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This report is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.Letter from Slovenia
It was with some surprise that I read a report in my local paper recently of a policeman's visit on peace-keeping duty to 'war-ravaged Slovenia', having just been to that country myself and found none of the mortared apartment blocks and seething ethnic hatreds the article described. The policeman, it dawned on me, had been to Croatian Slavonia - two easily mixed-up vowels away but, unlike Slovenia, one of the major theatres of the recent Yugoslav war. But to judge from the impassioned plea on the first page of my guidebook not to confuse the place with Slovakia, Slovenia is used to being mistaken for somewhere else. In last century alone, after all, the Italians, the Austro-Hungarians, the Germans and the Yugoslavs have all at various times mistaken it for part of their own countries. The danger these days for the newly-independent republic, spared the notoriety of other corners of former Yugoslavia, is that people may not know it is there at all. 'A cramped little state with no foreign policy, / Save to be thought inoffensive' - how many overnighters on the Venice to Budapest train have murmured these lines from Richard Wilbur's 'Shame' to themselves in their sleep, as they passed through Ljubljana? The shame is on them if they do, as I discovered for myself on a visit in late August as a guest of the 'Days of Poetry and Wine' festival.
The festival is to take place in Medana. Having failed to locate it on the map I assume it is on the outskirts of Ljubljana, the colourful pocket metropolis where we have been asked to congregate. In fact it is at the other end of the country, but given Slovenia's modest dimensions even the furthest-flung provinces are never too far from anywhere else, and a two and half hour bus journey brings us to the hilltop splendour of Medana on the Italian border. Roughly thirty poets from almost twenty nations have made the trip, and assemble in local winegrower Aleks Klinec's yard. Unfortunately, all three British poets due to attend have withdrawn; my joke about Lavinia 'Slovenia' Greenlaw will have to wait for some other occasion. To my delight though, I instantly recognize the name of German poet Norbert Hummelt as someone I published many years ago in a Dublin student magazine. My knowledge of younger Georgian, Estonian and Greek poets, however, means that other names in the handsomely produced festival anthology are less familiar. The energetic programme of readings, excursions and wine-tastings planned for the week ahead offers ample opportunity to fill in these lacunae in my literary atlas.
Also present is American poet Andrew Zawacki, with whom Irish poet Justin Quinn and myself begin to collaborate on a terza rima verse diary of our week; he promptly snookers me with the rhyme word 'Music' (Zoran Music, a local-born painter). An excellent local champagne comes to my aid in a tercet describing how I 'flush, itch' for some more on tasting it, then loiter with an empty glass doing what I call my '"thirsty lush" pitch' for some more. It is all I can do to restrain myself from lining him up with the Slovene for bumblebee, cmrlj, as the rhyme word for his return tercet.
The first evening reading brings us to the house of local poet Alojz Gradnik (1882-1967), no stranger to the pleasures of the Medana vintage himself to judge from his headily fin-de-siècle verse. The approach to the house has been lit with candles, while the poets are seated against a backdrop of flaming torches and stridulent cicadas; it certainly makes a change from upstairs in Waterstone's, I tell myself. Each poet's work is read in the original, and also Slovene and (where necessary) English translation. It is intriguing, over the week, to observe the different national styles of reading. Among the most impressive is that of Georgian poet Amiran Svimonishvili, if only for the fantastic array of uvulars and gutturals to which he treats us in his intensely elemental poems ('At your temples the bird will be bewildered with the sound of bells, / The hawk with slightly lifted wings will flash for a minute...'), all of which he recites by heart. The three Bosnians are all possessed of fine baritones, and although performance poets are thin on the ground Norbert Hummelt has brought along a sung CD version of his latest book. The two Swedes have a much more subdued delivery, while the Estonian is perhaps the most whispery of all. Not that a megaphone does much to increase your chances of being understood in Estonian in most parts of Europe, she tells me afterwards, Slovenia included.
