Dispatch #2 Dogs and Toddlers

Christopher Meredith writing from Novo Mesto, Slovenia

I was sitting in my flat on the top floor writing one of the most boring sentences in the world when I heard the shouting outside.

The three-roomed writer’s flat is in Hostel Situla. Numerous writers have stayed here, including the already almost legendary Maruša Krese. (‘š’ is pronounced ‘sh’. The stress falls on the second syllable in ‘Krese’.) Krese, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 65, is known not only for her writing but for the humanitarian work she did in the Bosnian war in the 90s, driving vanloads of supplies back and forth across two borders from here to the war zone. The people I’ve met here love to laugh, have a sharp sense of irony, and some have an almost Finnish power of self-deprecation mixed with a sense of the absurd that amounts to cynicism sometimes. But everyone I’ve talked to about Krese speaks with an uncomplicated, direct, and moving admiration.

The flat, by an arrangement of stairs and locked landings, is oddly isolated. There’s no phone to reception and no doorbell on either of the two locked landings. You could hole up here and have a very quiet time. A few writers-in-residence, my publisher-hosts told me, have done just that, vanishing into this hideout and only reappearing in order to travel home. One of them is rumoured to have slept almost the entire time. If Lord Lucan is alive he could well be a Writer in Residence in a place like this. Having no wish to be the mad Welshman in the attic (that I can do at home), I’ve got out quite a bit, walking, giving talks in a school, and doing the public stuff of being a writer.

But that day I was in my not-quite-ivory not-quite tower. From the dormer window I can see the little finialled cupola of the Town Hall and the spire of the monastery, and if I stick my head out I can see, up the hill, the buttressed apse of the small cathedral and its spire. Its bells ring the quarters. But mostly there are snowy roofs. Not ivory. Much whiter than that.

I subsidise my nasty habit of writing poems and novels by being an academic. Part of the price you pay for that is that you regularly have to take part in the Most Boring Sentence in The World Competition. This consists of administrators sending you forms to fill in the purposes of which are usually not explained and which usually you can’t understand. At first you ignore these forms for as long possible. Quite often no one ever notices that you’ve done this, but there are times when, like a bladder infection, they keep coming back, and then you have to treat them with the Sentences. Part of the process is that the Sentences should usually contain nothing at all. This is tricky. But occasionally you have to sneak some meaning into them unnoticed, and this is tricky too.

I admit that I volunteered to do this particular form. But having volunteered I was given a Deadline, and Deadline equals guaranteed bladder infection. So there I was doing the Sentences. I was coming to the smuggle-sentence, the one where I actually had to say something. This is the one that should be especially boring. The prize must surely be to say something you really needed to say but to put it in a sentence of such exquisite, Byzantine tediousness that no one will ever know.

I imagine that in some secret, infernal award ceremony the military genius who came up with the phrase ‘collateral damage’ was given a covert gold statuette for this stupendous achievement, and then made a tearful acceptance speech thanking all the world for its wonderful lack of recognition.

I’d been labouring on this bilge for three hours. Shame stops me from telling you the exact wording of what I was in the middle of writing as it came towards midday. Let’s say it was something like: ‘...secondly, thematically and in terms of ideas, we will use this to explore through a case study a major but under-recognised area in recent and contemporary ideas, that is the nature of the relationship between inner, individual experience and larger historical forces...’ For Most Boring Sentence in the World purposes this is far too transparent. I’ve removed some of the spires, bells and unnecessary buttresses. But it was something like that, only buried deeper in baroque wordage. With the cursor winking after the word ‘forces’, I heard noises out in the street.

There was shouting, and horns blowing and whistles. A drum.

I looked at the date and time in the corner of the computer screen.

When you’re in a new country, surrounded by a new language, you pick up your bearings from all kinds of signals. Without real literacy or the basic knowledge of how stuff works you have to become almost as smart and observant as a toddler or a dog, and on the whole I’m not.

Wasn’t there something about a protest today? A public sector workers’ strike. Deep in the Sentences, I’d forgotten about it.

I put on a coat and moved a bit faster than usual down the concrete stairs and out through the locked landing.

In sunlight and a slow thaw, perhaps forty protestors had gathered outside the restaurant across the cobbled square, the Gostišče na Trgu. People in blue tabards marked ‘SVIZ’ waved banners and placards. Some blew on blue plastic horns and one had an old fashioned football rattle. A good-natured crowd began to gather. The protestors smiled shyly and kept up energetic noises as some of us took photos. Cars passing through the square slowed and drivers rubber-necked. Now and then a pair of hands raised a drum, a sort of cross between a tambourine and a bodhrán, and thumped at it with the panache and lack of skill of a primary school kid.

It wasn’t that noisy and it wasn’t that crowded, but there was none of the faint embarrassment I’ve sometimes detected at organised protests. There was an unmistakeable energy in the air. Slowly, more public sector protestors filtered into the trg from the narrow Rozmanova ulica. After fifteen minutes or so there were perhaps three or four hundred people gathered. Some photographers had got into the gostišče and were taking pictures from an upstairs window.

The demonstrators were mainly health workers, I was told. Then the teachers arrived, orderly and quiet. Mirjam, a teacher who had arranged for me to talk at her school came and chatted with me.

