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Drago Jančar: Severni sij (Northern Lights)

On 1st January 1938, Josef Erdmann, a specialist in laboratory equipment and an employee of J Stastny (the J is for Jaroslav as he repeatedly tells us) arrives in what we soon learn is his home town (and the home town of Jančar) of Maribor. He is, he says, there for one reason, namely to wait for Jaroslav, his employer, who is to meet him there. Jaroslav had summoned him. The original intention had been to go to Zagreb but that was not feasible so Maribor (he sometimes uses the German name of Marburg) is a compromise. The summons was rushed, with Josef barely having time to pack on New Year’s Eve. But Jaroslav does not arrive and, like Godot, does not look like arriving. So Josef waits.

The topic of the book is Josef’s wait and the activities he gets up to, while waiting. He sits in his room wondering about Jaroslav but then goes out and soon starts to meet people. Indeed, the joy of the book is the host of characters he meets and befriends. Apart from the tramp spouting religious slogans at the station, the people he first meets are relatively ordinary. He meets the Czech engineer, Ondra, Pešić, the motorcycle salesman from Zagreb and Franjo Samsa, the textile engineer, whose name recalls Kafka‘s Gregor Samsa. He also gets to know the town and Jančar skillfully gives us a portrayal of his town, not just as a tourist attraction but as a melting pot with the Jewish Quarter where there are no Jews or Abyssinia, the poorer part of town where Josef will end up. But we also see the ethnic tensions, with the pro-Germans and the pro-Slavs clashing but also misbehaving. It is not just the pro-Germans that are racist. We get lots of stories of the inhabitants and one tells us of Leopold Markoni, owner of a shop, who is made to crawl on the ground by Slav nationalists. Markoni brings up his son Leopold Markoni Jr to be someone who will not have to crawl but who ends up being a lazy, irresponsible, vicious thug. Jančar gives us a wonderful description of the street names that change according to who is in power (here, as occasionally elsewhere, he goes well beyond 1938).

But Josef gradually ceases to be the well-behaved employee waiting for his employer. He starts an affair with the wife of one of the men he meets, maintaining, of course, that she is to blame. He meets some Russians who like nothing better than to spend their time drinking vodka and soon he is drinking heavily with them. He is running out of money so he moves to Abyssinia and associates with some unsavoury characters. Europe is, as we know, slipping towards chaos and war, something Jančar continually reminds us, with events described both in Germany and neighbouring countries but also in the Soviet Union. But, at the same time, Josef is slipping away. Jaroslav has almost been forgotten and it seems highly unlikely that he will ever arrive. A strange symbol arrives – the Great Aurora, that is first thought to be a fire – how can there be a fire on a mountain during a wet winter? Josef asks but is clearly seen as a herald of the disaster that is soon to come.

Jančar’s keeps us tied up with the story of Josef and his wait but also beautifully describes the chaotic nature of Maribor, a melting pot with its own problems but also one that is to a certain degree indicative of the wider problem in Europe, that will lead to war. It is a first-class novel, which never lets up, which makes full use of the author’s magnificent story-telling gifts, continually introducing strange characters and their strange stories and showing us his city, a seemingly ordinary city, probably unknown to most Westerners which, yet, is symbolic of a problem – the melting pot and racism – that has only partially been resolved.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Pomurska zalozba
First published in English 2001 by Northwestern University Press