The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar (trans. with afterword by Michael Biggins) Dalkey Archive Press. $14.95 274 pp.
At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik’s unwilling participation in a siege. Up to this point, we might be reading an Ismael Kadare novel, with the wartime setting, brisk description, and touches of leavening humor. Lipnik’s aggregation of ignorance and peculiarly anachronistic memories suggest to the reader from the very beginning that, despite his guileless manner, the protagonist is more complex than he seems.
Chapter 99 follows, then chapter 1, and we encounter Lipnik in post-Communist Slovenia, the spring of 2000. He watches an old bicycle being dredged from the Ljubljanica river. It emerges over the course of subsequent chapters that this Janez Lipnik is not a war veteran approaching 80 years in age but a younger man employed in a state archive. What is the relationship between this Lipnik and one we encountered earlier? Over the remaining chapters—ending, circularly, in chapter 86, Jančar delves into the precise nature of this relationship. The pieces align themselves and what at first seemed a typical Modernist device of disorientation becomes clearly a considered model of memory, both private and cultural.
In early 2000 archivist Lipnik is passed a folder sent back to the homeland by an Australian association of Slovenian émigrés. It contains a diary detailing the numerous sexual conquests of an unnamed Slovenian man, starting in Europe in the 1940s and continuing into old age. Despite Lipnik’s disdain (and palpable envy) at the extent of the writer’s activity, he becomes fascinated by an affair the man has in wartime Slovenia with a teacher called Zala. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with recovering the truth of the affair, his own marriage starts to deteriorate. His inability to broach a matter concerning a suspicion about his wife’s life before their marriage contrasts with his tenacity in researching the story of the lover and Zala and the possible relevance of a rusty bicycle retrieved from the silt. His timidity in personal matters seems to spur his persistence and his Bartleby-like obduracy in the office.
Post-Yugoslav Slovenia’s social and political situation is touched upon only obliquely, despite it being the setting for over half of the novel. Drago Jančar does not emphasise in his tale the Slovenian-Yugoslav War (in actuality, not a war but ten days of skirmishes) or the proximate Croatian-Yugoslav War, both of the 1990s, though the latter appears as an ominous background soundtrack to an island holiday. The focus is on the capricious and arbitrary violence of the Second World War.
Despite Lipnik’s frustrating traits—his irritability, unreasonableness, timidity, and anger—we retain sympathy for him. His temperament and job lead him to fixate on painful events which scar both people and the collective memory of his country. There is an obvious contrast between the useful work he does researching deeds and other documents to allow legal matters to be resolved and his circular, destructive obsessions regarding his family’s past and the folder of amorous memoirs.
Jančar’s skill is to weave together parallel histories into a memorable and comprehensible parable without overly guiding readers. His realism is more by way of psychological insight than narrative. Secondary characters—principally Zala and Marijana, Lipnik’s wife—feel lively if not exactly lifelike; for instance, it’s hard to picture the apparently contented marriage between Lipnik and Marijana. But that does not detract from the strength of the story. We understand Lipnik, Zala, and Marijana’s pain and confusion without any need for Jančar to assign blame or discuss motivation.
The book’s eponymous tree is an embodiment of memory both personal and collective, which gropes outward and spreads into air with twigs and leaves, yet also expanding in subterranean fashion into the soil below. It accretes new memory above and recovers previously hidden memories below. It is an apt symbol for the human propensity to dwell and brood on painful past events and connect them to events of today.
The urge to uncover stories which seem significant but which harm the knower is a problem both for individuals and for societies at large. Too often forgetting is portrayed as suppression or repression. Too frequently the healing process is delayed or retarded by a campaign—almost moral in nature—to recover a truth, a corrosive talisman to be borne close to the breast.
How far should a person go to discover stories that can only serve to cause him or her pain? How far does a society go in recovering its history before that recovery becomes just another means of nationalist myth-making and politicking? The prevalent tendency in Western culture to preserve every experience and validate grievances as badges of self-identity is prone to sustain division and resentment. The more traumatic the injury and the closer temporally it is to that society, the more damage that institutionalising of collective memory becomes. Could it be that the aim is not the ostensible one of “closure” but actually nurturing a sense of injustice and resentment? A nation’s semi-masochistic need to recall is absolutely congruent with traits we see in people we know in everyday life.
Although this novel was published in Jančar’s native Slovenian in 2008, it is only now translated into English. It includes an afterword outlining the importance of the 1945 campaign of imprisonment and extermination by Tito’s Communist regime, settling scores with enemies of the people (12,000 Slovenes among their number). Readers can themselves judge how significant this fact is to the narrative in the novel, where it is not explicitly referred to. I find that this parable of the sorrows of loss and the perils of remembrance stands without need of contextualisation. A timely work, it is likely to become more and more relevant over the coming years.
Alexander Adams is an art critic and poet, based in Berlin. His collection of poems and drawings The Crows of Berlin (2013) is published by Pig Ear Press.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Alexander Adams