40 years of the history of borders in the life of the writer Drago JanÄar, who doesn’t believe in multiculturalism but DOES believe in culture “because by definition men of culture are curious, open and given to accepting the culture of others without renouncing their own”
Drago JanÄar was born in 1948 in Maribor, where he studied law and worked as a journalist (1971-1974). This was followed by a period as a freelance writer (1974-1978), and a dramaturge at â€Viba Filmâ€ in Ljubljana. Since 1980, he has been the secretary and editor-in-chief of the ‘Slovenska matica’ publishing house. He has been awarded American, Austrian and British scholarships. Novels and short stories have been published in numerous languages. He often gives readings and lectures in prominent cultural centres around the world. He has won a number of awards, including the PreÅ¡eren Award (the highest Slovene recognition for achievements in culture), the European award for short fiction, the Herder Prize, and the Jean AmÃ©ry Award for essay writing at the last yearâ€™s Frankfurt Book Fair.
Q You were born in Maribor, a town lying along the Drava river, halfway between Vienna and the Adriatic. For 30 years, you have been living in Ljubljana, but you are still attached to Maribor and you often find yourself travelling to Triest where your recent books have earned you a warm welcome.
How do the landscape and your mood change on your way to Triest?
A I get very excited when I come to Triest and see my novel ‘Northern Lights’ or ‘Ringing in My Head’ or the collection of short stories ‘Joyceâ€™s Pupil’ in bookshops. Now I feel more at home in Triest than before. Itâ€™s not that Triest didnâ€™t feel like home before – since the 1970s, this diagonal between Maribor and Triest, the old Central European route Vienna-Triest, has served as a link to a more open world. At the end of this road was a geographically open space, as well as a city characterized by cultural and political openness. At that time, I often met with Boris Pahor who wasnâ€™t as famous as today. Later I realised, and I hope that the inhabitants of Triest wonâ€™t find themselves offended, that Triest, too, had its provincial dimensions manifested not only in its aversion to Slovenes and other foreigners, but also in the fact that its cultural vibrancy was not as strong as that of Ljubljana. Despite this recognition of Triestâ€™s darker sides, I still remember the journeys from Maribor through Ljubljana, the centre where I became recognised as a writer, to Triest a sort of cross-section of life that then extends itself to many other European and American cities.
Q You have mentioned the Central European area. Is this not only a ‘meteorological phenomenon’ as it used to be called in the past?
A Central Europe (Mitteleuropa) is no longer such an interesting notion as it was in the time when it was promoted by Claudio Magris, GyÃ¶rgy KonrÃ¡d and other intellectuals, as well as people living behind the so-called Iron Curtain. Yugoslavia wasnâ€™t situated behind the real Iron Curtain: in the mid-1960s, we were allowed to travel beyond its borders with our passports if they had not been taken away – as mine was – and so we lived in a fairly open world. The discussion on Central Europe and on how to transcend borders was an attempt to overcome the wire barriers between Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Austria, mine fields and guards. There existed a farily closed world, and the discussion on Central Europe was an attempt to open the borders and space in order to get an area where cultures could function more freely and where – and now we come to meteorology and to something Iâ€™ve written elsewhere – people and ideas could move round the globe as the clouds float across the sky.
Q And so weâ€™ve come to mobility. Now we are part of Europe, which is more important than Central Europe, as well as of a globalised world. Does mobility stand for rapid changes in the environment and the adaptation to new cultural patterns?
A Central Europe is not only a phenomenon from a certain historical moment, that is the 1980s, or a cultural phenomenon and a goal we had. It is first and foremost a geographical and historical notion. We share our history. We saw conflicts, as well as periods of good co-operation. We lived in the same countries, but then the borders started changing. I believe that Central Europe still exists. People who witnessed all these drastic historic shifts and changes in borders lived differently to people elsewhere. This part of Europe is different, just as Mediterranean Europe differs from Northern Europe. The issues of globalisation, rapid changes and so on have strengthened my belief that first we have to show interest in our local characteristics and only then in establishing ties between large regional and national entities. At the same time, we also have to cherish memories of excellent things and catastrophes that this area has witnessed, which makes it interesting, original and special.
Q You are an advocate of storytelling, of stories that we give to one another, with the aim of getting to know one another better. Here’s an example: your short story ‘Joyceâ€™s Pupil’, which has given the title to your entire book of short fiction, talks about Boris Furlan from Triest.
A Precisely this story about Boris Furlan, Joyceâ€™s pupil, talks about the continual change of cultures and places he underwent: he moved from Ljubljana to Triest, ZÃ¼rich, and London, to return to Ljubljana, find himself in prison, and then moved to a village in the Gorenjska region. Furlan saw different ideological systems and states, he experienced Fascism, cherished hopes in Communism only to be disappointed â€¦ He travelled around and experienced changes as only a few Europeans did. The writer often finds himself in the role of such an observer.
Q There is no end to conflicts. Why is it so difficult to foster dialogue between people, even between neighbours, why does xenophobia keep resurrecting itself in new forms?
