BEF 2011/7 – The Prophecy [Slovenia]

18/02/2011

In his short story The Prophecy, Slovenian author Drago Jančar parallels the fall of socialist Yugoslavia with the parable of the last king of Babylon taken from the Book of Daniel.  Belshazzar is feasting his entourage in his palace, an opulent event, lavish, complete with gustatory blasphemy (the king and his guests drink from sacred vessels taken from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem), decadent, doomed.  While thrilling in idolatry and paying homage to the gods of gold and silver and wood and stone, a disembodied hand appears before them and writes on the wall: mene, tekel, upharis.  Belshazzar’s advisers can make neither heads not tails of its portent and the exiled Jew Daniel is summoned to interpret it.  It is a prophecy, Daniel says, your days have been numbered, you have been weighed and found wanting, your kingdom shall be divided between the Persians and the Medes.  Some versions of the story have the king slain that very night.

Anton Kovač is an old soldier in the Yugoslav People’s Army, waiting to end his tour of duty in just a few weeks, when he discovers amongst the grafitti in a toilet stall at a military base in southern Serbia the couplet,

You’ll eat grass, King of Yugoslavia

Donkeys will fuck your fat ass.

Kovač becomes anxious.  If someone were to see him exit the stall he might get the blame for it.  He can’t believe his ill luck and in the final days of his military service it is all he can do to endure the paranoia of being fingered as the author of something “so blasphemous, so dangerous”.  Kovač is no loyalist at heart, though; for all his discomfort he shares the grafitto’s sentiment.

Kovač works in the library, an armory of Marxist volumes and propaganda, cataloging books and enjoying not having to march with the “pheasants” (new recruits) in the heat of the mustering ground.  His colleague Milenko Panič, a professor of classical philology, of what his comrades call “dead,” “rotten” languages, we soon discover to be the author of the heretical writing on the wall.  Though Kovač doesn’t make the connection, Jančar alerts us to Panič’s – Rotten’s – culpability by a simple detail from Kovač’s memory, the memory of two pens sticking out of Rotten’s shirt.  But why two pens?  Surely one is enough.  No – the pens are two because in their pairing they betray the duplicitous nature of our friend Panič: one pen is the instrument of the quiet scholar, and the other (I imagine it containing red ink) the weapon of a dissident.  Our suspicions are confirmed by the story’s epilogue when Kovač, now an older man living in Ljubljana after the dissolution of Tito’s Yugoslavia, improbably connects the grafitto with the story of Belshazzar from the Old Testament, a copy of which he knows Rotten to have kept at the army base.

Jančar’s analogy of Tito with Belshazzar does not fit as well as he would like.  Beside the infernos unleashed by Stalinism and Maoism, the socialist ideology engineered by Josip Broz Tito could almost be described as a gentle despotism.  In the cordial foreign relations and economic prosperity of his rule, Tito displayed more in common with the often benevolent and meliorating classical Greek tyrant than he did with the ancient Babylonian hedonist-king.  But let me not do injustice to the victims of his political machine, to those that suffered when he fell and Yugoslavia fractured.  The scarcity of stains is no indication of clean hands.

To speak of Yugoslavia and its army is to speak of things of the past, things that have no future.  The men of the former Yugoslav People’s Army have grey hair now and soon all of them will be dead.  Jančar knows that the only thing worse than the oppression of a people by an authoritarian regime is forgetting that it ever happened.  Jančar understands that the memory of the victim’s suffering must not be allowed to evaporate, leaving no stain.  He understands that a silent past is a white sheet and amnesia scrubs clean the dirt that reminds us of what human beings are capable.  Why then, only moments after reading Jančar’s words, do I find them fading silent and white?

‘The Prophecy’ is translated from Slovenian by Andrew Wachtel.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.

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