We have to grant him that he alerted the house to himself in plenty of time, that he distanced himself from it and warned it, but they refused to believe him, they believed in him staunchly and kept trying to win him over, now more deliberately than before, they didn’t retreat from him, they had overblown expectations of him, instead of just hocking him out into a spittoon or spitting him out in a wide arc onto the trash heap.
Some books aim for comfort, for a style, plot and characters that will spirit the reader away to another world and release them, the last page turned, the brain not too strained, with the feeling of a story neatly told and concluded. Not so The Errors of Young Tjaž (1972; tr. from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins, 2013), Carinthian Slovenian author Florjan Lipuš’s 1972 novel, a strangely challenging, disconcerting but ultimately very gratifying read published last year by Dalkey Archive Press in its Slovenian Literature Series.
Why disconcerting? For one, there is the constant uncertainty as to who narrator and narrated-to are, “you,” “he,” and a number of “I” being the main, but not simultaneous, tellers of the always one-sided conversation that makes up the book. “You” and “he” are most often the same person: Tjaž, a rebellious, disaffected boarder from a rural family in post-war Austria. “I” is a fairly constant narrator, describing himself at times as a fellow boarder-turned-report writer, though “I” can also be a girl Tjaž was involved with, or, as “we,” the collective, unspecified voice of the church school where Tjaž boards for a time. They all speak about Tjaž, but Tjaž himself is always elusive, as when, in the early pages of the first chapter, he is at once on the train he has just boarded, and still in the village he has just left, where villagers brought together by his walking past them busy themselves discussing him.
Neither are these narrators faithful chroniclers of Tjaž’s life or even of the period of his boarding school life that they are concerned about. The main narrator, when deciding it is time for him to make an “I” appearance, justifies his story by recalling a report he has been commissioned to write on certain aspects of Tjaž’s life, particularly his expulsionfrom the boarding school, for his boss (who that is, or even whether the existence of this boss matters, is one of the many things for the reader to decide). He describes himself as “thoroughly reliable, trustworthy, reasonable,” and ponders over the relative importance for his report of “even superficially extraneous matters.” Yet for all his statements that his report will be “as factual and documentarily precise as possible,” this narrator often, and obviously, departs from this objective: here he talks at length about the colour of a spider’s back that only Tjaž should have seen, there he corrects himself, preferring to make the light he describes come through stained glass rather than curtains because it sounds more appropriate for the chapel setting.
What comes out of all this is a fragmentary, impressionistic, possibly deliberately misleading account of shards of Tjaž’s life: his preternatural “scratching” skills (one of several aspects calling for comparison with Günter Grass’s drum-bashing, glass-breaking Oskar in The Tin Drum), his encounters with girls, his family background of illiterate farm hands and woodsmen caught up in Hitler’s war.
Binding the seemingly disjointed chapters and voices is the idea of freedom, especially freedom from the expectations or obligations of post-war Austrian society as exemplified by one of its more extreme representatives, the Catholic boarding school. “Submission was very slow in penetrating his consciousness, and it never really got into his blood,” says our unnamed narrator of Tjaž. Nini’s account (the female “I”), draws the same picture, but from a different angle: “the scratching completed him, he used it to shape his life, to hold his fate in balance, to perfect his personality, in short, without the scratching he wouldn’t have been able to live, and living means being free, deciding between options, enduring, being now and later, being always, and then ever after.” Tjaž himself chooses actions over words to express his rejection of the rules and rituals of his environment. Before moving on to challenging temporal and religious authority on an always greater scale, his first scratching attempt involves the comprehensive disassembling of a fellow boarder’s shoes at mass time:
Touching scenes offered themselves to Tjaž’s analytical eye: the leather yawned and stretched as if it had just awoken from a century-long sleep or were returning from its protracted captivity, its edges and curves groaning as they straightened back out. Tjaž had given the leather back its original shape from before it was fashioned, had restored it to freedom, delivered it from bondage — who could have kept a dry eye seeing how the leather soaked up all these kindnesses.
The absurdity of the church’s liturgy, symbolism, and demands on its devotees internal lives (“Penitence was just over, though a few here and there were still repenting, even though they had nothing to repent and were mainly repenting for not having anything to repent.”) is a near-constant companion strand to the narrative’s freedom and submission theme, with a recurrent motif underlining the bovine qualities of this particular church’s worshipers. It is, at the same time, somewhat unfair to pick out this last aspect, because its force comes precisely from its scattering as manifold expressions of background impressions rather than any all-out, articulated condemnation of organised religion. Curiously, these images never come from Tjaž himself, and always from the unnamed narrator in his more disengaged, all-knowing moments. Tjaž is never presented as a thinking or articulating being with a voice of his own: violence (generally more symbolic than actual) is his mode of expression, and the very absence of his own voice adds a further difficulty in seeking to unravel the distinction between Tjaž and the ultimate narrator’s identity.
As with the story, so is the writing, at once precise and shifting (and brought to life in English by Michael Biggins’ excellent translation from Lipuš’ original Slovenian). Aside from his own refusal to conform with the narrative techniques of conventional writing, Lipuš’ deftness at encapsulating larger ideas with the words and images of his small town, Catholic boarder protagonist is one of the joys of his prose:
Tjaž’s own people back home were no different in that respect, nothing changed, the kitchen kept being a kitchen the bedroom stayed the old bedroom, the shed was unremittingly a shed, the cellar a cellar, the closet a closet, they were no different from the bedroom, kitchen, shed, and cellar of, say, fifty years ago, everything had its fixed place like the words of in the our father, you couldn’t switch them with others, turn them around or leave them out if you wanted, or they’d accuse you of heresy.
As so often, one can only thank Dalkey Archive Press for having allowed Lipuš’ novel to slip through the net of indifference that so often afflicts works from minor languages spoken in obscure corners of the Central European world.