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Drago Jančar: Posmehljivo poželenje (Mocking Desire)

Though published nine years after Severni sij (Northern Lights), this was the first of Jančar’s works to be published in English. It tells the story of a year’s stay in New Orleans by a Slovenian writer, Gregor Gradnik. It probably appealed to a US audience as it gives a very European perspective on the US. Gradnik has come to assist a creative writing course, headed by Professor Fred Blaumann. His first cultural problem occurs on arrival when, of course, the authorities have not heard of Slovenia and think that he is from Pennsylvania. He will get this later when Slovenia is mistaken for both Slovakia and, by his landlord, for Pennslovenia. His name is also a problem as it is assumed to be Grand Nick. Sadly, with one exception, the degree of cultural difference is not much more revealing for the rest of the book.

He does struggle somewhat (but not too much) with US attitudes. Irene, the woman he is trying to woo, is a keen jogger which is something, he, as a heavy smoker and cyclist, does not get. Indeed, when he joins her in a long run to the Audubon Zoo, he ends up collapsing and then, to her horror, lighting up a cigarette. He does fit in with Mardi Gras, as he enjoys partying and drinking and is not entirely surprised to wake up in bed with various objects he has collected as well as a black woman called Yvonne. The one area that Gradnik/Jančar does make an interesting point about is melancholy. Professor Blaumann is writing a book about melancholy, based, to a certain extent, on The Anatomy of Melancholy. (Jančar even gives Burton’s schema from the book.) Gradnik quotes chunks from Blaumann’s book and, naturally, feels that, as an East European, he is something of an expert on the subject and makes his own contributions, from Aquinas’ tristitia to Dürer’s Melencolia. We also meet a Russian woman, Louise, whose constant misery and miserable relationships do much to illustrate the Slavic idea of melancholy.

As well as Louise, we do meet many other characters. Professor Blaumann, despite carrying out his class, is obsessed with one of his (female) students. (He is, of course, married.) Sadly, she is not obsessed with him. But it is his neighbour, Gumbo, who is the most fascinating. Gumbo’s real name is Oristide (his many siblings all have first names beginning with O). He is nominally an art photographer but has other sidelines, including setting up an Institute for Creative Laughter. Unfortunately, he only gets one client – a widower who still hasn’t got over his wife’s death ten years ago but who is also completely broke and unable to pay, having spent all his money on a large headstone for his wife’s grave. Gumbo is a larger than life character who is not necessarily a nice man and who will end up in serious trouble. Peter, author of Cycling New Orleans, who gives Gladnik a signed copy of his book, the last one, as well as lending him the bicycle he used for his book, and the Italian-speaking Tonio Gomez round out his friends.

But the problem with this book is that there is no plot. It is generally a description of Gradnik/Jančar’s impressions of New Orleans and its people and customs as well as comparisons between the US and Eastern Europe, particularly, as regards melancholy. While this is fascinating and very well written, it does leave you wanting more. Frankly, I preferred Severni sij (Northern Lights)

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Klagenfurt & Celovec
First published in English 1998 by Northwestern University Press
Translated by Michael Biggins