Drago Jančar, the legendary Slovenian novelist, playwright and essayist who has lived through turbulent historical times, is a firm believer that the novel rather than non-fiction is the ideal genre to truly capture the complexity of the world around him.
“When I write an essay or an article, it’s about the topic and it’s about my position,” he said, but when writing novels “it’s different because I would like, and I tried to, understand everybody – also the evil people. Also the people who did many wrong or terrible things in life. So, I like to try to understand life and history in its complexity when I’m writing a novel or short story.”
For Jančar the multiple dimensions a novel can offer a writer are what sets it apart.
“Because in the novel you have everything. You have an epic story, then you have a drama because of the dialogue and because of a conflict between the people, and among the heroes,” he said, speaking ahead of his appearance at the 5th EU-China International Literary Festival. “You also have essays in parts of the novel because it is necessary to explain some things, and so the novel is the most complex and the most important genre of literature from my point of view.”
Jančar, 72, has written 11 novels to date, many of which have gathered multiple awards, including most recently the Austrian State Prize for European Literature 2020, a life-time achievement award awarded to writers with a strong international presence.
Speaking of Jančar’s body of work, the jury said: “Taking an individual to penetratingly render understandable the delusions of our history: this is one of the big strengths of his literature.”
He has also written numerous plays, which were very widely staged back in the time Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia, with the plays popular for their social engaged messaging promoting individual freedom and resisting repression.
Jančar himself was arrested in 1974 for bringing a banned booklet about a massacre perpetrated by Tito’s regime in 1945 into the country. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment but was released after three months.
Looking back at that time now, he said he was going through a rebellious phase and was angry at many of the things that were happening at the time, but he also feels the experience served him well as a writer.
“It is natural really, if you are 24 or something, that you are a kind of rebel. My troubles with the authorities were connected to the war because there were some terrible events which happened after the war. I was furious. I brought some book and they sentenced me,” he said.
“It was not so terrible an experience for me because I was only a short time in a prison before I was pardoned. But I met people there that I would never meet in my life. They were very interesting, many of them were criminals. They were very interesting characters,” he said. “I started a book there, which was later published.”
After his arrest he did not have “a feeling of revenge or anger” but “I started again. I published some books, some historical books. And after a while, I was, let’s say, an established author, and it was easier for me. That is a fragment from my life, but it is many, many, many years ago.”
IRONY AND HUMOUR
Jančar often embraces tragicomedy in his writing and is noted for his sense of irony and humour, particularly as he depicts dark events.
“I’m very often writing about some tragic moments, but a human being is not black and white. It’s many things in between. We live with love, but also with humour, with irony, with sarcasm and everything that is in us,” he said. “I feel that history is sometimes an irony, and so I try to put some ironic, sarcastic or humorous parts [into my writing].”
Inspiration for his work comes from many sources, he said. For his critically acclaimed book I Saw Her That Night he was sent an old postcard from his home city that showed a scene of two girls chatting on the street, but in the corner of the picture he noticed men in German Secret Service uniforms. That was the spark for the novel, and in Jančar’s book one of the girls – out of desperation – decides to ask a German soldier to help save her boyfriend from a Gestapo prison camp.
“And this is the beginning of the story. So suddenly two girls are involved in this terrible, terrible time of war.”
In his latest novel, And Love Itself, Jančar writes about the Slovenian city of Maribor when it is under German occupation during World War II, and again he focuses on the very personal and how individuals are affected.
“It’s a history of personal stories. How they survive, if they survived, what happened to them. How two big ideologies were stronger than human life or love. So, love conquered all – as we used to say – except war.”
He writes about these individuals because his small country of Slovenia was at times a “very terrible place to live, because all the wars were crossing this country” and he wanted to capture how the political situation was perceived by ordinary people as different powers came and went.
“Imagine somebody who was living in a remote village, and in his life he could see people in different uniforms who were coming in to his village, different policeman, etc. He was paying tax to people in many uniforms, from five states which established in this area.”
“And so this is why and how politics and history are involved in a personal human life. This is why history is somehow flat and literature is deeper,” he said. “Literature is not history, literature is of personal feelings about beauty and anger and passion, and everything else which is not written in history books.”
Speaking of beauty and literature, he is reminded of a quote attributed to Confucius, which goes: ‘Everything is beauty, but not everybody can see it.’
“And this is literature,” Jančar said. “This is a matter for literature.”