— The Cossacks, Leo Tolstoy
Since this isn’t a novel, there isn’t a thing I can change about my hero.
— From the epilogue to Newcomers: Book Three, Lojze Kovačič
Interesting is an important word. Interesting doesn’t lead into that opaque, torturous “depth” that we know so well, and it doesn’t immediately lead to Goethe’s realm of the “mothers,” that popular German destination — interesting is by no means identical with entertaining. Translate it literally: inter - esse: amid being, which is to say amid its darkness and its glimmer. — “The Olympus of Seeming.” Nietzsche.
— A Double Life, Gottfried Benn
THESE QUOTES introduce Lojze Kovačič’s Newcomers, a three-volume personal history whose first book has just been translated from Slovenian into English for the first time. Book One, translated by Michael Biggins, shapes itself around a boyhood steeped in the darkness and glimmer of Slovenia at the brink of World War II. The epigraphs are appropriate, even if they weren’t added by Kovačič himself, but by Archipelago Books, which has proven to be indispensable in its devotion to publishing translated literature. We learn from these quotes that Kovačič does not want readers to consider his book a novel, though asserts that he is some kind of hero in it. This is immediately ironic — the book is regularly billed as Slovenia’s greatest novel. One can glean from the first and last quotes that this might not be an entertaining book. It isn’t, at least in any traditional way. We follow the first-person narrator Bubi and his family after they are suddenly uprooted from their proletariat life in Switzerland, forced by the government in 1938 to migrate to Yugoslavia, the homeland of the child protagonist’s father. It opens in medias res: “That’s how we left Basel.” As though perhaps Kovačič had been addressing his reader for hundreds of pages before then. After that sentence, the majority of the book is told in conversational, flat language. This restraint could be because it was written in 1985, not in Kovačič’s native German, but in Slovene, a language we eventually learn the author struggled immensely with.
Or, the restraint could be because Kovačič does not want to tell his story, but finds himself unable to cease. That might explain the ellipses he riddles each page with, pregnant pauses in between phrases or sentences that recall the style of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, an author Kovačič seems to have been markedly influenced by. Like Céline’s feverous Death on Credit, Kovačič’s book is a chapterless chronicle of poverty and fear in an increasingly fragile Europe. But if Céline — a notorious anti-Semite and pro-Vichy writer — employed the ellipsis to evoke disgust and lapses in morality and memory, Kovačič’s ellipses function more like transcribed breaths, molecular embodiments of the untold, measures of psychic distance exchanged for physical interiority. In this way Newcomers is an emblem of what memory — personal memory, political memory, a place’s memory — can create from erasure. It is a text that not only insists, but also depends upon being hard to read, even if its linear and aching transcription of everyday reality can at times be curiously hypnotic.
Although tempting and blurb-friendly, “epic” and “panoramic” are adjectives that do not describe Newcomers. For the first hundred pages, Kovačič documents his family’s emigration to Slovenia moment-by-moment. Political, social, and economical realities are not witnessed through broad philosophies and reflections, but through the body: hunger, fatigue, sickness. In these torpid beginning passages, his first-person narration basks in childish naïveté: Bubi describes the train lights as Christmas tinsel, and even looks forward to the mythic land his father came from. In a way it’s a 20th-century fairy tale, full of wicked relatives and eldritch castles. But when they arrive at his uncle’s village house, his fable is joined by dispiriting reality. Bubi, his parents, and his sisters share beds stuffed with corn husks, and are put to work on the farm in an altogether hostile environment.
