The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. —Joseph Schreiber
Some literature defies simple description. Case in point, Panorama, by Slovenian poet and writer Dušan Šarotar. One might be inclined to define it as a meditation within a travelogue within a novel. Or perhaps you would prefer to rearrange those terms, it probably wouldn’t matter, because in spite of its subtitle: A Narrative about the Course of Events, Panorama stands at a curious angle to space and time. It is a novel of remembering, of telling and retelling, narratives within narratives, bound together by a coarse thread of repeating themes that are at once timeless and timely.
One of three Slovenian novels to be released this fall as part of the Peter Owen World Series, a new collaboration between Peter Owen Publishing and Istros Books, Panorama is Sarotar’s fourth novel, and his first to be translated into English. Born in Murska Sobota in northeastern Slovenia in 1968, he studied sociology and philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. In addition to his novels, he has published collections of short stories, poetry, and essays; and has written numerous screenplays. His prose, as exemplified in Panorama, has a poetic and richly cinematic feel.
So, maybe we could start with a short piece of film. This novel is narrated by an unnamed man who resembles Šarotar—a Slovene writer, of approximately the same age, who travels to various locales, either to work on a manuscript or give a reading. Here then, is a glimpse of the author himself. The setting is the Ljubljana Railway Station. A light snow is falling, and the trains come and go. This video is part of an online documentary project entitled Gathered: The Secret Side of Things We Share in which a number of prominent Slovenian writers, artists, philosophers and other academics were invited to offer their reflections—to muse out loud—about the state of modern society and the impact of technology on our relationships with nature and each other. It dates from 2013, the year before Panorama was originally published and presents, perhaps, a broad context for some of ideas he was exploring at the time.
Šarotar admits that when he sits at the railway station (an activity that will ground several important encounters in the latter part of his novel) he always thinks about time and space: “We are basically determined by time,” he says, “and by the fact that we are mortal, that we come from silence and we are returning to silence.” He goes on to consider that although we have very efficient modern means of transporting people, information and money; the most basic and fragile things, those that capture the essence of our humanity, are always the most difficult to transport through space:
A change in human society always followed a radical change in transport. At first, humans were conquering the steppes, then came the next generation braving the oceans and now we live in a time when mankind has conquered the entire globe and reached the limit. There are no ships, trains or aeroplanes that can take us beyond. We have reached what I call the limit of the universe. Today’s man is ready to head for the universe. It’s an imaginary limit of space and time. Poets, however, would say that the universe is a space within us. So I think it is no longer a question about communication or logistics, it is more about correspondences between the visible and invisible, between what’s the deepest inside us and everything that is furthest outside.
Panorama opens in Galway. The narrator has come to this Irish county, set at the very edge of Europe, to find a quiet place to work on an unfinished manuscript. Upon his arrival, he meets Gjini, an Albanian immigrant who will serve as his occasional driver and tour guide during his stay. Much of his time will be spent exploring the windswept mountainous landscapes and rugged coastline of the Connemara region. Here, and back in Galway City, he is haunted by thoughts of the thousands of starving refugees who set sail from these shores to face a dangerous and uncertain journey across the Atlantic during the years of the Great Famine. The crumbling abandoned houses and the solemn monuments stand as silent testament to these desperate souls. Migrants and refugees will be a recurring motif throughout the book, as will the related connections between landscape, memory, language, and loss.
As Gjini, who is also a writer, accompanies the narrator on sight-seeing adventures—hikes though the hills, a rough trip out to an outlying island by hydrofoil, a visit Kylemore Abbey—he shares his experiences as a newcomer, arriving eleven years earlier without a word of English, his wife left waiting behind until he can find his footing. Woven into his story, is an account of his friendship with Jane, a woman who had come from North America, to make sense of her own roots and identity. Her father was born in Connemara area. After the Second World War, some good-hearted nuns had put him on a ship bound for Canada, along with other war orphans and immigrants. Her research and journeys had taken her, he said, to Belgium and France and on into Central Europe as far as Sarajevo. As two outsiders, with a connection, however loose, to an area of the world close to the home he was missing, he was happy to have her company and offer his services as a driver. Gjini, and through him Jane’s story, become part of a key thread that will be picked up again, as the narrative progresses.
Shortly after his Irish visit, the narrator travels by train from his home in Slovenia to Brussels. This time, the main purpose of his visit is to give a reading in Ghent. The landscapes that attract his eye here, are urban—gothic structures played against inner-city decay and ruin. While in Belgium he will meet or re-connect with colleagues who have some tie with the states of the former Yugoslavia; individuals who articulate, in their own ways, the complex interrelationship between language and identity, and how it becomes distorted through time. And he will meet up again with Gjini who now, in his role as a freelance journalist, is intent on tracing yet another line of Irish-related migration, that of the Benedictine nuns who abandoned their destroyed convent in Ypres and made their way to Connemara after the First World War. Finally, chronologically speaking at least, the peace the narrator has been seeking for his work on his manuscript is found in Sarajevo where he stays with some friends.
On a superficial level, given this rather rough outline, Panorama might sound like a travel diary. The grainy black-and-white photographs that illustrate the text reinforce this impression. However, the narrator’s travels do not delineate the narrative, as much as they offer a framework against which the voices of his characters can be woven into a larger multi-layered meditation. He allows those he meets and spends time with a space to articulate the tensions they feel between their inner experiences and their relationships to the borders they have crossed in the course of their lives—whether those are lines marking identity, nationality, or even the policed barriers of a city under siege. The disorientation caused by the loss of one’s language, or the lack of contact with others who share one’s native tongue, is a persistent theme. Gjini describes it well on one of their early outings:
When you are far from your language, you are also far from your home, more and more each day, and the distance increases and deepens with every new word; the lost word is usurped, seemingly replaced, by the other, more convincing, better word, which everyone can understand but which is still foreign; the immigrant, this eternal guardian but also suppresser of his own language, knows that the loss, the void, the dissolved malt of forgetting within it, which he tenaciously envelops and fills with learning, which is the only vaccine against loneliness, despair and madness, is nevertheless irreplaceable, painful and incurable, like love, Gjini said and noticeably slowed the speed at which we were driving.
