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Ana Schnabl: Mojstrovina (The Masterpiece)

The novel opens in September 1985. A quick bit of Yugoslav/Slovenian history might be helpful for those not too familiar with it. By September 1985, Tito had been dead for five years. Yugoslavia continued as a federal communist republic for a few more years but, by the end of the 1980s there were fractures appearing. Slovenia obtained its independence in 1991. When we open in September 1985, Yugoslavia is still communist. As we shall see, this is relevant to this story.

Our story starts with Adam Bevk. Adam is a lecturer in literature. He wrote one novel in his youth, eighteen years previously. It did not do well. He has now written another one called Masterpiece. He has submitted it to a publisher and his editor is Ana Miler. His wife, Vera, a very attractive woman, does not work but looks after their two children and is very supportive of Adam’s work. However, he has not let her read Masterpiece to her annoyance.

Ana is fairly positive about the book but says it needs work and she is prepared to help him. Ana is married to Sergej and they have a seven-year old son, Boris, who is very mature for his age. In his youth, Sergej had made his name by writing about and supporting the punk movement but has now been persuaded by the authorities to change his tune. He has seen the light and now is a professor of sociology and well-behaved.

He is not the only character to have sold his soul. Ana had been a junior clerk in the publisher’s carrying out menial jobs, till she met Sofia and Vitomil. They were able to help her advance but at a price. She has to tell them about potential dissidents and, indeed, she does. They now warn her about Adam (We hear that the novel has certain tendencies) and want her to report on him.

While both Adam and Ana seem relatively happily married, both have had affairs though these seem to last a short while and they then return to the fold. They now start an affair. Much of the book is about their affair. While affairs can be quite boring, Schnabl delves superbly into their psychology and the inevitable complications of the affair.

Most affairs have two, possibly three factors which can cause problems. The first – very much a factor here – is the respective spouses. Will they find out? How will they react? How will the couple having the affair react when their spouse finds out? The second issue – a relatively minor issue here – is the children. Both Adam and Ana have children but they play a relatively minor role here. Thirdly – even less of a factor here – is the reaction of the family. and friends.

However, there are two factors involved here which make their situation more complicated. The first is the novel. Will their affair affect the novel? Secondly, there are Sofia and Vitomil. How will they react if they learn of the affair and how will Ana react if they learn of the affair and express their disapproval of Ana having an affair with a man she is supposed to be spying on?

Behind all this is a country which is gradually changing and which we know will change dramatically. Look, we both know that the country is weakening. It is just a question of time when it will fall apart. It won’t last much longer, I promise you that, Sergij tells Ana. In the background we learn of activities which, while not openly revolutionary, are certainly moving towards a non-communist state. However, we know opposition comes at a price. Her former colleague Iztok (he couldn’t decide whether the Slovenes were a talented nation, trapped in the lazy, chaotically rugged Balkans and stupid pan-Slavic myths, or a stupid one, basically the least disorganised and most barbaric Slav nation, which could only be enlightened by selected Germanic company) certainly does.

This novel works because Schnabl is really able to get into the psychology of the four protagonists – Ana, Adam, Vera and Sergij- while at the same time throwing in the complications of both the novel and Sofa and Vitomil. Sofia and Vitomil are superbly portrayed. They come across as a sweet old couple, even as we know they are both working for the secret police. They are shown as low-ranking and petty – they simply longed for revolutionaries that they could expose, but in the end had to make do with a small company of men who acted suspiciously only because they were trying to conceal their homosexuality from the world – yet clearly have considerable influence, getting Ana her job and able to threaten her if she does not follow the Party line.

The book may be about the novel – Adam’s novel is also called Masterpiece – but ultimately it could be called Love in a Time of Political Repression.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Beletrina
First published in English in 2021 by Istros
Translated by David Limon