Delightful Fruits of Goran Vojnović

First It Was Cracking Jokes and Digging Up Graves, But Then It Got Gravely Serious

If Slovenian literature did not have Goran Vojnović (born 1980), somebody would have to invent him. Just like any exceptional writer who appears in the literary milieu of a country (or even goes immediately global from scratch), Goran Vojnović was unfathomable before he “happened” in 2008, less than a decade ago. But he seems to be such a vital part of Slovenian literature by now, that probably nobody can recall what it looked like without him, what it read like. And it all goes to his only three prose titles, that have given the readers what every healthy literary environment needs, in order to preserve a good self-image, today perhaps more than ever – a contemporary author who is admired equally by critics and by readers of all social groups.

With the novel Čefurji raus! (Southern Scum Go Home!) from 2008, he rocked the ever-peaceful boat of the Slovenian cultural everyday, by addressing the more or less neglected theme of immigrants in Slovenia, specifically in Fužine, a Ljubljana self-proclaimed “ghetto” populated substantially by immigrants from southern republics of former Yugoslavia. It read as fresh for two reasons. First, he did not spare criticism and jokes at the expense of the dominating ethnic group (as well as ethnic minorities), which went against the romantic notion of Slovenian literature as a vehicle to deliver favorable national portraits. The second reson, a thought-provoking perspective of a troubled coming-of-age protagonist, was delivered to readers through a lively sociolect of the ethnic groups` mixture living in Fužine, proving two things: a) Slovenian language is a flexible substance, b) Slovenian literature doesn`t always have to brood about something significant, but can simply picture an image of urban life. Čefurji raus! brought Vojnović his first Kresnik Award, considered the most important national trophy for fiction.

Fastforward to 2012, when Vojnović published his second novel, Jugoslavija, moja dežela (Yugoslavia, My Fatherland), with which he won his second Kresnik Award and shook some of the few remaining skeptics about his literary genious. He took a big step forward by taking a step back in time and, most importantly, by taking a more intimate approach. The story follows the nostalgic footsteps of, this time, a fully-grown young protagonist (who does not have the name of the protagonist of Čefurji, but emotionally and culturally seems to be him, in perhaps a parallel life) trying to reestablish his believed-to-be-dead father, who went missing on the brink of Balkan wars in the 90s, and turns out to be a war criminal on the run. This time, the author does not revolutionize the language, nor does he swing in well-liked rhythms of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity. Instead, he opens a politically intriguing topic of war attrocities, while he narrates in a more traditional, psychologizing manner, and goes far deeper into an emotional landscape of characters asking questions of forgiveness and understanding of the diabolic human nature.

Here we are in 2017, right after Goran Vojnović won his third Kresnik Award for his third novel Figa (Fig), marking an unmatched success, compared only to two other great Slovenian contemporary writers, Drago Jančar and Andrej E. Skubic, who both hold three Kresnik prizes. But for that success, both had to write longer (and write at least a couple of unawarded novels, too). In Figa, he takes another step forward – if not a whole circle of steps. He widens his literary focus and eliminates the full-time central protagonist (although the central character undoubtedly proves to be Jadran, who reveals himself as a true storyteller of the family chronicle) by creating a circle of intertwined characters that constitute a family of three different generations, presented at various points throughout the last 60 years. The author roots the story deeply in the socialist everyday of then-Yugoslavia, later on in the years of Yugoslavia dissolving and, once more, in the present-day Slovenian reality. While in Figa the time focus widens significantly towards times passed, Vojnović`s geographical interest does not change one bit: Yugoslavia truly seems to be his fatherland, and Vojnović`s drive to tell the stories about it makes him one of the few young ex-Yugoslav authors to still write with a notion of common cultural heritage of the countries that constituted the “lost fatherland.” But any historical developments are not truly the novel`s topics, they are merely the background for the story focusing on the relations between the grandparents, parents and grandchildren.

The story that is sent into motion by Jadran`s suspicion that his grandfather`s death might have been a suicide is not simply a family-chronicle-typical confrontation of generations holding different world views in the quickly changing modern world. That might have been a dimension to Jugoslavija, moja dežela, while Figa is dedicated to a lot more virtuous a task: The dissection of all three relationships, from the inside out, which puts it on the shelf of great love tales. All of the three couples faced, or are facing, difficulties that are way beyond romantic trivialities. All are matters of true dedication, lasting emotion, honest companionship. All three relationships are connected through a motif of separation, almost an escape into the supposed freedom, thus asking the big question that literature has not cracked by now, but then who has cracked it: How do we balance our individuality with our love for another person? How do we gather the courage and responsibility for either being alone or being a part of a pair? As other critics have established already – regarding youth today assumingly having particular troubles conceiving relationships, let alone families: This makes Figa a distinctly zeitgeisty novel. I think it, in fact, makes Figa a thoroughly universal novel.

But topics have never before, alone, made a great novel, and this goes for Figa, too. One important aspect of the well-roundedness of the novel are credible, tenable characters generated by means of the author`s empathic kindness and almost affectionate, certainly good-natured humor, known already from the first two novels. This performance is further exploited by a non-linear montage that takes us back and forth in time continuously, and allows a gradual comprehension of the full scope of the tale. The wholesome complexity is, moreover, upgraded by a carefully-detailed narrative that, never over 400 pages, says a word too many – or too few. All the while, memory takes on a role of possibly the true protagonist of the novel: Through the dementia of grandmother Jana, it proves to be unfortunate and unreliable, but for Jadran it seems to be the ultimate saviour, a method of truly establishing himself in the time of personal strife. The novel proves the vital importance of our ability to remember, for without it, not only do our stories diminish, but we just might be nothing more than an expired meaty shell, if we somehow fail to regularly practice it.