Anglophones such as myself are frequently called on to read the translations. On one such occasion, genial Slovene poet Novica Novakovic informs me he has carefully matched his poems to their readers in English. I am charmed to discover he has chosen me for a poem about female admirers throwing their bras at an irresistible poet (not to mention a little relieved at avoiding the one about masturbation). By the following evening, however, his goodwill appears to have dried up when he effortlessly slaughters me at chess. Whatever about Novica, I have long since given up on the goodwill of the parish priest of the local church, directly across the road from our lodgings. An athletic display on the bells, lasting three or four minutes, propels me from sleep at six o'clock on my first morning in Medana, with a repeat performance every subsequent morning for the rest of the week. Could it be an exorcism of the previous night's pagan carousing? Despite the fact that these carillons continue at intervals all day, not once, even on Sunday morning, do I find the church open. It is a puzzle almost as mysterious as why the post office in nearby Dobrovo closes for its morning break at 9.30 am, by which time my Irish post office is still recovering from pulling up the shutters.
A highlight of the week is a visit to a war museum in Kobarid in the Julian Alps, site of one of the bloodiest mountain battles of the First World War, and well-known (as Caporetto) to readers of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. An official postcard bears the legend 'I'm healthy and we're OK' in a dozen languages; the genuine message, our guide informs us, was mostly written under the stamp. Italian occupation after World War One and the struggle against Mussolini, still sensitive subjects, are dealt with tactfully but firmly. The thought of what one might find in a comparable museum in the other former Yugoslav republics brings home all the more forcefully the political maturity of Slovenian democracy. Although visa problems with some poets prevent us crossing the Italian border, with Duino only a short drive from Medana, I am thrilled to learn that no less an Italian poet than Dante visited the Soca valley in the same region, where the imposing, high gully walls and amethystgreen water must have provided agreeable surroundings in which to work on the Commedia.
But there can be few places in Slovenia where the first-time visitor will be entirely disappointed. With the euphoria of 1989 having worn off in so many of the Central and Eastern European republics, some of them - Slovakia and Belarus - showing disturbing signs of a return to authoritarianism, Slovenia's buoyancy continues to impress. Its relative escape from the turmoil of the Yugoslav war remains an achievement to be proud of (66 people died in the ten-day secessionist war of 1991, before Belgrade called off its tanks; within six months the EC recognized Slovenia as a sovereign state). Living standards are high, but prices low, except - a big except - for books, which are shockingly expensive. The generosity of our hosts, also, is of an entirely different order from that encountered in most other literary festivals I know. Mispronouncing the Slovene for 'thanks', hvala, as havla over breakfast one day, Justin Quinn fears that our hosts will immediately set off for the next village in search of a basket of whatever havla is. They may well even have done so.
Slovenian writing, however, is undeniably less well-known in the Englishspeaking world than it should be. A recent issue of Verse (13.2-3) was dedicated to 'Younger Slovene Poets', including Alevs Debeljak, Uros Zupan and Medana festival organiser Ales Steger. France Preseren (1800-1849), featured on the 1000 Tolar note, is still the single most famous writer the country has produced, but other Slovenian writers of note are novelist Ivan Cankar, Edvard Kocbek, Dane Zajc and Tomas Salamun. Debeljak, who has lived in New York and has an impressive tally of publications for a poet still in his thirties, has also edited a useful anthology, The Imagination of Terra Incognita: Slovenian Writing 1945-1995 (New York: White Pine Press, 1997); a critical survey can be found in Joze Pogacnik's Twentieth Century Slovene Literature (Ljubljana, 1989).
But if Slovenia remains insufficiently known to the world at large, by the end of the week this plucky republic in the lap of Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia has won itself a healthy corps of new admirers. Climbing aboard the bus for Ljubljana on Sunday morning, addresses swapped with all concerned, I am laden down with poetry collections and literary magazines in a babel of European languages, a small percentage of which I can actually read. Still, I rationalize, the illustrations in the Swedish magazines are nice to look at. 'Whinnski'' (Wheatley/Quinn/Zawacki)'s terza rima poem stands at a proud 144 lines, matching the number of steps in a monument we visited in Smartno. I carefully pack away my bottle of 'Days of Poetry and Wine' dry white, on whose label Alex Klinec has printed the names of all the attending poets. As they say when raising a glass in Medana: Na zdrave!
This report is taken from PN Review 119, Volume 24 Number 3, January - February 1998.