To make matters worse, he is surrounded by a language that leaves him dumbly spellbound. Slovene, when spoken, is described “like some unfamiliar, half-cooked, still raw food in my mouth. If we had wanted to tell each other what we thought of the unpeeled potatoes we were just then chewing on, whether they were edible or not, we could have found no better way of expressing it.” Other times he compares the language to a “soft pastry” and like speaking with a mouth full of wool. The moo of this country’s cows sounds foreign to Bubi. Even noise made from inanimate objects, like a blacksmith’s hammer, is difficult to comprehend. His inability to adequately learn Slovene becomes a further source of disgrace and violence toward Bubi, who is already exiled from his peers for his heritage — his father is Slovenian, his mother, German. At one point, villagers throw an enucleated sparrow into the house as a threat, a token of Bubi’s metaphorical blindness. Incapable of becoming literate in one language, he becomes fluent in something else — a primal loneliness tinged with dizzying silence:
Language, one that you don’t understand, can be pleasant now and then … It’s like a kind of fog in your head … It’s nice, there’s truly nothing better … It’s wonderful when words haven’t yet separated from dreams … But not always … I could examine everything as though I was in a theater […] You lost your voice from the wetness, your sight from the gloom, your soul from the lightening … And then silence again. The great kingdom of fog! … It was as though everything was under a spell … a different world.
The narrator’s cataloging of the physical world and his movement in it, as well as the refusal to metabolize life in chapters and revelations, creates a radically different simulacra for life than 20th-century literature has traditionally hewn to. Time is unsuspended, epiphany forsaken. As nations are being gobbled up by the Axis powers, the boy seems diametrically opposed to change. Early on, during the train ride to Slovenia, he is compelled to confront his reflection in the window, to ensure he is the same person. “I couldn’t see, but I could sense that it was pretty much me … though blurred, so that I could have taken the image for some counterfeit or substitute for myself …” This could be seen as metafictional, Kovačič calling attention to the fact that the narrator is a fictional surrogate for the author. It’s also a rare moment of self-awareness in the novel that establishes Bubi’s anxiety toward life-changing experiences.
The first installation of Kovačič’s trilogy has humor in it too, though, even if it stems from a kind of tragic slapstick, as when Bubi participates in communion and his shoddy clothes begin to peel apart at the seams. “Idiot! Life was always veering off into some comedy or other … you would have burst with laughter if something like this happened in a movie …” As the communion happens he wonders with comedic terror what will happen when he ingests Christ in the form of a wafer. “I had to reassure him that nothing awful was going to happen to him, that I would try to protect him from the evil forces of my soul and body,” he reflects. “Was I going to change, become illuminated, behave more nobly? […] Would I become a model student, build a house for Vati, a garden for Gisela, would I tame mother, find Clairi a husband? Would I become a soldier? Awaken the love of a beautiful princess?” Of course, nothing changed; the unhurried velocity of life pressed onward.
The cost of this refreshingly honest portrayal of adolescence’s familiar textures is an exciting reading experience. The Kovačič family shuttles embarrassingly from one residence to the next. Bubi faces new tribulations in and out of the classroom. Yugoslavian jets tear across the sky. War seeps into the neighborhood. Yet the prose is wilted, filled with too many proper nouns and new additions to a huge cast of peasants and bourgeois members of society that are left mostly unexplored. Still, Biggins’s translation is fully capable, rendering Kovačič’s prose with a simple economy that feels more literal than intuitive, yet is by no means artless. Interestingly, the Slovene dialogue is interpreted in English, and the German dialogue is left untranslated, each sentence asterisked into English at the bottom of the page. This interferes with the reader’s rhythm when reading certain scenes, but also cleverly hurls us into an unknown world like the one Bubi inhabits.
Whereas literary fiction has long valued carefully chosen distinct moments and their ability to become salvific, Kovačič seems to democratize life’s value and vacancies among every single lived minute. This might sound familiar. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Newcomers is a European saga published in installments that begins with the author’s youth and creeps outward, describing life with a rare acuity that not only captures both its dramas and banalities, but also considers them with equal significance. Like Knausgaard, Kovačič’s opus is animated by a matrix of shame. Like Ferrante’s, it depicts a rapidly changing geography and political climate, with Newcomers taking place in Slovenia directly before World War II and Ferrante’s series picking up in Naples during its almost immediate aftermath. The space Kovačič’s book occupies falls between the poles these two authors operate within: between the fetishized ordinariness of Knausgaard and the theater of Ferrante, Kovačič unfurls a ream of anecdotes and character descriptions, rambling, yet tightly told chronology of his family’s undeserved perdition as they descend deeper and deeper into moral and literal penury. Narration is synonymous with reliving. Unlike Ferrante or Knausgaard, two authors whose interrogations of daily experience sometimes yield half-formed answers to life, Kovačič denies his personalia any retroactive wisdom. Newcomers emancipates itself from conventional literary form, finding refuge in what his readers would now deem familiar modernism. The result is a text reluctant to open itself up. Like the war its characters are wading into by the end of the first book, Newcomers is not concerned with justifying itself. Therein lies its paltry transcendence.
