Spies in Neverland: On Ana Schnabl’s “The Masterpiece”

December 29, 2021   •   By Michael Tate

The Masterpiece

Ana Schnabl

ANA SCHNABL IS an award-winning Slovene writer, journalist, and literary critic whose first novel, The Masterpiece (2020), has just appeared from Istros Books in a fine translation by David Limon. Set in Slovenia in the mid-1980s, the story centers on Ana Miler, a book editor who is greatly taken with a manuscript written by a literature professor, Adam Bevk, entitled The Masterpiece. Ana invites Adam to meet her at her office to discuss her notes on the text, and Adam is elated to hear that she considers his book to be “publishable with alterations.” They agree to meet again soon, and Adam takes away his Masterpiece with Ana’s extensive notes.

When Ana and Adam meet again, they have other things on their minds, and a love affair begins. This life-changing event occurs despite all that makes it unlikeley: Ana has an important job, not to mention a husband and young son; Adam has a wife, two sons, and a faltering career as an academic and is a quiet-but-consistent critic of the government. Since this is Slovenia in the mid-1980s, such critics are watched closely — even the quiet ones.

Adam soon works out how Ana rose so rapidly to the role of editor at a state-owned publishing house and asks how long she has been spying on the government’s critics. Her response is magnificent: “What can I explain to you when you already know everything?” This doesn’t stop their relationship from deepening further, and swiftly. The narrative that follows should be absurd but is instead deeply moving and elegant, occasionally stopping the heart. Adam, we are told, “would find out the whole truth, but he was neither able nor willing to evaluate and order it. It served as evidence to him that beauty, if it wishes to be what it promises, must separate itself from its genesis, just as a work of art needs to separate itself from its creator.”

There would be no novel if there were not many obstacles for Adam and Ana to navigate on their pathway to love. At the beginning, both lovers feel euphoric, despite this path involving compromises and lies. Each encounter, presented through interior monologues, begins with the heart-quickening anticipation of each lover. Their meetings are subversively ordinary and short, but emotionally these encounters form a different and much-prized world of otherness — of tenderness, conversation, hugs, kisses, and partings. Even clearing up the coffee cups is an act described with aching sensitivity. How can anyone not be moved by the phrase, “I missed you endlessly”? Schnabl isn’t without a sense of humor, though, describing the couple as a unit that resembles, “ironically, secret agents in complete harmony with the demands of their special, secret assignment.”

More than halfway through, the reader is suddenly struck by the realization that the book occasionally reads like the richer parts of le Carré. Even old George Smiley himself would have been happy with Adam slowly betraying his long-held beliefs and comrades, observing his fellow dissidents as “undernourished narcissists” whose conflicts exhaust him. Yet Schnabl spices her spy-novel atmosphere with more existential questions, paraphrasing Nietzsche in Adam’s conviction that “fate is just a string of repetitions with miniscule differences, repetitions which, when first struck, should have destroyed us, but didn’t.” The novel is filled with betrayals, on multiple levels. First, we have the professional betrayal, author and editor colluding in their illicitly intimate way; and of course the lovers also betray their families, not to mention compromising their presumed public values. Ultimately, aren’t the lovers really betraying themselves? Schnabl does not answer this question. Whether or not betrayal leads to happiness is left beautifully unclear, though the story seems to suggest that, even if truth gets mangled by lies, an opportunity for love must be grabbed with both hands despite the inevitable collateral damage.

It would be difficult to describe the action in the book’s second half without ruining the ending — or endings, as there are two (the second providing an awesome twist in the tale). Instead, tribute must be paid to translator Limon, who musters the turns in the plot with alacrity. How he managed to render the romantic dialogue without descending into tearful mush is a secret that will remain between him and the translator’s personal devil.

As for the author, she is in many ways as ingenious, unique, ambiguous, and delightful as her novel. On the other hand, she is merely the latest in a long line of world-class creative voices, including multitalented female artists, who have emerged from contemporary Slovenia. Schnabl has been working on her doctoral thesis since 2016, her research focusing on female autobiography and confession in psychoanalysis. Her collection of short stories, Razvezani [Disentangled], received the Best Literary Debut Prize at the annual Ljubljana Book Fair in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Mira PEN Award. Schnabl’s second novel, Plima [The Tide], will be published in 2022. While most of us struggle to write a memorable sentence, Ana Schnabl is already busy with her next project: a collection of novellas.

The way in which the decade rapidly became regarded as “the golden 1980s” in post-Socialist Yugoslavia is a cultural and historical anomaly that features heavily in the novel. Those living in the other parts of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia often regarded Slovenia as Neverland: spiritually blessed, untainted by too much Tito, and bleached pure of evil every year by summer sunshine. The Masterpiece acts to balance that oversimplistic narrative. Adam, after all, “[i]n his youth […] wrote a Utopian novel, which was published but soon withdrawn after political pressure.” The ’80s in the former Yugoslavia was a curious time, a time of unprecedented freedom of thought and travel, of dissident movements and heady music and literary scenes. Yet it was also a time when the state still had a tight grip on the lives of its citizens, not least through its security services and its web of informants.

This still leaves a central unanswered question in the novel: what exactly is The Masterpiece? On the one hand, obviously, it is Adam’s manuscript. Or maybe the state’s mastery over its citizens counts as the true masterpiece. Nothing about the 1980s was obvious, however, even now. During the decade, young people hand-dyed their blue jeans and used hairspray at levels that likely blew measurable holes in the ozone layer. They smoked in bed, in their kitchens, in their living rooms, in bars and restaurants, and in novels, and didn’t think twice about it. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher demanded freedom in Eastern Europe but propped up the apartheid regime in South Africa. Nothing made sense.

Maybe the masterpiece is the decade itself, so ambiguous and ironic. Schnabl also leaves enough room for an old romantic like me to believe that the masterpiece is love. She keeps us guessing right until the end when, in a genius move, she changes the question entirely.

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Michael Tate is the founder of Jantar Publishing.