Aboard the “Ship of Fools” towards the South Island

Veronika Simoniti: Fugato. The Forms of Escape. Litera: Maribor 2019.

Week of the Festival: Ptuj, Slovenia

Veronika Simoniti is considered one of the most articulate, erudite and exciting voices among contemporary Slovenian authors. She has published two novels: Kameno seme (The Stone Seed, 2014), which was shortlisted for the best Slovenian novel Kresnik Award, and Ivana pred morjem (Ivana Before the Sea, 2019), which won the award this year. In addition, her oeuvre includes three collections of short stories: Zasukane Štorije (Twisted Stories, 2005), Hudičev jezik(The Devil's Tongue, 2011) and Fugato (2019), which was recently nominated for the Novo mesto Best Short Story Award.

Her short fiction mastery became apparent in the debut collection of short stories Zasukane Štorije, defining the contours of her unique poetics. Her protagonists are amphibians or even multiphibians of diverse and colourful multinational backgrounds, strangers to themselves and others. It is thus no coincidence that the stories symbolically take place in coastal areas such as Trieste or Istria or, as in Fugato, war zones such as Bosnia and Syria. The periphery is often staged at the sea itself — together with its (fateful) dynamism, unpredictability or shape-shifting ability — and aboard a vessel that is more or less successfully steered by man. This further stratifies and augments the protagonists’ tragic and even tragicomic features and destinies aboard the “ship of fools” known as life.

Conceptually, Fugato plays upon the varieties of the polyphonic musical form of the fugue, organically incorporating it into the theme and motif of the fabula and its language at a rhythmic and acoustic level. The Forms of Escape, as the author subtitled the collection, must be understood in its broadest connotative sense. The reader is first confronted with the deeply moving destinies of refugees and war victims such as a mother whose mantra is to “assemble”her son’s skeleton by collecting sixty percent of his bones, required to bury her “one-thousand-percent” son; or the little girl named Jara during a “typical” escape from Syria in a dinghy, whose fairytale-menacing fantasies about a predatory white tiger unveil the untold story of family violence and abuse. The stories also are about losing, looking for as well as finding and adopting identities, given that “a name is our identity’s vessel; we stand and fall with it”. In the Divertimentosection, the theme of an escape opens up and playfully unwinds through several dramaturgically skillful twists. An “escape” becomes a flight from other people and reality, a manipulation of “truth” and a retreat from confronting oneself and one’s own past, which, however, catches up with oneself again and again. The protagonists are eccentric in what they do or think, “non-conformist and marginal”. This applies to the nutty Czech film director František Čáp, a confused elderly Romanian translator of Western movies, a nerdy art historian who ends up in prison because of hoaxers or an English lepidopterist, trapped in a ditch, who retrospectively reflects on her romantic engagement with a deceased assistant from Damascus. The collection is a bundle of stories underscored by unexpected twists, craftily exploiting the Rashomon shifting of standpoints and “truths”. In Veronika Simoniti’s prose, the latter is always multidimensional and ineffable (this is a true story, and truth can never be told, whispers the mother to the dead son in the introductory story). The truth is imbued with individual and collective memories, fancies, yearnings, imagination, mythology and reflection.

In the three stories from the final Fugato patetico section, acting as an homage, the rhythm of the narrative slows down again, portraying the dead protagonists in a moving and emotional — yet never pathetic — manner. In the grand finale, however, the narrative speeds up one last time, collecting the thematic threads through the near-blind Greek translator, who arrives at a programmatic-visionary conclusion in the dangerous hull of a plane suspended between heaven and earth in the skies over Europe: “I feel pressure in my ears, we are slowly descending to Frankfurt airport, the fleeting crossroads of stories and existences. But my journey does not end here; my unusual itinerary requires me to return from the North to my Southern island and to some new labyrinths”.

Fugato is undoubtedly Veronika Simoniti’s most emotional and compassionate collection of short stories so far, which are also unified in terms of formal composition. Despite the deeply moving fates ending in death, Simoniti, with full responsibility and deeply rooted in humanism, ensures that the surviving protagonists cultivate and foster the Kovičhope that the “Southern island exists”.

Translated from Slovenian by Simon Zupan