It's another cloudy morning in Slovenia's capital, and here I sit in Ljubljana’s Opera Bar, waiting for a man considered to be one of his country’s literary greats. Alright, I admit it. I'm nervous and fully aware of the fact that my B.A. in English Literature does not, by any means, make me a journalist. The notebook in front of me contains a list of questions translated into Slovene, though my initial determination to carry out our little chat in his mother tongue (not mine) is beginning to feel less like a good idea, and more like agreeing to go for a stroll around a nuclear reactor in the midst of a full meltdown.
I have done my homework, though. Born in Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city, Jančar grew up in what was an industrial center of the then-Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Slovenia. As a student of law, he became the chief editor of the student journal, Katedra, but was forced to leave after publishing articles critical to the ruling regime. He then moved on to work as an assistant at Večer, the Maribor daily newspaper. In 1974, Jančar was arrested by the Yugoslav authorities for bringing a booklet entitled V Rogu ležimo pobiti (We Lie Slain in the Rog Forest) into Yugoslavia from Austria that offered a survivor’s account of the Kočevski Rog massacres of May 1945, carried out under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. For the crime of spreading hostile propaganda, Jančar was sentenced to a year's imprisonment; however, he only served three months.
Once released, he completed his mandatory military service in Serbia, and then moved to Ljubljana, where he came into contact with a number of influential intellectuals and artists critical of the establishment, such as Edvard Kocbek, Alenka Puhar and Boris Pahor. Soon after, he worked as a screenwriter, and eventually took up the position of secretary at the Slovenska matica publishing house (where he would eventually become an editor). Although his early career was riddled with censorship and criticism, the deaths of Tito and Kardelj at the end of the 1970s allowed for the relaxation of government restrictions, and provided Jančar with the opportunity to work as a screenwriter and playwright. His novels and short stories of the mid-1980s granted him some initial success as a writer, though his plays were well-recognized in all corners of Yugoslavia.
From here, Jančar’s work began to receive the international attention it deserved, leading to the translation of his work into 21 languages. His success has included receiving Slovenia’s most prestigious arts award, the Prešeren Award, in 1993 for his narratives, plays and essays, the Kresnik Award in 1999, 2001 and 2011 for best novel of the year (for Zvenenje v glavi or Ringing in the Head), Katarina, pav in jezuit (Katarina, the Peacock and the Jesuit), and To noč sem jo videl (That Night I Saw Her), the European Short Story Award in 1994, 2003’s Herder Prize for Literature, and 2011’s European Prize for Literature.
Fortunately for me, the man who approaches the table, warmly shakes my hand and orders and espresso, shows no sign of the pomp and praise affiliated with his name. In fact, he seems mildly surprised by my interest in his work. As we talk, I get the solid impression that I am speaking to a man who is most at home discussing what he does best. He draws inspiration for his novels from the most ordinary of places, such as his home in Slovenia’s Styria region (bordering Austria) and what he has experienced in life; naturally, not omitting the war and violence he witnessed firsthand all those years ago. “Without life experience,” he says, “it can’t be done.” I inquire briefly about his feelings on Slovenia gaining its independence in 1991. We agree that a lot has changed since then. “There was so much hope,” he said. “We dreamt of democracy and woke up in capitalism.” When I ask if that means he is disappointed with the direction the country has gone, he shrugs and adds that he certainly wouldn’t want to change it or go back, but admits that there is certainly room for improvement in many different areas.
Jančar knows that his literature can be demanding, as he often employs the use of complex and occasionally dark themes. One of his best known works, The Galley Slave (Galjot), deals with a variety of issues, all taking place in late medieval Europe during an outbreak of the plague. Here the reader encounters an individual struggling to survive in the cruel days of the inquisition, constantly on the run from the powers that be. The inquisition itself appears as a step away from religion, creating an atmosphere of horror in the name of “good” while also seeking out “foreigners” and anyone who strays beyond the confines of the norm, to blame them for a series of unfortunate events that has overrun the land. It is in work such as this that Jančar covers different points of the human timeline, through a myriad of characters who have either suffered or are suffering great injustices, forcing them to contemplate some of the bleaker tropes of human existence: Facing death, violence, prison, morality, and a wish for a freer humanity. It is in their joy and misery that the face of humanity is exposed – both for better and for worse.
Despite my best efforts, Mr. Jančar picks up the tab and, just like that, our time is up. Together we make our way towards the famous Nama department store and Slovenska Street. The gently sloping road ahead is one I know well, having walked it many times before. Boasting a statue of the country’s most prized poet, France Prešeren, I know from experience that Ljubljana’s main square will be glimmering modestly, even on a cloudy Monday morning. As we part ways, I find myself reflecting on the last half hour, as I wait for my bus amongst the legions of the only-slightly-sleepy. Before most have even started their days, I have had the honor of meeting with a man humble enough to be happy that his books are read, and a man wise enough to know the power that mere paper contains. That, I can most certainly say, is the definition of a good morning.