Newcomers by Lojze Kovačič (tr. Michael Biggins). Archipelago Books. $18.00, 250pp.
Childhood is idealized as a state of innocence that is sheltered from the sobering truths of experience. Moments of unhappiness exist in this refuge, but they are simple, passing concerns. We know that the reality is different: calamities of the adult world often disrupt the sanguine lives of children. In the first volume of Lojze Kovačič’s autobiographical trilogy Newcomers—translated by Michael Biggins—such threats emerge as a tribalist Europe consumed by hatred and fear. They break the spell of normalcy that had deceived its young narrator, and they expel him into an uncertain future.
The narrator, Alojz (also referred to as Bubi), represents the viewpoint of the author in 1938 as he reflects on the abrupt end to the happier years of his Swiss childhood and the painful years in his adopted Slovenia. Kovačič wrote the trilogy in the 1980s, from the distant perspective of a middle-aged man. By then he was a prize-winning novelist in what was then Yugoslavia, an adept stylist in the Slovenian he once struggled to master. His late success seems all the more triumphant when confronted with the traumatic events of his youth.
The act of leaving one’s home figures prominently in Kovačič’s story. Alojz’s father Vati is a Slovenian furrier who in 1910 had immigrated to Switzerland with his Saarland-born German wife. During a span of thirty years Vati establishes a thriving business in Basel, only to later fall into debt. With Europe on the brink of World War II, the Swiss government takes an intolerant stance toward non-nationals, and the parents are escorted by the police out of the country. With them are the 10-year-old Alojz, and Gisela, the illegitimate child of their daughter, Clairi. Although they plan to stay with Vati’s family in rural Slovenia, the life that follows is a rootless existence defined by poverty and hunger.
“That’s how we left Basel,” begins Newcomers, the Kovačičs already having departed Switzerland. The significance of their departure is at first not apparent to Alojz, who shows no anxiety over the long-term consequences of his family’s expulsion. Yet it will become ominous by the volume’s conclusion. Alojz will suffer, and his parents and acquaintances in his new country will not succeed in restoring the life he has lost. The result is a haunting account of the harmful effects of adult behavior on the impressionable minds of children.
Kovačič’s prose style—long paragraphs interspersed with ellipses—creates a restrained tempo in which Alojz’s immediate surroundings are constructed through each successive word or phrase. The spaces between thoughts permit a brief window for a new perception to register in his consciousness. In the raw state of inexperience, Kovačič suggests, the unknown can only gradually become familiar.
The point of view that this technique evokes, that of a child’s gaze fixated on the present and future, contrasts with the retrospective focus of other significant European novels that deal with the theme of exile, such as Sebald’s Austerlitz and The Emigrants and Ugrešić’s The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. In these works, accounts of childhood events, told many years later from an adult perspective, rely on the insight afforded by memory and time. Alojz’s observations, in comparison, are often initial reactions, unfiltered by the reflective capabilities of a mature mind.
The merits of this stylistic approach are evident during Alojz’s “first proper train trip,” where the prose adjusts to his shifting focus. His journey is depicted as an extension of the only childhood he has ever known. It is an ideal state of happiness that, when compared with later scenes, emphasizes the severity of his plight in exile. Here we share in his thoughts of discovery and boundless optimism as he observes Basel’s urban landmarks and the surrounding countryside:
Up ahead, beyond the buildings and trees that were flying back into Basel like drizzle. . . . on the far side of the clouds and the arrogant mountain that kept retreating ahead of us, no matter how much the train tried to reach it. . . . on the far side of some mountain slope I was going to encounter all kinds of things that were appropriate for my age. . . . whether those were toys or buildings, animals or people, cars or airplanes.
The sequence of ellipses within this sentence enables the reader to view the reactive nature of Alojz’s thoughts within the flow of the narrative. We can see that the future in his mind’s eye will not lack in novelty. Yet this effect will also heighten the impact of Alojz’s disappointment when his new experiences in Slovenia do not adapt to his desires or fall within his imaginative reach.
