TOL SPECIAL BOOK EXCERPT: An episode from a significant Slovene novel soon to appear in English translation. by Ivan Cankar, translated by John K. Cox 14 November 2008
Ivan Cankar (1876-1918) is generally regarded as the greatest Slovene prose writer. Although four volumes containing various works by Cankar exist in English translation, this is only a tiny portion of his opus. Cankar’s strong reputation in Europe provided Slovenes their first novelist of international repute and of an indubitably modern and cosmopolitan spirit; his works, furthermore, especially the short novel known in English as The Bailiff Yerney and His Rights,
embodied the poignant quests for national recognition and social justice that so impregnated the atmosphere of late Habsburg Slovenia. More than anything Cankar became known, paradoxically, as a bohemian who was also steeped in the ethnography and folklore of his native land. His reputation continues to encompass his fierce championing of the exploited and marginalized and his studied fascination with the avant-garde of European art. Cankar was, additionally, both a partisan of the proletarian class and an unapologetic cosmopolitan; he was an early Yugoslav (a believer in solidarity and federalism among the various South Slavic peoples) and an unorthodox socialist with mystical and nationalist leanings.
This excerpt is from the middle portion of the novel Martin Kacur: The Biography of an Idealist,
written in 1905 and published in 1907 during Cankar’s long stay in Vienna. The novel tells of the decline of an idealistic young teacher assigned to the Slovene hinterland for political missteps. Brilliant descriptions of Slovenia’s natural beauty alternate with the haze of alcoholic despair, rural violence, marital alienation, and the death of a young and beloved child. Young Kacur quickly grows old, and finally meets his ruin, fighting provincial prejudice and his own inability to translate convictions into deeds. Opportunism and betrayal emerge as threats to progress that are as potent as ignorance itself.
This novel is representative above all of Cankar’s social realism and his political and economic critiques of fin-de-siècle society. Some of the emotional concerns of his other works, such as an innocent’s quest for beauty and the danger and despair of emotional solitude, are also present. Cankar’s style here owes a debt both to naturalism and to Symbolism and also contains, in its sometimes frantic pace and associative interior monologues, hints of early expressionism.
translated by John K. Cox, will be released in 2009 by Central European University Press (Budapest and New York) as part of their Central European Classics series.
– John K. Cox
“Come over here, Grajzar!”
The secretary swiftly finished his drink, walked over to the table, and bowed.
“Good day, sir!”
By the fast, smooth way he pronounced words, Kacur could tell the man was from Ljubljana.
“This is our teacher!” the mayor explained. “And this is my secretary!”
The secretary sat down with them at once. Kacur studied his face but couldn’t tell whether he was twenty years old or forty.
“I think we’re going to hit it off just fine. I, for one, am the intelligentsia in this blessed locale.” The secretary spoke rapidly, winking at Kacur and nodding his head slightly towards the mayor.
“What did you say?” asked the mayor. “Was it something positive or something negative?”
“I stated that I am the intelligentsia in this place!”
“What is that?”
“Intelligentsia is the Slovene term for municipal secretary, because it starts with him and ends with the attorney.”
“What peculiar words this guy digs up!” laughed the mayor. “Every few minutes a new one occurs to him. He recently hornswoggled the higher-ups for three whole months by corresponding with them only in Italian; he claimed we had a municipal secretary who only spoke Italian. Ultimately I threw him in the clink till he got used to the idea of writing in German again.”
“Why do you correspond in German? From Blatni Dol of all places?” Kacur wanted to know.
“How else, when this cad here pretends he can’t write Slovene any more? Last year he was still able to do it, but now he says he’s had a stroke in that part of his brain where the Slovene alphabet is located.”
“Is that true?” Kacur marveled. He gazed at the secretary, whose face was so melancholy and distorted that it made Kacur even more perplexed.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing! The stroke!”
The mayor roared with laughter.