While in Brussels, he reconnects with Caroline, a fellow writer whom he had met on his first trip to Belgium a few months earlier. At that time, she had told him, “I don’t have my own landscape, I search for and invent the spaces of my language,” explaining that although she was born in Belgium she lost her mother tongue growing up in Spain before she went on to study Romance languages and work in Paris and Nigeria.
…I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond; consider, she had said, people who are immigrants, refugees, the various diasporas, and so I ask myself what is still left to the writer’s experience.
The act of writing, the nature of tangible memory, and the complex relationship between language and landscape are the questions that ground this richly textured novel. Šarotar’s long, winding sentences evoke the meandering flow of reminisces while his narrative effectively compresses time—the encounters the narrator describes are not locked in the moment, they are broken and retrieved, guided by his remembrances of previous meetings, the memories recounted by these friends and colleagues, or even the tale of a complete stranger who buttonholes him after a reading in Ghent, to share—or perhaps confess—a family secret. The absence of chronological consistency creates an ebb and flow of recollections—some directly experienced, some reported and some imagined. In the beginning, the absence of quotation marks within paragraphs that extend for pages on end, can make it difficult to tell exactly who is speaking. Yet, with surrender to the movement between speakers and accounts, the reader will find the confusion falls away as the narrative repeatedly returns to pick up earlier threads and move forward.
The influence of W. G. Sebald is unmistakable, witnessed in the unnamed narrator with a curious similarity to the author, the long sentences, and even longer paragraphs, and by the employment of imbedded photographs. Šarotar has read and been inspired by Sebald’s work. Toward the end of Panorama, he even offers a direct allusion to Austerlitz as the narrator waits to meet a friend at the iconic Antwerp Station. However, Šarotar’s style is not strictly imitative. If Sebald acquired some of his narrative energies from Thomas Bernhard (seen, for example, in the repetitive occurrences of “Austerlitz said” in the secondhand accounts that form the basis that eponymous novel), Šarotar’s work maintains an even stronger Bernhardian sensibility at times, especially in the nesting of Jane’s story within Gjini’s accounts:
… a few times I remember when, after we’d been driving around all day in the car or just walking in the countryside, usually by the sea – she loved the bluffs, the high cliffs with the waves crashing far below; yes, that’s something you still have to see, he said, I’ll definitely try and organize it – yes, so, late at night, when we got back and had already said our goodbyes, he said, Jane would say, I’m going for a swim. I was surprised, of course, and tried to talk her out of it – not now, Jane, it’s late, it’s raining and the waves are rough, I’d tell her, and it’s night, there’s nothing you can see now, Gjini said; the lighthouse, Mutton Light, is shining there in the distance, Jane said; I can see its beam in the darkness, so you go on now, I’m going to have a swim; I’ll meet you here in the morning – good night, Gjini, Jane said; good night, Jane, Gjini said.
As well, with respect to the use of photographs, Šarotar, himself a photographer, is—or at least appears to be—using his images more intentionally. Sebald was a great collector of flea market finds around which he crafted his narratives. The portraits included in this text seem to stand in for characters who may or may not actually exist, but another significant influence on Šarotar’s photography is the work of German photographer and painter, Gerhard Richter. In fact, it is Richter’s retrospective show, “Panorama,” that gives this novel its name. The dramatic stormy cloudscapes that feature in so many photos are especially reminiscent of Richter’s well-known images of clouds.
In tone, Šarotar’s prose maintains a distinctly rhythmic poetic feel, captured beautifully in the translation by Rawley Grau. His narrator, a writer, imagines himself in line with the traditions of other Balkan literary heroes, especially Slovenian poet and songwriter, Gregor Strniša, and Bosnian writer, Ivo Andrić. The latter’s poignant short story “Letter from 1920” figures toward the end of this novel, as yet another echo of the endless trend of leaving one’s homeland when a viable future can no longer be imagined. This piece is one of a number of Andrić’s stories that could be said to be of questionable autobiographical authenticity, as if truth and imagination are somehow incompatible. Panorama raises the same questions about where the line between fiction and nonfiction lies. But why is that an issue at all?
For Šarotar, it comes down to the way that literature is understood in Central Europe. If asked to draw a distinction between literature and journalism, he says that, for him, literature deals with the soul, that is, it begins with memory; journalism, by contrast, starts with “facts.” He claims to be writing from memories—writing about what it was, not how it was. To enhance that sense of memory, small intentionally misremembered facts are left uncorrected in the text. As a more specific example, he offers an interview with Amos Oz from the Paris Review. When asked about the very serious way Hebrew writers seem to be taken in Israel, in contrast to the way they are seen in the west, Oz responds:
We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.
The magic of a novel like Panorama is, in the end, independent from any need to determine absolute truth. Whether any of the characters, even the narrator, bear more than superficial resemblance to “real” people does not matter. This is a work that gets at the heart of important truths that couldn’t, at this moment, be more relevant. As the human flood pouring into Europe reaches crisis proportions it is more important than ever to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. The forces driving the desperate movement of men, women and children—conflict, violence and poverty—have similarly forced individuals, families, and communities to cross waters and borders for millennia. This meditation on memory, time, identity, language and loss circles continually back to the price that migrants and refugees pay and the wounds that never completely heal.
- D. Šarotar, (personal communication, Sept. 28, 2016)↵