A tiny dot had been flashing and circling slowly over a virtual point beside the road on the Google map until the satellites intercepted and correlated my precise position in the imaginary landscape; then the dot stopped moving, coming to rest on the road precisely where I was standing; that’s me, I thought, and as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of a heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.
It’s tempting — and partly right — to think of the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar as a modernized W.G. Sebald, as a restless, observant wanderer equipped with a streak of melancholy and a notebook, but also with a tablet and a smart phone. Šarotar’s Panorama: A Narrative About the Course of Events is written in extended sentences that can meander for pages, weaving around the many black-and-white photographs he embeds in his text. Like Sebald, he has apocalyptic visions in which a powerful and indifferent nature can wipe out mankind in a single stroke. When Šarotar’s narrator finds himself in Brussels Central Station, he even name-drops Sebald’s “superb novel Austerlitz.” But Šarotar is also trying to turn the Sebald ship with all of its baggage in a somewhat different direction.
The book’s narrator, who is surely based on Šarotar himself, travels in Ireland, the Aran Islands, Belgium, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. At times, he is on a quest to find a place that might provide the peace he needs for writing this book, but mostly he goes for hikes in the woods, goes sightseeing in cities, and visits with people who are almost exclusively emigres from eastern Europe. Much of the time he is accompanied by an Albanian expatriate named Gjini, who often serves as his driver. Gjini, who left Albania more than ten years earlier, has no regrets or nostalgia for the old country, but he does articulate the challenges of being an emigre, which he describes as being like “a new-born child, speechless and anonymous.” The Irish, he says, “accepted me, or more precisely, they let me keep fighting, and I have to say that although it was a fair fight, it was also cruel and merciless, and it’s still going on after all these years.
Šarotar is perhaps less interested in history than Sebald and considerably more attuned to the natural world, especially weather. He is at his best as an intent, if not intense, observer, grappling with nature’s whims and attempting to describe the multitude of emotions that he feels in response. “I was full of sensations, of baffling impressions that pushed their way into my consciousness like pictures in a disorganized photo album.” Standing at the edge of a heavily wooded lake in the moments after a storm, he thinks he hears someone dive into the water. He thinks he hears breathing, the beating of a heart, the strokes of a swimmer, but he sees no one. “I felt that maybe this was a speech I didn’t know, a language transmitted by waves on water like Morse code, except that the water was communicating not just letters and words but also sighs, rhythm, silence, the beating of a heart, fear, love and death…” Over and over, Šarotar tries to capture the indescribable in words, only to come up short. But Šarotar intuits that we all would be bereft if the world suddenly lost its mysteries.
…and then a wonderful light, and I will probably never forget this moment, was suddenly in all its sharpness hovering above the black, rippling surface of the lake, as if it had burnished itself to a shine against the edges of the mountain cliffs around the valley and then, out of the pure, cold depths, had risen once more above the immortalized scene; I remember, as if it were now, that as I watched, but before I could take a picture, the light simply dissipated, as if it wanted to gently touch, to shine upon, something else, the way only our most fragile, most precious, but also most achingly beautiful memories are illuminated. In fact, the light that had then flashed in the sky merely caressed them with its mysterious grace — I still don’t know any other word for what remained in my memory, for the great image soon faded in the darkness, so that almost nothing of that first impression, the initial innocent glance, remained with me except this indescribable and undepictable feeling.
Panorama is organized as a set of extended memories. Early on, the narrator tells us that he is writing down his recollections and that his memory sometimes fails him. But Panorama is also organized as a set of nested voices, much like Sebald’s Austerlitz. Šarotar’s narrator is frequently telling us what other people told him. And sometimes those other people are recounting what yet others said to them. Šarotar does this all without any quotation marks, so the the numerous voices come across as a single voice, regardless of who is speaking, as if the narrator is the collective voice of the various emigres who appear in Panorama. Here’s the narrator recalling what Gjini said about what Jane said: “I’m not sure but it was as if the wind carried it in from the sea; it hovered in the silence, somewhere deep inside me, not a song, but the singing of angels; the dead were still singing, Jane said, Gjini said.”
If Panorama has a central theme it is language or, more precisely, language and place. The narrator and nearly everyone he encounters is either traveling outside his or her own country or has left it to live elsewhere. They are both tourists and emigres. “I looked through the panoramic window at the train tracks; I suspected that the man behind the bar, too, was gazing into the distance — his image, hovering next to mine in the reflection on the glass, had become still; we were like a mirage, wandering souls trapped in the thoughts of those who move eternally from place to place.” What the emigres seem to regret most is the loss of their original language, which can make them feel homeless no matter how long they have lived in their new country. Caroline, an academic, sums this up to the narrator:
I think, Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say that it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended — many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond.
And here is Renata, a translator for the European Parliament in Brussels, who is somewhat skeptical about the task she has been given, which is to make translations that transcend nationality:
What we are trying to do, Renata said, and do in a way that is both consistent and based on the principle of equality, is to translate linguistic and conceptual diversity and difference into terminologically and culturally acceptable legislation…and what’s more, it needs to be understandable to all European citizens.
In Brussels, the narrator visits Spomenka, an emigre from the Baltic countries who now is a professor of literature. “I come from a place where literature used to mean something,” she says. For Šarotar, much like for Sebald, one of the most critical ways in which literature can be meaningful is in its connectedness. The continual attentiveness of Šarotar’s narrator to the natural world, architecture, cities, people, and literature causes him to see the way in which aspects of our world are interrelated and how these interconnections help make some sort of sense of the mystery of being alive.
But while Šarotar (and his narrator) serve as the mouthpiece for the various emigres who show up in Panorama, Šarotar, who still lives in Slovenia and writes in Slovene, does not seem to share the emigres’ preoccupation with the loss of their birth languages. His ultimate goal is an attempt to capture in a grand, sweeping gesture of language the ineffable sense of being alive, of finding oneself human on a strange planet. It’s both a search for personal understanding and an attempt to test the limits of language. As the book opens, Šarotar’s narrator is on the western coast of Ireland as a powerful storm comes in from the Atlantic, shaking the small house where he is staying. He suddenly imagines:
words were rolling like multi-coloured marbles, the glass eyes scurrying away, hiding beneath the table, ducking out of sight for a moment as if waiting for inspiration, then taking off again; I felt that maybe if I could freeze them, at least for a second, could read their placement in the room, I’d be able to capture the thought, the long sentence that was both hiding and revealing itself to me in seemingly random images.
Panorama is loaded with photographs made by Šarotar (sixty-nine photographs, to be exact). They have no captions to tell us who or what we are seeing, and most of the time it doesn’t matter. Like Sebald, he photographs signs, window displays, works of art, and the objects and streetscapes of tourism, images that apparently document the people, places, and events that appear in his writing. But his best photographs are moody, dark images of nature and weather that reaffirm the existence of the indescribable.
Panorama (London: Peter Owen Publishers/Istros Books, 2016) is the first book by Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar to appear in English. I hope some publisher will undertake the English translations of his other novels. Rawley Grau made the translation from the original Slovenian.