“You see? That’s how he always is! When he’s feeling lazy, he lies down and sleeps and does nothing but eat and drink for a week, saying that he’s had a stroke. Right about now he’ll be wanting something to drink. – Mica!”
The girl placed a liter of wine on the table and the secretary’s face brightened at once.
Dusk was falling. Kacur drained his glass and got to his feet.
“Leaving already?” asked the mayor. “Well, now, you’ll be coming back on a daily basis. We’ll come to terms later about that payment.”
The secretary came out onto the street right behind Kacur.
“Sir, do you really think I’m that much of an idiot?”
“I do not!”
“I’ll tell you this: if you don’t create your own diversions here, you might just croak. Would you believe that I occasionally stand in front of the mirror and tell myself jokes? – Good night!”
And with that he trotted back inside.
“So that’s what one must do!” Kacur thought.
He was freezing cold when he got back to his room. The black walls glared at him with a weird, dead feeling. Kacur felt like he’d been locked away in prison; his chest tightened with fear and his courage drained away.
When he had put out the light and lain down, he saw quite clearly before his eyes the face of his fellow teacher who had prepared his own unchristian end. He was pale and had a long, pointed beard, and he had eyes that sat far back in their sockets.
“Once I was in the state you’re in tonight! And you, too, will someday be in the condition I was in when I locked myself away! My thoughts used to soar up to the clouds, as joyous and bright as the sun; but then they perished in this muck. Do not entertain the hope that you will even gain a foothold, that you will realize a shadow or a nostalgic token of your ideas. Soon you will feel the vampire astride your chest, clinging to your back, drinking, slurping out of your bitter veins and straight out of your heart. Your limp, bloodless hands will hang at your sides and you won’t be able to defend yourself! That’s how life will empty you. That’s how the vampire will drain even the last drop from you, until you lock yourself away as I did.”
“Let me go!” a frightened Kacur screamed, as he sprang from his bed.
He bolted the door and then felt his way along the wall until he reached his bed again; his entire body dripped with sweat.
He dozed into the morning hours, peevish and lost in thought. The bells were ringing for mass, and he headed for the church, since there was nowhere else to go. The inside of the church building was even more squalid and desolate than the outside. The pictures on the walls and ceiling had turned black and blurred into what looked like large damp spots. The altars stood crooked, with wooden saints that tilted and wobbled whenever someone passed by. The pulpit, also of wood, resembled a big empty straw basket resting on a stumpy pillar.
The church was already full; the space clear up to the altar was full of standing women. The air was humid and stale. People coughed and spat, as women’s skirts rustled and by the entrance two farmhands argued and finally began throwing punches at each other. Some little urchin stood laughing beneath the pulpit until an old farmer grabbed him by the ears and hounded him out of the building.
Kacur stood observing the people from a spot in front of the sacristy. It seemed to him that the hostile shadows of Blatni Dol rested on their faces, shadows of desolate roads full of puddles, of gray houses, and even of his dark and cheerless quarters. Among the women standing in front of the altar he saw a voluptuous girl with a kerchief of red silk on her head. She wore a light red blouse and a green skirt. Her face teemed with vitality, and you could scarcely find the shadow of Blatni Dol on those full and somewhat sultry lips, or in her steady, expressionless brown eyes. Kacur kept looking at her and was not even aware that he was starting at her uninterruptedly until the sexton rang the bell and the priest came out to the altar.
The mass struck him as curious, too, and yet he knew that it could not be otherwise in Blatni Dol. In this church building, on this altar, the smell of incense was different from other places, and the candles lacked their usual festive gleam. It was all so run-of-the-mill, bleak, earth-bound. The priest trod heavily, firmly, out to the altar – like a man in the field behind his plow – and swung the tabernacle open with a calloused hand as if it were the door to a barn. After the offertory he went into the sacristy, removed the chasuble, and climbed up to the pulpit. When he had pronounced the blessing and finished the prayer, he blew his nose into a broad, green cloth, and Kacur watched, awestruck, as everyone else, both men and women, produced handkerchiefs at the same time. An old farmer standing behind the door blew his nose into his hand and then spat on the floor. Then the priest started his homily.
