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Aleš Šteger: Odpusti (Absolution)

Were Aleš Šteger to be seeking employment, it would probably not be a good idea for him to apply to the Maribor Tourist Office or, indeed, any position in Maribor. In short, this book is one of the most damning criticisms of an individual city and its inhabitants that I have read for a long time. Šteger is from Ptuj, some twenty kilometres South-East of Maribor, so I am guessing there is some rivalry between the two towns. Fortunately, Šteger seems to be an equal opportunity critic so Maribor and its inhabitants are not the only victims. Religion, Scientology, dietary supplements, neoliberalism and post-communist corruption in the countries of the former Yugoslavia are just some of the other things he attacks and mocks.

Our (dubious) heroes are Adam Bely and Rosa Portero. His name might be key. Adam was, of course, the first man, and Bely means white so the self-appointed saint Adam Bely might be appropriately named. He is originally from Maribor, where he was involved in local theatre, but fled the city in disgust and has been in Austria the past sixteen years. Rosa Portero (portero can mean goalkeeper or caretaker – what, in the US, is often called super – all of which is probably irrelevant) is originally from Cuba but is now Austrian and works for Austrian radio as a reporter. They are nominally in Maribor as the city has been named European Capital of Culture for 2012, and they are reporting on this for Austrian radio.

However, their real reason for being there is somewhat more complicated. They are out to destroy the Great Orc. Adam had become a scientologist and, for a long time, bought into the scientologist doctrine and still seems to believe in the Xenu story, whereby Xenu, head of a galactic federation, brought billions of his people to Earth and then killed them with hydrogen bombs. However, their souls still remain and inhabit us and cause us harm. Bely and Portero are in Maribor because the Great Orc, a group which controls Maribor, consists of these souls and it is their job to give absolution to them, thereby destroying their nefarious influence.

The Great Orc is likened both to an octopus, with its tentacles spreading over the city but also to a computer network, like the Internet, whereby removing any one member (or more) from the network does not really do it much harm, not least because it can be replaced without disrupting the network. Moreover, no member of the Orc knows all the others. Accordingly, a good part of the plot is the detective work the couple use to track down the thirteen members.

They use various methods but, primarily, they have an E-meter which is what we would call a lie detector as well as hypnotism and various drugs, in particular some oyster crackers, which give the victim absolution but seem to end up driving them mad or even killing them. Some of the members of the Orc are people Bely knew or knew of when he lived there.

The book is therefore part whodunnit. We also follow the relationship between Bely and Portero (complicated) as well as his former girlfriend. However, Šteger’s main thrust is damning of Maribor, its people and indeed the political system of the former Yugoslavia and Slovenia. The list of negative comments about the city is large. The Frankfurt Allgemeine called it a miserable city. A businessman calls the area a Lower Austrian Zimbabwe. One of Bely’s old friends says This is the European capital of nepotism and neoliberal manure not of culture. Another one says This place is dominated by women, whose reign depends exclusively on whom they fuck. When the mayor lists the achievement of the city, the best he can come up with is that it is the world capital of sauteed potatoes, held the Frisbee championships in 2011 and was voted as having the cleanest toilets in Slovenia. In short, Šteger really does not like Maribor.

It gets worse. It seems the city is built on several mass graves (but the lady funeral director thinks that that does not matter). It seems that the people are still proud of the visit Hitler made during the war. The church also managed to run up debts of €1.3 billion euros. We are just a lousy Austrian colony with zero rights, says a police officer.

The police play a role as they gradually become aware that the people who go mad all have one thing in common, namely they they received a visit from Bely and Portero shortly before. With the Great Orc, the police and their own demons chasing them, it is a race against time for the pair to absolve the thirteen, even as a key event – a performance of a dramatic version of War and Peace (for which Bely had written script when he lived in Maribor previously) – looks like offering the grand finale.

Šteger is primarily known as a poet and this is only his second novel. It is clear that has used this form to get a lot off his chest, not only his criticism of Maribor, but, more particularly, his condemnation of widespread corruption in Slovenia, his criticism of religion, including pseudo-religions like Scientology, and the neoliberalist trend that is sweeping the world, as well as sweeping his country. On one level, it is a fun whodunnit as Bely and Portero try to track down the member of the Great Orc. However it is also a hugely funny book, mocking all and sundry, including the head of the Terminal 12 programme at the Marx City Gallery, who happens to be called Aleš Šteger. Above all, of course, it is another brilliant East European novel that uses massively exaggerated ribald humour to damn the ruling elite and political corruption of the country.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Beletrina
First published in English 2017 by Istros Books