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Dušan Šarotar: Panorama (Panorama)

This is one of those books that is called a novel but does not really fit the standard definition of novel. Šarotar himself and Stephen Watts, who wrote the afterword, both make the comparison with W G Sebald and we could add Claudio Magris and Roberto Calasso to that list. However, I think that there are important differences between Šarotar and the other three. They tend to wander around and use their wanderings to meditate on a range of subjects – history, politics, literature, philosophy and so on. Šarotar does this to a certain extent but he is writing not as a historian or a Renaissance man but more as a poet and photographer. Sebald uses photographs in his work but sparingly. Šarotar has a large amount of black and white photographs in this work, most of which do not look like they were taken by the tourist board, as they give a grim and foreboding impression of the country. He has had photograph exhibitions and has been very much influenced by the photographs of the artist Gerhard Richter. Indeed, he attended the Richter Panorama exhibition in London, buys the book and names this book after it.

However, it is the poet who seems to come to the fore in this book. What we find is that he views the world (or, at least, the part of the world he visits in this book) more as a poet and photographer, a somewhat different approach from that of the three writers mentioned above, though still raising interesting issues. We see this from the very beginning. The narrator is in Galway Bay, Ireland. The weather is grim as you might expect it to be. Thick raindrops, or maybe it was the sea preparing or a second universal deluge is how he describes it, matter-of-fact but poetical at the same time. His continuing description of the Galway Bay area, with the rain and clouds continues in a similar vein. However, he does get involved in the historical references, seeing a plaque to the people fleeing the Great Hunger. However, where Sebald and Co. would probably go off on a historical discussion of the causes and outcome of the Hunger, Šarotar is more concerned with the diving platform, which reminds him of one he used as a child. He is also fascinated by the people using it, as they seemed to have done for many years.

The narrator has a driver, Gjini, an Albanian immigrant, who has been in Ireland eleven years and has decidedly mixed views of the country. This is a strange, beautiful and in many ways cursed country, he says. (Šarotar refers to Albania as godforsaken soon after and Gjini adds his own not very flattering take on his country.) Šarotar is interested in Gjini as an Albanian but instead of giving us a learned discussion on Albania, he mentions the three Albanians he has heard of – Skanderberg (who features in Kadare‘s Kështjella (The Castle; The Siege)), Enver Hoxha and Ismail Kadare, whom he likes.

However, he is more interested in Gjini, the man standing before him, than these three famous Albanians, and, of course, the grim weather – the torrential streams, the cheerless pastures bordered by stone walls, the abandoned houses next to them, everything being slowly carried off by the water. They take the ferry ride out to an island (which island is not specified but it is presumably Inis Mór, one of the Aran Islands). Death comes here to rest … this is where she lays down her cold, sharp work tool (death as a woman? hmmm!). Gjini will continue to be something of an alter ego for the narrator, as both in Galway and then, later, in Belgium, it is through Gjini’s voice, as reported by the narrator, that we often see and learn of things. (There will also be others whose voice we hear rather than the direct voice of the narrator.). We also met two other people. There is Jane, an American woman who is looking for her father’s roots and who has travelled extensively throughout Europe. Gjini, who is happily married, seems to have a close relationship with Jane, even following in her footsteps when he gets to Belgium. There is also a fellow Slovenian, Suzana, who is presumably Suzana Tratnik.

It is not all gloom and doom. There is an interesting discussion on the issue of who we are. We can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island and, on top of it, nostalgia. This is said by Gjini who is struggling with how he fits into Irish society and culture which he cannot quite manage. The narrator comments on this issue in a different way, likening himself to a man who for the first time, has left his home and stands alone with himself on a remote, foreign, ominous coast, which instils in him the inexpressible feeling of being a traveller.

As mentioned above, the narrator moves on from Galway, travelling first to Belgium. Gjini will catch up with him there. In Ghent he sees the dark side immediately, commenting on the urban sprawl of Ghent and the nameless construction dumps of which he gives a detailed description. The issue of exile and detachment, which runs through this book, comes up with his friend Pavel (presumably Pavel Ocepek) (link in Slovenian), who was looking for a sense of home, of permanence, but you don’t get that here.

It is not just a geographical detachment. The students of literature at the University of Ghent feel that nobody really cares about their sincere commitment to the humanities. Gospoda Spomenka (i.e. Spomenka Brasic) regrets the lack of good contemporary writers from the former Yugoslavia. She will later describe her sadness at leaving Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.

Gjini goes on to Ypres, primarily to learn about the convent there, as it is from there that the nuns came to Kylemore Abbey when their convent was bombed by the Germans in 1914. The narrator goes back (in his mind) to Galway at this point and also remembers the Marconi Telegraph Station which was destroyed by Irish nationalists as a symbol of British imperialism. But again he is off: to Sarajevo and to Mostar, scene of some of the bitterest fighting in the Bosnian War, and finally back to Antwerp. We end with leaving Sarajevo, both for Spomenka Brasic and for the writer Ivo Andrić.

This book is about a lot of things. Like all good novels, it is about language. I am seeking a language that speaks of the absent body says our narrator’s friend, Senadin (the poet Senadin Musabegović). Language remains an issue as most of the characters are living in and speaking a language that is not their own and this, of course, has its consequences. It is also about exile and identity and belonging (and not belonging). Of course, it is also about war and death and the terrible upheaval that war causes. It is abut the dark side of life, for there is always a dark side. But is also about friendship and remembrance and learning about the world.

The meditative novel (not my term) which this is, along with the works of the authors mentioned above, is clearly one route the novel is taking and a very interesting route it is. Clearly it merges fiction and fact in a way where we cannot be sure where the dividing line is. How real is Gjini and how accurate what he is reported to have said? The fact that we do not know (and do not really care) is not particularly relevant but does make this type of work a novel. This meditative novel is clearly one of the best of this genre and easily stands comparison with the works of the three authors mentioned above.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Beletrina
First published in English 2016 by Istros Books and Peter Owen