Review: Ljubljana Tales – New Europe Writers

lubliana tales Ljubljana Tales is published by New Europe Writers, a publishing enterprise dedicated to exploring the literary connections between the various European states, with an emphasis on those countries which were formally behind the Iron Curtain.

They have published several volumes of “Tales” including Warsaw Tales (now available for free download), Budapest Tales, Prague Tales and Bucharest Tales. I like the idea of anthologies of books from a particular city, especially when it’s a city I know little about.  Ljubljana is of course the capital of the former Yugoslavia nation of Slovenia.  My son visitited Ljubljana last year and keeps telling me what a an interesting city it is and this seems to be confirmed by its Wikipedia article.

Ljubljana Tales is a very nicely presented mix of poetry and short fiction in very accessible translations which all reflect the literary tradition of the city.  Slovenia had it’s own “Spring” which began in 1987 when the  magazine Nova Revija published articles demanding reform.   We who live in nations with a more settled history find it difficult to understand the place that writing had in the revolutionary movements which led to the liberation of countries like Slovenia.

The range of pieces in Ljubljana Tales is very wide.  About half the book consists of short poems, and the other half a mix of short fiction, never more than about half a dozen pages long.  I counted 66 pieces in total and found that as they were so short it was easy to immerse myself in the literary community of Ljubjana for a couple of days by picking the book up at odd moments.  In fact, some of the pieces would make useful accompaniments to a visit to the city.  For example, Miha Pintarič’s The Cobblers Bridge makes fun of an old ritual that used to take place there:

cobblerrs

Cobblers Bridge, Ljubljana

The happy cobblers used to lend
their bridge to bakers for a rite,
when those chastised, their ways to mend,

that is, the bites they sold too light,

were tucked into a tiny cage,
soaked in the river, there to gauge

 whether their sin was well in line
with the taste of its waters fine.

Miroslave Košuta does a similar job for The Dragon Bridge

From the bridge of fog when it cursed the dragon,
From the bottom of the other world murmurs
On the old map four places.  There, the Gorilla,

there are our borders., the ravens, guards,

dispersed the language . . .

By the way, dragons feature quite often in this book.  One story describes the dragon bridge (which has a stone dragon on each corner) as the Kingdom of Dragonia.  Other poems refer to dragons and the story, The Amphibrach by Ludwig Bauer posits the interesting theory that dragons were in fact a species of flying lizard, “which could have expelled gases from its body, from some form of pre-stomach, and these gases could have caught fire, puportedly without damaging the skeletonized lips of the alleged dragon”.  These references to dragons are explained in the story, Not to Worry by Sebastijan Pregelj which tells readers that the dragon is actually the symbol of Ljubljana.

tivoli park

Tivoli Park, Ljubljana

In The Mobile Phone, Lili Potpara writes about Strecko a reclusive office worker whose colleagues give him a mobile phone for his birthday.  He didn’t want a mobile phone and has no friends to call, but he takes the phone home and eventually receives a call from an unknown woman called Fani, who had called a wrong number.  Fani calls again, and then again, and before long Strecko is wondering about this anonymous woman and hoping she will call again.  He even takes the phone into the shower so that he will not miss it.

I enjoyed this story which shows how technology can both open doors but also lead to the rather addictive behaviour of endless checking for messages.

The short fiction is always thought provoking; little word-pictures or snapshots providing glimpses of life in the capital.  I liked The Waiting Room by Jamnik Pocajt in which he goes into a railway station waiting room only to be stopped at the door by a very neatly dressed man who greets him with a torrent of angry words,

Can’t you see the floor has just been mopped!  You can’t just walk in like this with your dirty shoes.  You’ve dirtied this freshly washed floor!

The writer withdraws and watches the man through the window as he puts food away in some bags and shifts them back and forth from left to right, realising that, “of course, it’s his home! I stood there dumbfounded, moved by this man striving his utmost for a semblance of order – this was his struggle for human dignity . . . on the floor lay the wreckage of a life”.

Two stories feature uncles.  I enjoyed Evald Flisar’s An Incident in Ljubljana in which his accident-prone Uncle Jaroslav Scheweik lives a life in Ljubljana which paradodies Jaroslav Hasek’s comic novel The Good Soldier Svek with hilarious but in the end tragic results.  In Uncle Dint and the Devil Oil gets diverted from a walking tour by his Uncle who takes him off to an hotel where they drink cocktails all day.  A few glasses of Skubrl’s Icebreaker (local brandy with Kummel, Cointreau over iced mint) lead to a day of sparkling conversation and the inevitable inebriation.

I am not a great reader of poetry but I found the poems in Ljubljana Tales generally straightforward and accessible.  It says a lot that I have read some of them several times.  In a short article it would be impossible to highlight more than a very few, but I will just give brief snippets from three of the many that pleased me.

On A Sunday Night by Aleš Mustar

I hate Ljubljana on a Sunday night
as it turns into a giant tomb.
Ms Stanka and Pavla close the doors of their little inns as well,
on Sunday they only boil beef broth and sauté potatoes
for their immediate family members
and thus protect themselves from all harm.

At Morning’s Light by Ivo Frbežar

Clearly every day
is a new day;
clearly every day
hatches a new egg;
every day a new nest
for the new young.
It’s a new home
that a bird knits

When you are not with me in Tomai by Josip Osti

When you are not with me in Tomai I chisel you day and night
in the middle of the garden out of crystal clear
air of Karsi . . . From the memory of the eyes which have
looked at you, and of the hands which have caressed you
for a long time. . .

With over 60 items in this book I am barely scratching the surface in this review.  I can only say that I found it a fascinating dip into the literature of contemporary Ljubljana, a place I would have known nothing about if I had not read “Tales”.  I now feel that I would like to visit the city and explore it’s many features (see the official website). Ljubljana Tales is not currently available from  Book Depository but can be bought at the bookshops listed here or from Amazon.

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