This week we welcome Slovenian poet and cultural critic Aleš Debeljak to The New Metropolitan. Join us on a journey around Europe where the geography of towns, harbors, streets and squares overlaps with Debeljak’s literary topography.
His most recent poetry books in English are The City and the Child, Dictionary of Silence and Without Anesthesia. Debeljak holds a Ph.D. in Social Thought from Syracuse University and is Chair of Cultural Studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. He has won the Slovenian National Book Award, the Miriam Lindberg Israel Poetry for Peace Prize (Tel Aviv), and the Chiqu Poetry Prize (Tokyo).
Publications in English include Reluctant Modernity: The Institution of Art and Its Historical Forms; and Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia. Founding member of the cultural magazine, Sarajevo Notebooks, and an advisory editor of American literary journal Verse, a contributing editor of scholarly journal, Cultural Sociology, and www.fastcapitalism.com, he is a recurring visiting professor at the graduate school, College d’Europe, Natolin-Warsaw, teaches cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana, and is a member of European Council on Foreign Relations (London-Berlin-Paris-Madrid-Sofia).
I’m a modern everyman. I make use of books to find for myself a dwelling place, if only a temporary one, within the pastiche of narratives and experiences, facts and fantasies.
I leaf through the books, do not drink and do not drive – I smoke and fly, through the tunnel under the city castle and over the main square, hovering for a second under the feet of monument to Valentin Vodnik, the first Slovenian poet that did not write only religious verse, I’m lingering under the old linden tree before darting through the unsuspecting flock of dust-covered sparrows, and disappearing among the arcades of cajoling shop windows.
For me, the geography of towns, harbors, streets, and squares overlaps with literary topography. The poems and novels I read are chapters in a story about a particular place with which any place can identify. The tension between the fearful anxiety and the thrilling exploration that propels me on my wanderings around my imagined city delineates the modern mentality in which inescapable loyalty to a home place challenges one’s need to freely choose identity.
I’m not an exception. I remain attached to my birth town. And to my armchair, my comfortable nest for my reading sessions. It stands in the living room of my family house. The house stands in Ljubljana in what was a workers’ colony before the World War Two.
Zvezna ulica or Union Street is a generous place for our family home. It’s a dead-end street, though. Perhaps that’s the reason why it can afford to be safe for kids at play, and amicable for neighbours to trade gossip over the low garden fences. It streches from the main cemetery to the railway tracks for Trieste-Budapest trains, and ends a stones-throw away from our house.
My street‘s name does not simply denote a generic union, a bond that ties together “more than one“ entity. Its primary meaning evokes Yugoslavia, the union that emerged out of the ashes of Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 and collapsed in the flames of Yugoslav federation in 1991-1999.
In Slovenia, an eager member of the European Union since 2004, political unions with others have long been a staple of collective life, even though Slovenians traditionally appeared as “junior partners“ at best. Its geographical location helps explain the fact that Slovenians never had an independent state. Nestled at the northwestern gulf of the Adriatic Sea, their lands appealed to a sucession of Western invaders as the easiest entry-point to the Mediteranean. The Slovenians‘ historical memory brings up the rule of Charlemagne, Habsburg Empire, Napoleon, Third Reich, Fascist Italy, royalist and communist incarnations of former Yugoslavia.
All the while, however, Slovenians maintained a collective sense of a specific ethnic identity, invariably articulated in resistance to comprehensive state-sponsored and violent politics of conversion. In 19th century, they were exposed to the unbridled apetites of rival European empires to the extent that prompted Fran Levstik, one of the founding fathers of modern Slovenian literature, to rally his people to the nationalist cause by unambigously pointing out the choice for Slovenians: either they’ll become „Russians or Prussians“. Unless, of course, they will manage to use their own language to produce ther own literature.
In doing so, Slovenians grew accustomed to treat literature and culture as a “second best“, as a substitute for the then-largely absent political institutions of their own. From this vantage point it is easy to see why is the establishment of Slovenian independence in 1991 celebrated as the fulfilment of the popular collective desire. However, the very status of independence paradoxically rendered obsolete the uses of shared communal experience, the experience of union.
Consider: the most popular slogan of political discourse in Slovenia before it joined EU was deceptively simple. It called for a “Return to Europe“. But what was hiding in plain sight was its ugly side which–in the eyes of both, the elites and the population at large–implied a “Retreat from the Balkans“.
It implied severing the ties between Slovenia and the other republics that used to share a common Yugoslav house. The slogan was based on the widely shared Slovenian assumptions about their legitimate historical connections to the West (Roman Empire, Charlemagne) and their supposedly forced cohabitation with the despised and feared Balkan lands (Yugoslavia). This leading trope of public debate has encouraged the manipulation of exclusionist sentiments that ultimately ended up equating Europe with unadultarated good and the Balkans with unfettered evil.
But I refuse to accept such equation. I lend instead my ear to poets and writers from across the field as I freely choose my home. I’m at home in books about Zagreb that strive to provide evidence for the ironic insight of the great Croatian bard, Miroslav Krleža, that Central Europe begins on the terrace of the town’s most illustrious Esplanade Hotel; I’m at home in Belgrade, whose head resides in cosmopolitan heights thanks to writers Danilo Kiš and David Albahari, while its legs are entrenched under the swinging lamp of a noisy and violent Balkan tavern!
