Saturday 15 July 2017

Panorama by Dušan Šarotar   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Can peace be attained only in exile? If so, how many layers of exile are necessary to gain sufficient remove from harm? This novel begins with the Slovenian narrator (we might be forgiven, at least at first, for conflating him with the author) in the furthest west of Ireland, in other words at the furthest west of Europe. His guide is Gjini, a fellow Balkan who has lived in Ireland for 11 years, long enough for his foreignness to have been well established (all information about locations in the book, other than the immediately observable, is provided by foreigners to those locations, all knowledge is at a remove). Protected from others by a seemingly impenetrable cultural membrane, the two travel to one location after another in the rain and mud. Everything, even the descriptions themselves, has a soddenness, a heaviness, a peatiness about it, in which old forms are rotted and reduced to traces. The locations are described with great particularity and in great detail, but the people with generality, or indeed plurality, which bestows upon them a ghostly quality. Each location seems populated by the memories of the people who have lived there and who far outnumber the living. Sparsely populated places are thronged with cumulative ghosts, as if reinscribing their residues in a Sebaldean project to rescue those erased by the passage of time, but actually, it seems, doing the opposite, erasing their particularity through repetition in much the same way that memory and the memory of that memory (and so forth) anaesthetises us to the original experience (is this the reason for all literature and art: the replacement of the unassimilable actual by the assimilable ersatz?). Throughout the book, primacy is given to representation over the actual. A view is remarked upon as looking very like a picture of it on the wall, and all information is nested within multiple narratorial shells: the narrator tells us what Gjini tells us that his lost American friend Jane has told him that her mother told her about what had happened such-and-such place, and so forth. Later in the book, as it becomes more obvious that we are reading a novel rather than a memoir, these narratorial shells move from being spoken to being written (for example, the narrator tells (i.e. writes (this is a book)) about receiving a letter from Gjini which relates what Gjini has read in Jane’s journals about such-and-such). The closer to the narrative surface the characters are, the more displaced they are, both in place and in time. This is frequently a displacement of migration and exile, entailing a loss of past, of nationality, of identity, of motivity. It is only once we have reached the third degree of narrative distancing, Jane, that we encounter someone who seems capable of initiating even the slightest action. It is the act of leaving that changes people, that both protects and disempowers them, rather than anything that might happen to them after they leave. A person leaves and thereby changes, leaving only the memory of them describing their memory of something else. Many shells of memory stand in for the actual, acting as a baffle, but what is the unspoken trauma at the back of this novel? The book moves eastward, first to Belgium, where we learn (from Gjini from Jane) about an order of Belgian nuns who moved their convent to westernmost Ireland after the traumas of the first world war. The novel traces a sort of lymphatic route through Europe, gradually and hesitatingly and indirectly reaching back towards the narrator’s home ‘zone’ of the Balkans and the inhumanities suffered there in the Balkans War, the unfaceable reasons, perhaps, for the narrator’s exile. The novel invites comparisons with those of W.G. Sebald in its straddling of the trench between memoir and fiction and in its scatterings of photographs (by the author). Are these images illustrative of the text or stimulants of it? Once thought of, I could not escape the (probably unreasonable) suspicion that the entire text was constructed around a series of images, that the images themselves may be the only points in the novel that touch the ‘actual’. The writing style is also reminiscent of Sebald, with its somewhat old-fashioned style, with its passive verbs, with its too many adjectives subtracting from the impact of the nouns, leaving the nouns as mere adjuncts to their properties.

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