Slavko Pregl, Slovenia
FOR THE FIRST TIME WE HAVE OUR OWN REAL STATE AND SOMEHOW WE DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH IT
When looking back, can you clearly see the importance of the Slovenian and Bulgarian book for you?
The eyes of my childhood always see the book Slovenian Folktales, illustrated by our celebrated illustrator, Maxim Gaspari. This artist from the time of the transition between XIX and XX centuries walked his exquisitely folklore-colored path from the Slovenian secession and impressionism with the motto “by the people, for the people”! His warm images asserted the text of the fairytales and its whole meaning: good defeats evil, love cannot be stopped by anything, honest work is always rewarded. The tender naďve view of the world prepared me for a long time; I gladly read fairytales and then, later on, I found the stories of Elin Pelin. Then, in my mature years, with great excitement I prepared an artistic monography of the artist Gaspari, who, at that time, was 96, the oldest member of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts in Ljubljana. Actually, he then was already blind, but still drew…
Which books have given you the most, and from which books have you been able to take more than you believed it possible?
I liked history a lot when I was in school. I was probably a little over ten when I bought two fat books with my savings. “The Life of the Great Greeks” by Plutarch and “The Peloponnesian Wars” by Tukidides. I remember how I bent under the load of the two volumes on the way home from the small bookstore and how proud I was, with my still wobbly writing, to write my name in the upper-right corner of the first page, the name of the owner of this acquired fortune…The ancient Greeks completely fascinated me; I don’t know what I had expected but I came into possession of a true fortune, which those who liked stealing this or that, have not until today managed to take away from me. Even as a kid, I used to live with a mind which readied me for far-away journeys to other worlds. Classical writers convinced me that that was where the very foundations of the European civilization were laid; that the Balkans are not only that area of wild and gory stories, which assigned them a painful place in the world’s storehouse of evil.
What is the destiny of fine letters now and what could this destiny be in the near and the more distant future?
Twentieth-century science with its accomplishments left us with the impression that art was dead. I think, however, that it is actually literature that victoriously sweeps away these fears. Technology gave literary art new wings to fly to new worlds of thought, vision and quests. In a unique way human fantasy, desire and abilities open the world to the new generations and all the time expand its boundaries further and further, to all the parts of the universe. Everyone can shape the fate of literature the way they want. But literature, despite all, will always and everywhere penetrate all fates. For as long as people live.
The cultural crisis of today has its causes and its signs, but it also has a remedy that is basically universal. Perhaps the purely Slovenian specifics of this remedy remain out of focus?
I don’t like generalizations. Literary crisis – what’s that? Is it a crisis for the artist, a crisis for the cultural audience, a crisis for the cultural politics? All these crises do not go hand in hand. History tells us many great achievements were achieved in complete lack of understanding by the audience, that “material poverty” oftentimes hinders spiritual growth. Let’s say in Slovenia, statistics show that the interest for books increases when the economy is in stagnation. Now, when it seems we are moving forward, when we go back to capitalism, we have to refine the market of the country with cultural politics. And in all regions it should be closely connected to democracy, but it’s too small to sustain culture and accelerate its growth. Unfortunately, we don’t have plenty of the two means necessary for this purpose – money and brains.
There are many secrets to a book and the author’s mastership tends to be among the most mysterious. Have you reached a conscious explanation for yourself of everything you have created – as creative art, besides a pure will, is also the product of the artist’s instincts, of the artist’s enigmatic and mysterious self that he deciphers only partially in his text to the reader?
This year we lost our great poet and translator (from French and English) Janez Menart, who was also a member of the jury when I received the biggest award for youth literature. (He was also the editor of the translated into Slovenian versions of the great Bulgarian poets Hristo Botev and Elisaveta Bagryana!) During the toast on occasion of the award, he told me there was something in my style of writing he didn’t like, and that was that I narrated too quickly, without stopping and having a look around in the plot. I am afraid that peculiarity of my narrative is still there. Of course, I don’t want to excuse myself neither through humor nor through the sometimes cynical view of the world. Humor helps us live and have the impression we are subduing the world, although it often plays with us. I don’t like thinking about my work. It brings me more joy when the readers find out my secrets on their own. It sometimes happens that they find a meaning I have not myself thought of. This brings me interesting pleasure…
What has been the major source of hope and belief for you through the years?
What we hear is not very sure, but throughout my entire life I have believed in the good of the human mind and hope, despite all, has not left me.
What is your vision of Slovenia at the end of 21st century? What does Time mean to you?
