – celebrated in Slovenia and all across ex-Yugoslavia; Drago Jančar in France; Drago Jančar in German speaking world.