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Sebastijan Pregelj: V Elvisovi sobi (In Elvis’s Room)

This novel is, on the face of it,a Bildungsroman, though there is more going on as we shall see. We follow the story of Jan, who is a young boy living in Ljubljana in the 1980s. He is like many other young boys. We open with his birthday when he receives a bicycle for his present, something he has been wanting for a while. He also welcomes the fact that his cousin Martin is coming. However, while Jan and Martin are playing, the parents are worried about Tito, who is ill. They are particularly worried about what will happen when he dies. Will Yugoslavia break up? This is one of the key themes of the book – the break-up of Yugoslavia and the creation of the separate state of Slovenia. The government is obviously aware of the issues as Jan’s uncle complains that they are seeing more and more supervision by State Security where he works.

Another key theme is that Slovenia seems to be moving closer to the West. We find Jan early on playing with a Superman model and the films he watches tend to be from the US (Star Wars, Rambo and so on) and music British – his favourite band will be Iron Maiden. Soon they are shopping in Austria – washing machines and colour TVs are starting to appear.

Meanwhile back in Jan’s childhood, we find him going to school and he and his friends are being terrorised by an older boy called Srsen though Jan stands up to him. Srsen will continues to be a problem for a while. Jan makes friends with the eponymous Elvis. He and his family are from Macedonia but are originally from Turkey and the cultural differences are emphasised, particularly when Elvis is circumcised. Elivis’ brother, Ali, becomes a serious Muslim and will later go to Bosnia, which is extensively Muslim.

Inevitably Jan and hs friends start being interested in sex. They start with porn magazines – Srsen rents them out – and then the real thing. Alcohol and cigarettes also feature.

But Tito dies and there is the fear that the Russians might invade. The boys are surprised at how many adults are crying over Tito. And gradually things change. Jan’s life, of course, changes as he grows up. Things do not always go smoothly with the opposite sex. Friends drift away. He later sums it up: I am trying to figure out when everything changed. Was it when Rok and I were talking about the movies we’d seen? Or when we were sitting in the park with Hana and Lea and Meri and passing around a bottle of white wine? Or when Hana was tutoring me in chemistry? Or when Aunt Marija was admiring her new automatic washing machine? Or when my cousin Janez was polishing his Opel Kadett? The idea of the characters changing as a result of both growing up and events in Yugoslavia is repeated more than once. Another change is Srsen who now seems to have a menial role working in a shop. Not so very long ago he still seemed powerful and dangerous. Now, suddenly, he’s a little old man.

On the political front, the State Security seems to be tightening its grip and things are starting to fall apart. Jan’s grandfather tells him what happened at the end of the war when those on the wrong side were murdered, with brother killing brother. This appears to be happening all over again.

Jan’s cousin Martin, who is two years older than Jan has been doing military service, comments it’s a fucking mess, especially in Kosovo. But the outside world is paying attention. Mikhail Gorbachev comes on a state visit and there are other international repercussions.

Inevitably Jan has to do military service and manages to avoid too much conflict. However the different nationalities involved make things complicated. In the real world things are happening as the conscripts watch the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. The excitement certainly rises in this part of the book. In the months that followed everything went to hell, including the third most powerful army in Europe (i.e. the Yugoslav army. We follow events elsewhere in the about-to-be former Yugoslavia and, as we know, Slovenia breaks away and this is met with some resistance. By now, Jan has finished his military service and he is caught up in events.

But things quiet down and our favourite character, Srsen, who seems to be an indicator of what is going on in Slovenia, is now a well-off spiv, who makes a living transporting refugees from Bosnia and other hot spots to Western Europe.

This is definitely a book of two halves. The first half is a well-told Bildungsroman as we follow the story of Jan from a young child to a young adult, albeit with the background of the rise in tension as Tito dies and Yugoslavia starts to break up. The second part is the break-up of Yugoslavia and Slovenia’s independence with,as we know, a lot of violence. There is no doubt seeing Yugoslavia break up from the outside is the more interesting part of the book but overall it is well worth reading.

h3>Publishing history

First published in 2019 by Goga
First published in English in 2023 by Sandorf Passage
Translated by Rawley Grau

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A review of the book by Google’s AI Bard. It was generated by simply inputting Review Sebastijan Pregelj: In Elvis’s Room into Bard.