I don’t even know what Slovenia will be like tomorrow, how then can I imagine it in a hundred years? If there was a discussion here about the last fifty years, we couldn’t even agree what it was like, let alone what it will be like. But we, Slovenians, although we are not many – nearly five times fewer than the Bulgarians – and although we are squeezed inbetween the huge worlds of foreign languages, we stood our beautiful ground. We are among the first in the world, who in the XVI century published their first book and the translation of the Bible, published by the Protestant educator Primos Trubar, even though most of our history we have been ruled by other peoples. For the first time, at the end of the XX century, we have our own country. Sometimes it seems we don’t know what to do with it. Well, if at the end of the XXI century we are still an independent Slovenia or a small part of united Europe, it doesn’t seem so important. We’ll probably go on being Slovenians, tolerant Slovenians, among the other tolerant nations, and, I hope, also rich successors of the best given by the Balkans to Europe since Antiquity, and of the best of all Slovenians have accomplished. Time is an ever-winding infinitesimal quantity. The moment you think you have gained control over it, it slips away.
What is the weight of values created over the last 100 years and what is the burden that these years have placed on us?
Every week my grandfather used to pass by the local pub where they had the only radio in the area. He used to smoke his pipe and was convinced that man would set foot on the moon. Everyone considered him a nutty dreamer, including me, although being his grandson I dared not tell him. I used to go to the local cultural center to watch on the only television set the Olympic games in Rome. And here is my son with the whole world in his room through the Internet, whenever he feels like it; he browses through pictures of Mars, sent by the space probe made by man. This is part of the fantastic achievements of the human mind in the last hundred years, part of the triumph of knowledge. In spite of that, we also have the world of pain, famine, sickness and conflict, and at the same time many people die. I hope this will be the last century when the work of the mind and the heart will not be synchronized.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the destiny of the Balkans and mankind? And why?
I am optimistic about the fate of the Balkans and the world. I will quote Murphy’s law here: a man starts behaving rationally when all other options have been tried out. I think we are drawing nearer to the moment when “all the other options will be tried out”.
Is there a peculiarity of your character that you freely joke about in public? And does it happen frequently?
I have absolutely no problem in joking with myself. When I begin doing it, I sink into the illusion I am building up my resistance for the moment when life will start joking with me.
What would you choose – if you had to choose today – between a bag of gold and an eternal book? And what would have your choice been thirty years ago?
Without hesitation I would choose the bag of gold. I would need a small part of the gold to exchange for a huge pile of books, and the rest I would use to try to write more things in peace. Thirty years ago, I needed the bag of gold more than now.
Do you think that in these times when the part of the reader is difficult and uncertain, new names could emerge? Could the experience with your own public recognition be useful today? How did you gain recognition, was it easy?
Every new time comes with its new names trying to join the times, which have already passed from reality into eternity. The way to the reader is difficult as a rule of thumb, although there have been exceptions. For a longer period of time, everything falls into place, as they say. A rule that also applies today is that the literary history is the history of the sold literature. The manuscripts left somewhere in the desk drawers or never realized are lost, regardless how good they were. I haven’t really checked into my merit, I wrote my essays and tried to sell them with a clear conscience. I find that the balance within is the main prerequisite for entering the world of other people. For now, most of my journeys to the readers have had a happy end. Even though some of my work is included in textbooks, people continue to read me.
Would you disclose your own anthology or collection of names of masters of the prose whom you hold in highest esteem – names from Slovenia and the world, including Balkan literature?
Most of my work is addressed to children and teenagers. And that’s more than thirty books and some of them have been translated in over ten languages. I have nothing to complain about, but in my home country I have many fellow-writers, who don’t think this type of literature is art worthy of attention and respect as much as literature for grown-ups. So I don’t give any big names here, which would fit some of the answers of my colleagues, literature has already elevated them to the highest places possible. Let me just say this: what first won my heart for books were our and international writers of children’s and youth literature, who hand-over-their-heart lay the foundation of the wondrous building made of many books from all over the world. When I first started reading, I couldn’t stop. And you always remember your first.
The same questions were answered by some of Bulgaria’s greatest writers, the so-called living classics, who participated in another book series “The White Series – an Autographed Book” in April 1999. You have been able to read their answers – what is your comment?
The most interesting thing of all is to read the statements of writers, and also their views on the world, and their creative work. As a reader, I have always been convinced that the writer has always had many reasons for writing a particular work. I am also convinced that every book has something beautiful about it and I try to find it, both in the content and the form. Your questions posed before the contemporary Bulgarian writers, as well as their answers, are a valuable document of space and time, and of strength of character reflected in them.