“Christian men and women! A new teacher has come to Blatni Dol. A young man. There he stands, in front of the sacristy!”
Everybody turned to look at him.
“Deal honorably with him. Otherwise you’ll have to answer to me! – What does that little urchin there have to laugh about? Hey, you, standing next to him – grab him by the hair and give him a good tug. – Don’t treat this teacher the way you did the last one, whom you renegades drove straight to hell. Woe to anyone who lays a hand on him or even looks at him askance. I’ll jerk such a knot in that person’s tail that he’ll remember it for the rest of his life! And for absolution after that he can go to Father Nace in Razor, or Father Brlincek in Mocilnik – because he won’t get it from me. And send your children to the school as often as you can. When there’s no work for them in the field, don’t let them just hang around, poking around in nests and burrows or playing ball. Don’t let a jackanapes like that cross my path! I’ll give him a wicked thrashing and send the gendarmes to visit his father. Do you really think we’re paying the teacher to do nothing? He’d be stealing our money if he were just to stand there with his cane in the school with nobody else around! In that case I’ll quit saying mass and taking confessions and administering Holy Communion. I’ll just pocket your money. And it’ll be gulp-gulp-gulp and zzz-zzz-zzz all the live-long day. Let our teacher be told that he should bring our guttersnipes over to the church, as is right and proper. And he should only thrash them, really knock them about, when it’s necessary. And it’s always necessary! They’re not going to learn anything anyway, because they are too stupid, so let them at least learn to be afraid of the cane. – Otherwise, what still needs to be said here is this: do not steal, do not brawl in the taverns, and let the grandpas leave the grannies in peace, and the grannies the grandpas, or else watch out! Amen!”
During the sermon, which left Kacur utterly shocked, and the second part of the mass, he looked over only infrequently at the girl in the red kerchief. But she remained in his sight like a bright image that sticks with you after you shut your eyelids. And he saw her again as he left the church and headed towards the presbytery. The most remarkable thing, he thought, is that nothing about her reminds me of Minka except for the red blouse. The new woman’s face was not white – the whiteness of a white-hot iron – and her eyes were not black and radiant, and no smile was to be found upon her lips. Nonetheless his heart gravitated towards her, quivering and involuntarily, and his blood was hot, even while his thoughts remained cold.
The priest greeted him cheerily. He sat at his table, in his shirt-sleeves and without his collar. He poured Kacur and himself a drink of schnapps.
“I’ve never heard a homily such as that one,” Kacur noted with a smile.
“What, wasn’t it a good one?” the priest rebutted him. He had a serious look on his face. “What would you preach to those morons and highwaymen?”
Kacur realized that the priest was right, and he didn’t answer. They ate a quick lunch. A corpulent, pimply woman eyed Kacur crossly as she put the food on the table. The priest took aim at her with his thumb.
“It’s harder to get rid of a woman like that than it is a legitimate wife! Do you think it would help if I chased her off? She’d scold and nag me so much I’d barely be able to set foot outside the presbytery. – This food is burnt again!”
“Lord knows who the nut job is around here!” the woman rejoined. She eyeballed them contemptuously and slammed the door.
“Do you know what’s irritating her? That I failed to invite you here yesterday, and that I don’t want her to join us at the table. She likes the young fellows.”
He clasped his hands over his stomach and laughed like a horse.
“Well, what can you do? – Do you intend to remain long in Blatni Dol?”
“I’ve made no plans. I didn’t want to come here and I don’t believe it would help if I wanted to leave. I’m just thinking one thing: I won’t remain here for very long. Because otherwise I’ll perish, perhaps in as sad a state as my predecessor and colleague.”
