Slovene Author in Focus 2013: Marko Sosič
Marko Sosič was born in 1958 in Trieste, Italy. He is a writer and director. He graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art in 1984. He has worked as a director for various Slovenian and Italian theatres and for TV. He began to publish his short prose in the Sodobnost and Mladje literary magazines in the late 1980s. He was the artistic director of the Primorje Drama Theatre in Nova Gorica, and the artistic director and general manager of the Slovenian Permanent Theatre in Trieste for several years. He was the selector for the Week of Slovenian Drama theatre festival during the seasons of 2003/04 and 2004/05 and also acted as selector for the Borštnik Festival – the main Slovenian event dedicated to the art of theatre. He is a novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter and author of adaptations for theatre. His work has been honoured with a string of awards for literature and theatre.
Marko Sosič, Ballerina, Ballerina
The opening word – and sentence – of the novel Ballerina, Ballerina (Balerina, Balerina) prefigures a novel and literary tale with a difference. The interjection aieee introduces the dream of the first-person narrator, Ballerina, in which the protagonist’s flying is followed by falling, while the lyrical portrayal of a small village is shattered by the banal observation that the narrator needs to pee. Thus the very first paragraph conveys the protagonist’s inability to unravel the transition between the world of dreams and the world of reality, and her uneasiness is affecting both emotionally and rationally. Even at this early stage, the reader will pause for a moment to wonder: ‘What (extraordinary) character has just been introduced to me? Why is she only narrating in the present tense? Shall I understand her narrative?’
The narrative works by Marko Sosič (1958) appeal to the reader at several levels and pose many questions, which is the stamp of high-quality literature. From his first book, the short fiction collection Dew on Glass (Rosa na steklu, 1990), to his latest novel, Who Are Nearing Me from Far Away (Ki od daleč prihajaš v mojo bližino, 2012), they are distinguished from other contemporary Slovenian literature by features which make up the core of Sosič’s poetics. The determining feature is a unique realistic technique which creates, through lyricisation and the focus on an extraordinary character as protagonist, recognisable poetics. The realistic narrative technique diverges from the bulk of contemporary prose, which is dominated by the so-called transrealism, a new trend of the last two decades.The detailed descriptions of daily habits, life rhythm and un/usual events elude the classic mimetism of transrealism, unveiling behind the door of verism something much more than a faithful imitation of the lives led by the Slovenian minority in Trieste, while the lyricisation removes the reality portrayed beyond the scope of verification or objectivity.The well-established semantic connotation of typification, a recognisable realistic feature, serves to diversify the portraits of the extraordinary characters still further, while the choice of such unreliable protagonists shapes an original perception of the world, a world alienated through various sources of unreliability. The focus on an unusual character conveys the individual’s questions about the world by spreading over their ethical problems a veil of lyricism.
The core features of Sosič’s poetics – a unique realistic technique, lyricisation, focus on an unusual character – are present in all of his narrative books: two short fiction collections (Dew on Glass andOut of Earth and Dreams – Iz zemlje in sanj) and three novels (Ballerina, Ballerina; Tito, amor mijo; Who Are Nearing Me from Far Away). They are complemented by another regular, chronotope-bound feature: most of the author’s narratives are set in Trieste or in the Karst villages scattered around Trieste, which are populated by Slovenians living beyond the state border. Just as the regular choice of setting does more than reflect the author’s regional affiliation or attachment to his place of birth, the chronotopical stamp does more than mirror the specific realities: rather, the symbolic layers transform the simple sketches of the multicultural Trieste environment into universal pictures of individual fates. The latter are crafted with a subtle sensitivity to the dichotomies between majority and minority, normal and abnormal, commonplace and original.
The most originality in the author’s oeuvre, as well as in contemporary Slovenian literature, arises from the choice of an unreliable narrator. Figuring in all of Sosič’s narratives, these narrators prompt the unavoidable question: ’Why did the author entrust the narration to an unreliable narrator?’ This is the key question to ask when reading an unreliable narrative, in addition to more specific ones, such as ’How accurate are the facts cited by the narrator?’ and ’How far are we to trust the narrator’s interpretation and judgment?’ The effectiveness of unreliable narration springs from diverting the reader’s attention from the level of the plot to the narrator’s level of narration, and thus to his or her peculiarities. The causes of unreliability are many and varied: the narrator’s limited knowledge, personal involvement, problematic scale of values. Sosič’s narratives bring to life such time-honoured types of unreliable narrator as the mental patient (madman), the character arrested at a child’s developmental level, the child, the ingénu.