Is there a refuge from the monologism and masochism of the Balkan people? What is it?
I don’t know what monologism and masochism of the Balkan people means, respectively I have no impression that the people on the Balkans are richer in this respect as compared to others. I am sometimes amazed by the imagination with which some people begin to theorize. It reminds me of statistics: the thing about it is that it is much easier to prove different things using the same numbers. Everything depends on the goal you have set before you. No doubt, Balkan peoples can be attributed all the peculiarities ever found in humanity.
Which authors – Slovenian, Balkan and world – would be essential for an imagined anthology of chauvinism?
One of the many mentors of mine is the art critic and incorrigible leftist Oto Bihalji Merin, who said to me once, “Life is too short for hate”. I agree with him more and more with the years. I willingly forget the bad and try to remember the good, but somehow I don’t have a strong enough memory to do that. I am not interested in any anthology of chauvinism, not even as a commercial project which would sell well in some evil times, and even less so as part of the human filth to waste our time with.
What cultural and literary complexes can you discern in Slovenians and their neighboring Balkan people? To what extent is that the result of the fact that the Balkan people missed the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Great Geographical Discoveries? How long will we continue to live as if we were alone in the wold, as if nobody else existed but us?
At the very beginning I mentioned I feel I am a successor of antiquity, therefore I have no inferiority complexes. As a matter of fact, we Slovenians are knowledgeable, rational, diligent and thrifty people. (They say, for example, that the Scots came into being when the Slovenians chased away their biggest scrooges!) Here and there they also say that we look like cyclists (we bow our head before those we think stand above us and mercilessly press down those who turn out underneath us!) In literature, it wasn’t until long ago that we fussed about being small, insignificant and so forgotten by the rest of the world. I think, though, that the young, the next generations won’t bear this burden. On the contrary, they take a bold stand: among the billions of people on this world, it’s clear we are a small jewel of a good value and name. Throughout our entire history we, Slovenians, have always belonged to different European rulers and so we have tasted not only from a distance what is reformation and renaissance. It’s no novelty to us either that the world has discovered us! Our diplomat Ziga Herberstein from the XVI century, has traveled working for the European kings Maximilian I and Charles V, to Russia and wrote about it; our historian Valvasor from the XVII century, author of precious books, was a member of the British Royal Society; our missionary Baraga from the beginning of the XIX century wrote a grammar of the American-Indian tribe of Chippewa… And let me add up a few more literary delights: the best translation of Mickiewicz into German was done by our great poet France Presern; on his way to Trieste, James Joyce stopped for a day, maybe by mistake, in Ljubljana; in his Farewell to Arms Hemingway, based on personal experience, set the stage near our river Socha, near the Italian Piava; Agatha Christie and the novelist Ivo Andrich have been on holidays at our Lake Bledsko…Outside of literature, I will only mention that Franz Schubert has taught in Ljubljana for a short while…As a small country we have always been in the draft, which has carried many of our people to all the corners of the world, but we have also enriched all the corners of the world. Unfortunately, during the Industrial Revolution ,we didn’t have our powerful bourgeoisie, hence no sponsors from the rank of Dimitar Tsenov, like the Bulgarians of Svishtov, our universities were founded relatively late; in past times our young minds studied mostly in Vienna and Prague. But this way, we have never set any serious fences around our real life and have always been a part of a bigger space. Only that from time to time, we have for a short while built walls around our spirituality.
How do you assess the role of Balkani, the private publishing house, for the Balkan literary and cultural cooperation, especially the role of the Balkan Library Series? Such a comprehensive series of all Balkan authors has not been published in Bulgaria since 1878. What hatred, prejudice and ideological taboos, what loss of time…
Translation of literature of other languages makes us richer. I feel sad for every book that passes by me. The Balkan Library of Publishing House “Balkani” brings the lovers of literature new worlds, which have sprung to life in our part of the planet and it’s good to know them. Both you and we say, “Better late than never”. What better feeling than our younger generations to have more than we did!
What do you think the Balkan people cannot divide?
It would be great if we split among us all the beautiful and the good we possess. This way everyone will get what they need.
What bigger opportunities do you see in this initiative and what new partners and participants, besides your highly respected involvement?
I am grateful and glad I found myself in such a remarkable surrounding. I hope that readers, who enter my work, will close my books in delight.