“You have to get accustomed to things; that’s all! I acclimated, too. And now I no longer want to leave here, and if I did want to go away, I couldn’t – the people would block my path with scythes! – And where am I supposed to go? I’ve been living here for twenty years and have gone native. Like a peasant. – How could I have survived otherwise? There is no alternative life: either be with the people, be like them, or die! And now there’s nowhere else I wish to go. Anyway, where could I? People would ridicule me everywhere, and I would be as awkward as a bat on a sunny day.”
“Were you also assigned here as punishment?”
“You betcha! Who would take it upon himself to move to Blatni Dol? But the reason for my punishment – I don’t even know it anymore. When a person is used to jail, he forgets the sin. You, too, young man, will be shoveling shit one day!”
“Is there no other way out? I mean, there are one’s thoughts and ideas. And at least one does have books!”
“Wrong! Take a look at my library. The breviary is in there and nothing else. I used to have a number of books, but she probably used them as kindling. And I don’t hold it against her. Thoughts, books – they just make people dissatisfied. They make you weak. Sick. But if you work in the field, and handle livestock, then you won’t plague yourself with ideas and you’ll live to a ripe old age. I’m already seventy years old, and I could still pin you as if you were a toddler. And I’ll live to see a hundred!”
“But what’s the point?”
“Aha! See? That’s where your thinking gets you! It makes you grumpy and embittered! What’s the point of living? Every year I have my special worries: how will the grain turn out, whether the livestock is flourishing, and what the vintage is going to be like. I turn around and spring and fall and winter have passed. But you pore over your books and moan: what’s the point of living? – I have heard of people who put an end to their own lives, and they are mostly people who concern themselves with books. But there’s never been a farmer who strung himself up; I’ve never heard of an ear of wheat doing away with itself.”
Kacur was depressed. His heart felt leaden, dead.
“So what distinguishes a human being from an animal?”
Kacur hung his head.
“But these twenty years here, sir, they aren’t all there is to life! There was, previously, another life … before the Fall. I tasted it, too!”
The priest looked away. He was staring into the distance from under half-closed lids.
“There was that! – But what’s the use of it now? What am I supposed to do with that?”
He smiled. His face brightened and took on an oddly tender expression.
“Was I ever an ‘agitator’ back then! That was long ago. I was a Nationalist too early. Nowadays any old curate can be a Nationalist without risk to himself, but early on it wasn’t that way. Well, I was still young, and stupid. When you’re young, you believe that the whole world revolves around you! You have tremendous obligations, and a mighty calling, and a solemn mission, and if you don’t carry it out, then woe to the peoples of the earth! But the only reality to it all is that you have too much blood in your veins. That was certainly the case with me. And what do you think my grand and solemn mission was? I taught boys to sing. Namely those patriotic songs that a person sings when he or she is inebriated. And I raved about the poet Koseski, and about Toman, too! Is Toman still alive?”
“He has since died.”
“May he rest in peace … And what is your calling? Your mission?”
Kacur blushed. He did not know how to respond.
“Hm, what could it be – the same thing it always is? You want to work with the people, right?”
The priest was looking out the window when he leapt out from behind the table.
“Oh, you damned guttersnipe! You don’t even spare my garden in the winter! At least wait, you little monster, until the pears are ripe! I know who you are. You’re one of Mrkin’s kids!”
He retreated from the window, still flushed and exasperated.
“Out of sheer malice he goes and cuts off the grafted branches with his pocket knife. Don’t waste your time on these people! They know themselves what they need: they eat, they drink and they die. What else could they want? The only folks who work with the people are the ones who betray them. They are themselves different, alien, and they hold that the people need to be different, too! – You see, I settled amidst these people and have been living among them for twenty years and then some. I do not believe in the least that they want to find a way out of this dung-heap into some higher realm. Let things stay as they are. The locust belongs in the field, the horsefly on the horse, and the midge in the tavern!”
With that, the priest stood up and Kacur started to take his leave.
“Come visit me once in a while, but not too often, for I have a great deal to do! And don’t fret or trouble yourself too much about the school. You aren’t going to accomplish anything anyhow. – Goodbye!”