A Neighbours are not strangers to one another. I spent half of my life in the vicinity of the Slovene-Austrian border where people used to live in harmony, share the same stories, fight together against the Turks, drought and grasshoppers, convene sessions in the town hall â€¦ And then the divisions began. We were divided by culture, however paradoxical this may sound. Slovenes were justified in raising the issue of the rights of the Slovene language, in turning to our brothers in Prague or even in faraway Moscow. And so we grew apart, only to find ourselves in the 20th century that brought us national and ideological conflicts and new states. If misunderstandings still arise, they are caused by the past, by deep frustrations on both sides of the border. They thrive in Istria, Primorska and Triest, as well as in northern part of Slovenia, in Maribor. Everywhere there are memories of the things that happened before, during and after war. Some people believe that these misunderstandings, which generate new conflicts and problems in communication, can be solved by forgetting the past and focusing on the future. On the contrary, we have to be familiar with these things, with all the tragic events, from the Trieste trials against the Slovenes to the killing of the foibe that happened after WWII. This will make our dialogue easier. Greater curiosity and openness are the preconditions for better understanding. Iâ€™d dare to say that they are more often found on the Slovene side. We are familiar with Italian history and culture, which is logical as theirs is an ancient culture, while Italians living along the border are not familiar with Slovene culture. Things have been getting better lately. To know the past, culture and interests of your neighbours is a fundamental thing.
Q Which most probably applies to new immigrants as well.
A In principle, this is the same story, yet we are afraid to face it as it is somehow material in nature. An increasing number of immigrants means increased pressure on public services. People who have lived here for long time and have paid taxes find it difficult to accept that. I would say that it will be easier to overcome cultural differences. Other issues will have to be solved by politics: how to integrate immigrants into society, how to ensure them access to public services without making the local population furious or bad-tempered.
Q You believe in intercultural dialogue, which is now on the agenda of European politicians. All of a sudden, culture matters.
A Brussels bureaucracy is often obsessed with a certain topic, at the moment its intercultural dialogue. Yet this is not a new topic. The idea emerged at least 15 or 20 years ago under the term ‘multiculturalism’. In my opinion, we donâ€™t need multiculturalism or intercultural dialogue. What we need is culture since cultural people are, by definition, curious and open, and accept another culture without renouncing their own. By saying intercultural dialogue, we imply that there are two very different cultures, which might be indeed the case, but by saying so, we have addressed the subject from two separate sides. Cultural dialogue or dialogue on culture would be a better way of putting it.
Q When writing about European soul, you refer to Jacques Delors … What kind of soul does Europe need?
A I quoted a passage in which Delors referred above all to culture. If it wants to become a living organism, Europe cannot only be a sum of interests, which it still is. New states that have joined Europe with enthusiasm, including Slovenia, are well aware that Europe is interested in new markets, and would like to enter that market and partake in progress and welfare. This is a good basis, which functions well, but it is not an organism that would survive major friction. Such a Europe can fall apart. The soul of Europe is culture, into which we should integrate its tradition. The latter encompasses Christianity, which was the first to establish Europe as a united area, the Enlightenment, which placed man, the citizen at its centre, as well as the achievements of the French Revolution, and even uncontaminated socialist achievements such as the welfare state and solidarity. All these elements make the history of Europe, its soul, which is, of course, also reflected in modern philosophical and artistic phenomena.
Q You claim that literature plays an important role in the sphere of culture. However, globalization has many side effects, from the spread of instant culture to reverence for internet and multimedia communicationâ€¦ How can literature compete with them?
A In my opinion, it no longer can and this battle has been lost. Literature will most probably survive in more elite circles. I canâ€™t imagine that literature with its abundance of stories, metaphors and associations would not survive, as it meets the needs of our deeper being, just like religion or certain social activities. Literature will no longer be the phenomenon that would change the world or had an impact on it as it did in the 20th century.
Q Do you believe that writing is a mission? How can a writer be socially engaged – you yourself differentiate between fiction writing and writing for newspapers or magazines – how can a writer make himself useful?
A I think it is enough to write stories or poems to be a useful person. Oscar Wilde once said that art is the most useless thing in the world. But paradoxically, he claims that without art people would lead more miserable lives. Without some form of art, they would not live at all. Thatâ€™s why literature matters. It cannot replace sermons or social solutions, what it can do is to help man understand himself, the world, other stories with which he can juxtapose his own experience and the wealth of language. Thereâ€™s no need to be a socially engaged writer. I am one because thatâ€™s my way of responding to things.
Q How do you view translation? On what does it depend?
A It will never be possible to translate everything into all languages. Well, technically yes, but whoâ€™d be interested in that? The pressure of minor Central European nations to win recognition has its limits. We canâ€™t expect that everyone knows all Slovene literature, just like we donâ€™t know the literature of others. Of course, we have to strive to have as mush translated as possible. People are getting more curious. However, once the Slovene presidency to the EU is over, the increased interest in Slovenia will return to normal.
Q What is the descriptive desire that you mention in ‘Joyceâ€™s Pupil’ when Boris Furlan cannot describe a lamp owing to language problems? What does it stand for in your writing?
A This is a very important question. All at once, I realised that this is the motto of my writing, this wish to describe things, to label them with words; the lamp, relations between two people, the connection of love, social questions, nature. All at once, I became aware that the ‘descriptive desire’, as Furlan puts it, can be also found in my desire to write. In the story, Joyce tells his pupil to describe an oil lamp. Furlans says that he feels emptiness in his head, which turns into the central metaphor of the short story, as he will feel that same emptiness when sentenced to death at his trial in Ljubljana. This is a metaphor for the mystery of literature. Words, passionate descriptions, theyâ€™re all stronger than the acts of saving the world even if writers can be socially engaged. Literature is stronger. Joyce left Triest because of WWI; according to Furlan, he got scared, while Furlan, a Slovene from Triest and an advocate of liberal values, stood up to Fascism, was sentenced, escaped to Ljubljana, came into conflict with Communism and was sentenced as an English spyâ€¦ The emptiness in his head is the emptiness arising from saving the world. There was something he didnâ€™t understand. He was sure Joyce was a weirdo because of his descriptive desire. These are two principles that I leave open: setting the world to rights and describing it. x