And I’m at home, truly at home, in Sarajevo, defined by ineffable suffering but also with an ethical determination to continue to talk in many voices about the right of a person to have many identities, through the supreme works of art such as can only be born out of extreme circumstances, finding expression in the quivering elegies of Izet Sarajlić, the noble urban sentiment of Abdulah Sidran, or the broad-minded epics of Dževad Karahasan.
But I readily respond to the melancholic gaze of a deer that flashes by through the morphine-laden verses of Georg Trakl; I trace the vestiges of a personal drama in the wet flowers on the façades of bourgeois palaces under the slopes of Kapuzinerberg; and I am unmistakably, although temporarily, at home in Salzburg!
The book flutters its pages and old-fashioned raincoats fan out in an effort to protect the dry loneliness of night strollers passing by the craft shops of Alfama, the heart of old Lisbon; the portrait of Fernando Pessoa emerges from under the jutting roofs of the past colonial glory written in sea salt and pigeon droppings; the portrait of a poet who produced an eternal homage to his Lisbon using the voices of imaginary authors who sing various songs but share one soul. His Lisbon is my Lisbon!
The book spreads its tattooed pages and I’m embraced by the smell of sea-worn cliffs of the northern Adriatic; the tower of the Thurn und Taxis castle appears for a moment, a fleeting pulsation, and I slowly surrender to the recognition that I’m at home in Trieste; it is here that Rainer Maria Rilke wrote two of his dizzily inspiring Duino Elegies, and it is where I now find home, under the hills of the “gulf city” depicted in the books of Boris Pahor.
I’m at home in the nostalgic “chiusa tristezza” from Umberto Saba’s poem Three Streets; the steps of Nora Joyce rustle through the whiteness of the book while she paces around a rented apartment, one of a dozen she and her husband lived in fleeing from creditors; I can hear the argument of far-sighted Henrik Tuma, who as early as before World War I wanted to establish the first Slovenian university in cosmopolitan Trieste, the chief port of the Habsburg Empire, rather than in landlocked Ljubljana; although it is not visible to my eyes, I can nevertheless see Dragutin Kette’s sad promontory of San Carlo in Trieste, where the poet went to soothe the wounded heart and the needs of the swollen body; I imagine that I can understand the dialect of šavrinke, the peasant women traders from the Karst high plateau who together with the readers of Marjan Tomšič’s novels head daily towards the vegetable market in the harbor as they did during the distant times of the Habsburg monarchy; the inscription on Italo Svevo’s grave in St. Ana Cemetery tells me that he “smiles at evanescent life and glory which crowned his work late.” Roberto Bobi Bazlen, a publisher and a critic, despairingly reminds me from the desks of Biblioteca Civica that there is no other way to write modern books but as footnotes.
The poems of Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Venclova, and Eugenius Ališanka open for me the door to Wilna or Vilnius, the “city of ash” amidst Lithuanian forests that lives a secret life of another reality, one that has been sifted through the sieves of my literary memory. I suck in the smoke, leaf through the books of poems and stories, and fastidiously sip the verses and passages in which the creative talent succeeded in conjuring up the shared destiny of immigrants and refugees, nomads and displaced people, roaming the streets and courtyards of the town whose walls demarcate the ultimate frontiers of freedom.
To be at home in a place where the sky meets the earth is to make the experience real! To be at home in a place that offers the elementary, emotionally laden and full-blooded experience! To be at home in a place in which every thing has a name! To breathe the metropolitan air which ever since the Middle Ages has been inviting all the citizens of the urban republic to get rid of old communal ties! I myself would like to become a map of the city, a written page, a thin cobweb through which older and dimmer biographies and urban chronicles shine!
While I’m getting lost wandering along the boulevards of real megapolises and among the covers of borrowed books, I actually search for my imaginary city. Wherever I discover it, a provincial village easily emulates the dwelling of gods and becomes the capital of the world! More precisely: it is the capital of my world that, along with many other and different worlds of other and different readers, travels the orbits of the “Gutenberg galaxy.”
It is true that we, readers, are the citizens of various nation-states each with our own home address and hometown. Yet the moment we open a book and yield, in our unique ways, to the adventurous challenge, we take part in the same ritual. We assert that our place of residence is in the same community, in the republic of letters. It cannot be found in any world atlas; its borders are unstable and are passionately negotiated time and again. With every story read, with every verse quietly recounted, we renew our citizenship in the republic of letters. Many opportunities arise and dissolve within it, faces distorted by horror offer a hand to fantastic patterns of paradise, and every page read turns a new chapter in a reader’s biography.
We can all become citizens in this republic, without restrictions. The only condition required to obtain citizenship is a human capacity for empathy, that is, the capacity to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. No one’s human rights are curtailed in this republic, no one is discriminated against, sentenced, or erased from the register.
Moreover, no one in the republic of letters is forced to speak the language of the majority. The literary republic of letters speaks in one language. It is the language of translation. Literature is not what gets “lost in translation,” as Robert Frost famously exclaimed in defence of poetic singularity. As for me, I’d rather go along with the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet who said that the reading of poetry in translation resembles “a kiss through a veil.” I could not care less for the ascetic chastity that, fearing loss, remains innocent, while with my lips parted in expectation I leaf through the pages of books written in languages I haven’t learned. I take my hat off thankfully to translators, the exemplary citizens of the republic of letters, who continually make it possible to every reader, all of us, to be part of the story of a temporary community committed to the lost cause that represents our true home.
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