In the Octopus’ Garden

A Review of Absolution by Aleš Šteger

/ by Nadira Deanne Karim

Aleš Šteger is heralded as a very gifted poet and writer: Among other prizes and honors, his English translation of Knjiga reči (The Book of Things, BOA Editions, 2010) won two major U.S. translation awards (BTBA Award and AATSEL). Šteger has also achieved recognition as a translator, a co-founder of a publishing house (full disclosure: That publishing house is responsible for the funding for this magazine, although Šteger is not involved in the editorial process), and he was the initiator and program director of the international poetry festival, Days of Poetry and Wine, and as an editor of the Koda theory imprint. His most recent fantasy-thriller and satirical novel, Absolution, is lightly dusted with his poetry, carefully strewn between dialogue and a twisted plot.

Šteger starts off by implying a dramatic theater-like performance at the very opening, laying out numerous thought-provoking questions, as if to dare the readers, or at least invite them to actively participate in finding out the answers:

“But what inspires their belief? Who assigns them their unique role? Who whispers those thoughts into their ears? Dangerous thoughts that always strike at a specific place and time? We don’t know, but does it matter? Would knowing change anything at all? Isn’t it just the thickly woven, brocaded stage curtains, the weight of the fog that falls through the dusk, the moisture, the cold that matters? Silence. Darkness. The stage curtains open, and all we see is a man.”

With a stage set and the curtains opened, the novel introduces the protagonists, Adam Bely and Rosa Portero. Bely, along with his beautiful Cuban-Austrian sidekick, journeys into the tracking down of prominent residents of Maribor, Slovenia’s second-largest city, under the pretense of collecting interviews for an Austrian radio special about the Maribor in 2012, when it was the “European Center of Culture.” Bely, an estranged resident of Maribor, returns to the city, his memories filled with the lackluster, certain that there were few changes in the past sixteen years.

“Nothing, nothing at all has changed. He hadn’t been in the city in sixteen years, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he already knew all the news. Like the repertoire of some provincial theatre with largely predictable, only slightly varying dramatic plots, just performed by a new cast.”

Šteger’s novel is littered with many criticisms of Slovenia, and he almost deliberately goes to the heart of many of the concerns that are echoed by his Slovenian peers, such as the exploits of the pharmaceutical industry. The city of Maribor does not go unscathed and is mentioned many times under a grim light. Šteger is candid in his views and is adamant about letting it be heard through the words of his characters.

“Maribor is a truly unique city in this sense. There’s no other city anywhere that is as narrow minded as this one. And that’s not a coincidence, just as it’s no coincidence that we’re here, you and me, today, in this moment. Coming here means entering the pyramid of mud. Its guards will bury you alive, and you won’t even realize it. Instead of burying you in sand like an Egyptian pharaoh, they’ll bury you in useless stories and intrigues. The spirits of the past will bury you, and not for the sake of some local folklore.”

It is Carnival time in the city, and the novel offers more than a nod towards Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The revelers interrupt the protagonists during their quest intermittently, and the reader is left to wonder if the masks worn by the Carnival revelers seem to reflect the false façade of the city of Maribor, as it strives for idealism.

“The crowds gradually disperse. The magical sight of the city across the river appears to float almost within reach. The breaking light from under the street-lights, the snow-lit darkness, give birth to a new city, a stage illusion, a city behind a city. The Maribor before him in the lead actor in a piece that has yet to be written by its participants, their fantasies, fear, reactions to things that don’t exist. Or to things that exist as mere consequence never as a script written in advance, a plan or reality.”

Bely and Rosa goes into a convoluted search for much more than just stories about the city and its inhabitants. They embark upon an adventure in hopes of unveiling the “Great Orc,” with the purpose of absolving a network of thirteen anonymous members who are the guardians of secrets, and who control the city, which was formed by the soul left by Xenu, a galactic leader, in a satirical spin on the beliefs of Scientology.

“Usually were associate guilt with religion. We’re guilty because of Christianity, socialization, society. But that’s just scratching the surface. What’s essential is that, deep inside, we’re marked by a distant echo of Xenu’s crimes, a memory eradication in should, their disorientation and repetitive history as a result. The Romans, Attila, Napoleon, Hitler, Tito. Only darkness, with a blood-drawn across in the centre: a cross of bloody guilty and dark oblivion.”

No stone is left unturned by Šteger, as he aims to mock the endemic, neoliberalism, religion and pseudo-religions. He dares to elaborate on Scientology, wielding vivid imagery to convey his almost supernatural take on such topics. The novel is filled with haunting images and proves to be a journey into the heart of darkness befalling Europe. Absolution is certainly a one-of-a-kind literary piece, a great read that is engrossing and that stretches the reader’s imagination to its limits. In the words of Agata Tomažič of Pogledi Review of Culture, you simply have to surrender to this book.

Nadira Deanne Karim

is a student of the University of London, Goldsmiths, where she studies English and began writing and illustrating her own Children´s books. After many years of making a living doing a wide range of corporate jobs including banking and procurement, she has settled into a fulfilling career as a full time ESL teacher to a bunch of energetic and lovable kids. She now lives in Slovenia and is happily working on her career as a fiction and short story writer.