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Feri Lainšček: Namesto koga roža cveti (Instead Of Whom Does The Flower Bloom)

The title of the book comes from a song/poem by Vlado Kreslin, the”Slovenian Bob Dylan. (His poems have been published in English.) The main character of this book sings this song.

The book starts with a man called Halgato (halgato is a style of gypsy violin playing.) He is determined to leave his village, Lacki Roma, and never go back again. While wondering what to do to, he meets Pišti, whom he clearly knows. He learns that Pišti has been in the neighbourhood for some while and has even heard Halgato playing his violin, while he, Pišti, has been working in the building trade. Only much later in the book do we learn who Pišti is and why he was reluctant to make himself known to Halgato. The rest of the book is the story leading up to this meeting and then the subsequent events.

We start off with a young boy living alone with his mother, Tereza, in Lacki Roma, a Roma village in what was then Yugoslavia but now Slovenia.. (The English text uses the word gypsy rather than Roma, so I shall stick to that.) The period is the post-war period under Marshall Tito. The father Mariška returns unexpectedly. He seems stressed and we soon learn that he has knifed an OZNA agent and probably killed him. He is expecting the police to turn up at any time. The people of the village, though they do not particularly like Mariška, promise that they will defend him if the police do come. It is clear that the boy has been born during his absence, as he is surprised to find that his wife has named him Sanji. We also later learn that Mariška is an accomplished gypsy violinist and that he has the nickname Halgato. He teaches his son to play the violin and soon passes on the nickname and then, when he leaves, the violin, to his son. We later learn that he obtained the violin from a customs officer who confiscated it from a famous gypsy violinist (who may have been Mariška’s father). It seems that the customs officer received Mariška’s sister in return for the violin.

The book takes a somewhat stereotypical view of the gypsies. They are deemed to be slovenly, unreliable, dishonest (often stealing), illiterate and never happy unless they are moving around. Mariška eventually sets off again and is arrested and beaten up by the OZNA agents. We do not hear of him again. Tereza does not seem too concerned. One day, a gypsy tinker called Bumbaš arrives in the village. When questioned by the locals, he says that he has come to marry Tereza and he moves in with her. He brings his three stepchildren – Pišti, whom we have already met, and Ana and Fana. The children have to accompany Bumbaš as he travels around as a tinker. We get another gypsy stereotype, as Fana tells fortunes. Bumbaš is not a good businessman and people often refuse to pay – he fails to negotiate a price in advance – and think that giving him food and drink is enough. As a result, the children are often left to their own resources. When he does have cash, he spends it on women and drink. Even Bumbaš realises this is not working, so Pišti is allowed to go to school – the only gypsy in the book who gets any education and, indeed, who can read – while Bumbaš takes Halgato to Bazika Joska, an experienced violinist. It is Bazika Joska who tells them about the history of the violin and Mariška and it is he who recognises Halgato’s talent. Bumbaš and Halgato travel around, earning money from Halgato’s playing though, all too often, the locals are suspicious because of the gypsy reputation for stealing.

When they return home, they learn that Ana is pregnant, apparently by Fat Babić. When Fana becomes pregnant, with Fat Babić also being the father, Fat Babić disappears.. When his body is found in the river, Bumbaš is arrested and sent to prison. Tereza seems as indifferent to this as to the arrest of Mariška. Meanwhile Pišti has met Iza and starts a relationship with her, to her parents disgust. Halgato, however, is in love with her as well. When Pišti is arrested for causing a fatal car crash and sent to prison, Halgato seizes his chance. We later learn that Pišti cannot drive and it was, in fact, Iza who caused the crash but Pišti took the blame. When he kills a guard escaping from prison, he is sentenced to twenty years. When he finally gets out, he goes off to the US. The beginning of the book is where the two meet up again. Not surprisingly, there is some bitterness.

No-one in this book is happy. Virtually all of the characters conform to standard gypsy stereotypes. The only thing that shines through is the violin playing of the two Halgatos, though in neither case does it seem to bring them much happiness. Nevertheless, it is an interesting read, not least because it gives us something of an insight into a culture most of us will not be familiar with. The English translation of this book was only published in Slovenia, not in the US or UK, so it is quite difficult to obtain – in English or Slovenian. It has also been translated into Croatian, Czech and German.

Publishing history

First published 1991 byPrešernova družba
First published in English 2002 by Slovene Writers’ Association