Alojz’s range of attitudes throughout his stay in the village are that of a child forced into unfamiliar and bewildering circumstances. Here, in a jarring first encounter with an oppressive society, Kovačič shatters Alojz’s initially romantic view of farmers and agrarian life and the promise of a “real exotic landscape.” The boy’s anticipation for new adventures (“There was so much I was going to experience here!”) and naiveté regarding his relatives’ contempt for outsiders (“these cousins and uncles of mine must be good people”) characterize the prose at first, but then give way to exasperation when the new arrivals are treated as burdensome strangers: “This was the life I experienced. . . . its raw, exposed nerve. . . . There was no one [to help] in sight.” Through this emotional turmoil, Kovačič renders Alojz unrecognizable when compared to the optimistic child that leaves Basel.
Kovačič’s Slovenia is a country where meaningful relationships are infrequent and short-lived. This is most striking when the family follows Vati to Ljubljana, where he had relocated earlier to work in a clothing factory. In the city, Alojz’s interactions with other human beings are transient and do not alter his fundamental state of loneliness; he mills around with barracks soldiers and indifferent neighborhood kids, often out of desperation.
Whereas the difficulty to make friends in rural Slovenia was caused by antipathy toward outsiders, the reasons in Ljubljana are multiple. Most notable is the unstable nature of urban life, where the poor frequently change their residence and occupation. Kovačič’s writing stands out in its sensitivity to the sorrows of urban poverty in relation to children—its shame and alienation—and their obstruction of the displaced from any pathways to inclusion. He draws attention to this social reality in an episode where Vati takes on a young girl as a furrier apprentice. Alojz states: “I liked her tremendously and I also felt sorry for her. I knew that once Vati had taught her to sew, he wouldn’t be able to employ her, because he didn’t have a cent to his name to pay her with.” In a week’s time she no longer shows up. “Once again my burden pressed down on me” he despairs, “but with added weight.” Kovačič highlights how these economic conditions snuffed out a week’s respite of happiness for his protagonist. In doing so, we are left to consider the frequency of auspicious encounters that end as soon as they start, that Alojz’s disappointment may reflect the misfortune of countless others in the city.
Language is also an important theme, and Kovačič is a shrewd observer of its role in Alojz’s situation. On the train from Basel, where Alojz regards the language with the same curiosity he applies to the landscape, he refers to it innocently as the “semi-audible sounds” someone “might make while eating and drinking.” Yet later, in the village, Kovačič hints at the troubles to come with thoughts that drift from one to the next, from fantasy to disillusionment: “Language, one that you don’t understand, can be pleasant now and then. . . . It’s like a kind of fog in your head. . . . It’s nice, there’s truly nothing better. . . . It’s wonderful when words haven’t yet separated from dreams. . . . But not always . . .” In both Ljubljana and Vati’s hometown, Slovenian ceases to evoke the world of dreams and becomes just as disheartening as the rest of this new country, particularly since Alojz’s failure to develop more than a crude understanding of Slovenian estranges him from his peers.
The tableau of Slovenia that emerges is that of a parochial society, one that lacks in empathy or a strong sense of community. Yet within its historical context, this damning portrayal is inseparable from the isolationist mood of 1930s Europe. Reports on Nazi acts of aggression in the volume’s second half remind the reader that the breakdown in the country’s social fabric is also the symptom of a broader international crisis.
The first volume of Newcomers attests to the sum of these disruptive forces and deserves recognition alongside the work of Sebald and Ugrešić in its sophisticated treatment of exile and displacement. Yet it also stands on its own in Kovačič’s masterful reconstruction of a former self—a child’s consciousness. The plot may restrict the setting to a Slovenia decades past, but to Alojz and the reader, it is a dangerous, yet strangely vital world, imposing its bleak and unjust order on all witnesses.
Tyler Langendorfer is a writer and translator. A former editorial assistant with the London-based New Books in German, he now lives in Brooklyn.
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