The novel Ballerina, Ballerina (1997)includes all these elements of idiosyncratic poetics, the most innovative – in terms of Slovenian literature – being the choice of an unreliable female narrator, whose development has been arrested at a child’s level. A quirky character is no novelty as such, since it marks the very first Slovenian novel, The Tenth Brother (Deseti brat, 1866); what is new is the casting of this character in the narrator’s role and the merging of the unreliable narrator with the so-called involved narrator. And what is new from a global perspective is the departure from the literary tradition in which the unreliable narrator used to figure in picaresque and satirical novels. The poignant story of an average Slovenian family from a village above Trieste is told by Ballerina, an adult woman at the level of a child, her mental and emotional horizons limited by her disability. ’Ballerina’ became her nickname after she began to lag behind in her development and respond oddly to certain stimuli: excitement makes her rise on tiptoe like a ballet dancer. Unable to understand the world outside her home kitchen, she is afraid of it, and her communicative limitations make her cling to her mother. Her inability to respond to her surroundings suggests deeper existential issues, such as powerlessness caused by the (hierarchical) differences between people, transience and fatalism, the chasm between ’us’ and ’you’, the search for happiness …
The source of Ballerina’s exceptionality is banal, or even tragic: for reasons left unexplained, her development was arrested at a child’s level, but this fact is sublimated into poetry and nostalgia through her peculiar sweetness and through the remoteness in time (the story is set in the 1960s), while the tragic quality is recast by her child’s perspective as the empathy of a child’s vitalism. Ballerina continues the exemplary tradition of Ciril Kosmač’s gallery of unusual characters, who not only represent a minor community but also point to a special reality, to universal truths, to a fine sensitivity to the plight of helpless or marginalised persons. Instead of social highlights, the perspective of a limited horizon adds aesthetic and emotional ones, while the skilful crossing of boundaries between the average and above-average, the commonplace and the exceptional, motivates an ethical susceptibility to the world, widening the reader’s concept of otherness. According to Bakhtin, the ’mask’ confers on the ’fool’ the right not to understand, to misjudge, to hyperbolise, to parody; Ballerina’s ignorance thus lends itself to unmasking harmful conventionality. A particular quality of Ballerina’s narrative is the enrichment of first-person narration with features of its third-person counterpart, since the narrator is a spectator rather than an active participant. This establishes a distance to the events: she even hears herself as if from a distance (’I think I can hear the sound of me setting down the plates’).
In the gallery of Slovenian literary characters, Ballerina further stands out with the adaptation of her language: it is simple, with short sentences and repetitions of sentence patterns and the same or similar words. As Ballerina is mainly a reporter, an involved narrator giving a running commentary without temporal or intellectual distance, her utterances condense into a universal present. Despite their similarity they are saved from monotony through an enlivening blend of fantasy and verism, as well as through the rhythm shaped by repeated images of yearning: images revolving around the symbolism of the colour blue, the bird, and the song refrains of volare andcantare. Next to the dialectal words and the peculiar syntax of the dialogues, it is precisely the words volare and cantare from the Italian song Nel blu dipinto di blu (D. Modugno) that carry great weight, adding a hint of bilingualism, multiculturality and the 1960s Trieste spirit. Moreover, flying and singing are the central symbols of the novel: flying appears at the very beginning, signalling transition to the surreal, to a different reality, a transcendence of the banal and commonplace, while singing – experienced as a therapeutic activity by the heroine – is similarly endowed with well-nigh metaphysical qualities.
The transition from one world to another is the prime mover of the novel, manifested at several levels. At the level of language it is reflected in the shifts from Slovenian to Italian environment, from literary to colloquial language, from direct to reported speech, and at the plot level in the intertwining between ordinary and extraordinary characters. At the ethical level, transition means progression from ignorance to moral responsibility, while the aesthetic level is maintained by the permeability between physics and metaphysics, where transitions from the verifiable reality to the fantastic and surreal are confirmed by the classic transition symbols, the bird and the colour blue. Ballerina’s multilayered personality and narrative refinement are what makes her unique even in the context of world literature. While her mental retardation, affectionate character and moral health recall Benjamin from Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929), the two differ significantly in the extent of the reality mediated. Benjy, at the level of a three-year-old, reports on the external events exhaustively and precisely like an audiotape, reproducing entire dialogues, ever on the edge of conflict, while his story is merely one out of four versions recounting his sister’s unfortunate fate. From this perspective, Ballerina’s narrative is sparer but more convincingly adapted to the heroine’s mental age, and much more open and polyvalent in aesthetic terms.
The uncontrollably fluid line between fiction and reality, a source of unease for Ballerina, has been heralded as a distinctive narrative feature as early as Sosič’s first book, Dew on Glass, where the characters strive to transcend their commonplace circumstances in various ways. It similarly marks the ten-year-old male protagonist of Tito, amor mijo, Sosič’s second novel, which is set in the same chronotope, the Trieste of the 1960s. The vicinity of Trieste is also the setting of his latest novel, Who Are Nearing Me from Far Away: however, the portrayal of Ivan Slokar, a Slovenian living in Trieste and teaching natural history at the Liceo, is different in that the readers have to unravel the sources of his unreliability on their own. The perspective of an adult unreliable narrator gives voice to the introvert world of silence – a world recorded in Ballerina, Ballerina by a mute film camera – as a predominantly ethical problem of collective and individual guilt, linked to the motif of relatives from Bosnia. Compared to Sosič’s latest novel, it is precisely the dumb materiality of his first that allows the reader to engage in greater associative creativity, especially in the presentation of the characters. Their characterisation is accomplished through their movements and actions as perceived by Ballerina, who provides no tangible picture, external or internal. If the characters seem unhappy because of their imperfections and frustrated desires, the implied author suggests that this is what life is like: unhappy rather than happy.
Of the manifold transitions in the novel, one of the most elaborate ones is certainly the transition from flying to singing. At the level of sound, it is continually repeated in the refrain of volare-cantare; at the level of structure, in the balancing of the two symbols through various narrative elements, most conspicuously through the relationship between the beginning and conclusion of the novel. If the novel begins with an interjection introducing the fear of flying, it concludes with a funeral song: a promise of dead Ballerina’s reunion with her mother and her song. The device of a dead narrator is, next to the innovative casting of a retarded person as an unreliable narrator, a major novelty in Slovenian storytelling, which, coupled with the rest of its qualities, makesBallerina, Ballerina an outstanding novel even on a global scale. The beauty of music, cognate with the beauty of a child’s soul, represents a special value in the novel, closely intertwined with lyrical passages on maternal goodness. All this as well as love, shining through as the central vital force, suggests answers to the questions, literary and non-literary, which come to haunt us long after we have already laid Ballerina, Ballerina aside.
Writen by Alojzija Zupan Sosič
Translated by Nada Grošelj