Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Drago Jančar's The Galley Slave

One of the best parts of traveling is getting to know writers and books that I might not discover otherwise. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I had been in Slovenia earlier this summer and how a few people had recommended Slovenian writer Drago Jančar to me. So I picked up his The Tree with No Name and was blown away by it.

I read several other Slovenian novels and other books in the Slovenian Series that Dalkey Archive has been doing. I enjoyed them but there is something about the voice and pre-occupation of Jančar that speaks to me. The Galley Slave tells the story of Johann Ot who in the late middle ages travels as a kind of spiritual renegade from village to village in the midst of a country-wide religious revival.

Suspicion is everywhere: villagers are suspicious of newcomers, the corrupt government is suspicious of any kind of underclass stoking revolution and uprising, and the criminal class is suspicious of the new religious temperature which sees witches and devils in every unknown action, face or mystery. Johann Ot's aim is merely to survive without being burned at the stake or being installed on one of the many torture devices he hears about.

Published in 1978 behind the Iron Curtain, many saw this as an allegorical portrait of life under the brutal Communist occupation (even if Yugoslavia, which Slovenia had been swallowed up by, had a more benign and less oppressive version compared with much of the Eastern Bloc and USSR). I think this simplifies the tale in a certain way and largely detracts from it: it may well have intended to be an  allegory but I found it alive in its portrayal of society in the Middle Ages where dogma had no basis in any kind of rational thought. And as is often the case in these kinds of tales (oddly, I kept thinking about Mad Men and how it portrayed the 60s and 70s), it attempts to tell us more about our own era than some time in the past we can never experience first-hand.

The novel starts out a bit slow and it takes a few dozen pages to really get into the story but once I was hooked, man, I raced through this book (read most of it this weekend). It's got long funny passages and moments when you have to stop and think for a while about how so much of what we worry about day to day is pointless since only the broad brushstrokes of life will be accessible at some distant point in the future. It made me wonder what people will think about life in early 21st century North America in 500 years and our religious devotion to scientific reason.

I have become a full-fledged Drago Jančar fan after this book. I still found The Tree With No Name more compelling (that one is set in WWII and in contemporary Ljubljana) but The Galley Slave was an excellent weekend read and when Jančar's latest is released in English in January, I'll definitely be adding that to my must-read list.

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