A shift can be felt happening within fiction and certain nonfiction, an increasing irrelevance about credibility in memoiristic works and a growing hunger for trilogies and tetralogies marketed as fiction despite their mining of candid, “everyday” life. This drift is a reminder of the elastic definition of fiction itself, and might even suggest an ironic compulsion to novelize our lives in order to legitimize them. The opening quote taken from Book Three helps posit Kovačič’s dilemma: labeling Newcomers a novel threatens to invalidate the author’s real experiences, just as classifying it as autobiography might instinctively make readers distracted by betrayals to actual “history.”
A passage representative of many within the tortuous picaresque occurs when Bubi decides to purloin his uncle’s meat from the attic:
That’s when I decided to do something that might have cost me my life had I been caught. I was going to steal some meat from the attic! While Karel and Mica were out tending the pigs, I climbed up in my stockings … one, two, each step separately. I pushed the hatch open and entered a world of hanging hams and sausages … I pulled off a long, moldy salami and even a ham with the hook still embedded in it. And if I ran into Karel?…I’d kill him! Flat out, like an ant underfoot. Plant my foot on his chest so that he’d — wham! — go flying back down the stairs! … I had such wide eyes that I had to wonder where this place was … This was the life I experienced … its raw, exposed nerve … There was no one in sight …
Meat is a kind of motif in Newcomers, a book rife with butchers and flesh. Toward the end of the volume, he remembers watching cattle being slaughtered and trying to become comfortable with seeing the “gigantic animals fall to the floor, as if hit by lightning.” He writes that “this was proof that death was the same for all,” and it is impossible to read the descriptions and not visualize the horrors of the Holocaust happening then.
“I feel no nostalgia for my childhood: it was full of violence,” Elena says in Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, asserting nostalgia as primarily an experience of privilege. But Kovačič in part challenges this idea: perhaps his childhood was too violent not to be nostalgic. Yet his nostalgia is not looking back; it is being lived out. As the story is seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old, nostalgia is the narrator’s default mode of perception. We might call this innocence. As with many books in which there is a child narrator, innocence and ignorance are mechanisms that amplify evil. When Bubi describes a “whole forest of upraised arms” on television it is with an oblivion that induces empathy. That Bubi does not find a home anywhere further complicates his nostalgia — what does nostalgia look like for someone who never belonged, not even to god?
“A writer’s biography is in his twists of language,” wrote Joseph Brodsky in his essential essay “Less Than One,” a study of life under the Soviet regime and the profound ways memories flex. What he meant was that even though there are some things not worth writing about, we write them anyway, not to “set the record straight,” as Brodsky explains, but because we can. Like Kovačič, Brodsky was also an émigré who wrote in a second language, and recounted with a kind of glee that “the little I remember becomes even more diminished by being recollected in English.” But unlike émigrés like Brodsky and Nabokov, Kovačič chose to write his epic in an incredibly difficult, largely unread language. Why? Perhaps to prove he could, to gain ownership over a language that had broken him over 45 years before and therefore reclaim his childhood in some sense. Brodsky goes on to write that “I recall these things not because I think that they are the keys to the subconscious, or certainly not out of nostalgia for my childhood. I recall them because I have never done so before, because I want some of those things to stay — at least on paper. Also, because looking backwards is more rewarding than its opposite.” Kovačič would most likely agree. But what if looking backward was the same as looking ahead? Kovačič’s grim nostalgia is elevated from cozy subterfuge to a required human condition, one that is doubly experienced by exiled writers who imagine, or unimagine, the past of one place in order to understand the present of a new one.