Later I got someone to translate some of the placards. ‘UBOGI NAROD KI PRIDHODNOST VIDIV % NEV OTROCIH!’ – ‘We pity the nation that sees the future in % not in children!’ ‘JANŠA, NISMO TVOJE OVCE’ – ‘Janša, we are not your sheep’.

The first speaker, standing under a cutout of a chef with a stacked plate of food pinching a cutout index finger and thumb together in a cartoon gesture that said everything was fine, was a lightly bearded man with a drawn, determined face and receding dark hair. This was Uroš Lubej, a local teacher of philosophy and one of the main organisers of the protests nationally. He’s going to get a hefty fine for organising these things, someone told me. His short speech drew regular enthusiastic applause from the crowd. He’s calling Janša a fascist, someone told me.

After Lubej, several nurses took the mic. It was clear even to me as an honorary toddler that these women weren’t used to the public platform. Their lack of gestures and the flatness of their delivery in this usually expressive and rhythmic language showed that. Their choosing to speak, it seemed to me, was all the more powerful because of this.

When the speeches were over people stood around for a while. One group of protestors formed a smiling circle ad hoc and started to sing.

They were singing partisan songs, someone told me.

It was only when most people had drifted away that a police car crept slowly through the square. Most police were on strike too.

What’s not reported outside this country is that the prime minister, Janez Janša, is widely despised and distrusted. The unanswered corruption case against him and his lack of a real democratic mandate, especially as his coalition falls apart, is tangled in public perception with the austerity measures he’s bringing in, the kinds of measures the IMF’s been criticising recently. The conundrum is worsened by the fact that the leading opposition figure, Ljubljana’s mayor Janković, faces weirdly similar corruption charges. In the last few days Janša’s appointed himself finance minister as well as PM because vanishing allies have left him with so few choices. This rather bears out the feeling among people I’ve spoken to that he will not resign. The irony of a man facing financial corruption charges taking over the finance department isn’t lost on the people.

In European terms Janša aligns himself with the centre right, but on the ground here his few remaining allies are the farther right and the church. The Vatican was the first state to recognise independent Slovenia and the return of nationalised land to the church is seen by some as a kickback. In the 80s, during the pressures that led to independence, Janša was a hero, subjected with others to a ludicrous trial and imprisoned briefly for involvement in some secret military documents found in the offices of the radical magazine, Mladina. Now he’s lambasted in the same magazine. The cover of a recent number depicts him as one of those blank incurious stone heads on Easter Island which he rather resembles, his back to the volcanoes erupting behind him. He’s rocked and chipped by the blast but stolidly imperturbable. ‘After me, the Deluge!’ the caption runs. Even with the mixed metaphors it’s a devastating image.

Lubej isn’t the only one to refer to him as a fascist or neo-fascist. Even former allies have used the tag. While Europe and other governments may not care much what Janša does so long as he keeps the economy going, the mass of people are incredulous that he should remain in power without a majority and with an unanswered corruption charge against him. He has a habit of calling anyone who opposes him a communist (he was once a party member himself), and to everyone’s amusement in this sharp-witted country he’s called them ‘communist zombies’. Predictably the zombie has entered the iconography of protest against him. But while this scatter-gun name-calling remains among his tactics to stay in power, he’s a polarising force.

A few days after the amiable protest in Glavni trg I stood in Congress Square in Ljubljana, the capital, with a leading Slovenian writer, Stanka Hrastelj, who described to me how she’d seen water cannon used against protestors there before Christmas. The first time ever in Slovenia. She didn’t get hit, she told me. All she got was a whiff of CS gas. Neo-fascists, I was told, had moved into the crowd to provoke the police.

This was uncharacteristic. There are lots of protests here, all peaceful, I’m assured, many smaller than the Novo Mesto public workers’ outing, and people may even be getting protest fatigue as Janša toughs it out.

On 8th February there are national protests planned. It’s Prešeren Day, a national holiday in memory of Slovenia’s great romantic poet, a foundational figure for the country, the language and the literature. The anti-government protest has been long-planned, with its focus in Ljubljana. But just recently a counter-protest has been announced in the city for the same day in the same square, to start four hours earlier. There’s a rumour that the government is paying for people to travel in for the counter-demonstration. Already Janša’s many critics are pointing out that this is a tactic they last recall being used by Serbia’s Milosevič. Most people don’t expect the two demos to overlap or to clash. Most people think, in this hard-working, orderly country, that it will all be peaceful. There should be some good zombie gags. We’ll see.

The little demo in Novo Mesto was all over by about 12.35, done with much the same quiet efficiency as most things in Slovenia. I stayed in the streets a while, tasting the air a little differently. The ridges of the roofs were slipping their scalloped red tiles through the thawing snow. Back in my flat I thought of dogs and toddlers, and of the writers, the ones who’d holed up here, and then of Maruša Krese loading up her van and getting on the road. I turned to the smuggle-sentence again. ‘...to explore the nature of the relationship between inner, individual experience and larger historical forces...’

Christopher Meredith, Novo Mesto, February the 4th, 2013

Christopher Meredith is a Translators' House Wales/HALMA writer in residence hosted by GOGA publishers in Novo Mesto, Slovenia. His residency is made possible with the further support of Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Arts International.

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