The other day me and one of my humanist friends had an interesting debate about Slovenian contemporary culture and book recommendations, so I asked here to write a guest post about it. Andreja Cimprič is a historian with a keen interest in philosophy and literature, and even though I’m a huge bookworm, I’ll admit I don’t pay as much attention to Slovenian contemporary literature as I should, so she was the perfect person for this blog post (thanks!). She did a great job covering all the aspects of popular culture (books, music and movies) and their place within the broader context of Slovenian mentality and history, even though she was limited to the ones that are translated in English. I’ve added a few of my recommendations and comments in between as well, so if you ever wanted to know more about my country or are just looking for something fresh and different, give this list a try (I know I will)!
Slovenia is a country which takes an unusual pride in its culture. Therefore any attempts at cutting the funding for culture aren’t exactly meet with enthusiasm in a significant part of the population. The reason for it should be sought in the historical process of the Slovene nation building, as the Slovenian nation is one the nations without a significant political tradition. If western European nations, such as England and France, could and did rely on their tradition of state and politics, that wasn’t the case for Slovenians when we were struggling for recognition of our language and national right in the supranational Habsburg empire. If our neighbours Hungary and Croatia could rely on the continuity of the crown and their empire, we had none of that. Our elites spoke mostly German or Italian, and therefore seemed like foreigners in the nationalist frenzy of the nation-forming 19th century. But we had culture, which was the most significant way of showing our national being. That is the reason we celebrate the Reformation Day (31st of October), even though Protestantism didn’t have a significant impact on Slovene culture. It is for celebrating rebellion and, even more importantly, the making of the first Slovene books by Primož Trubar.
Culture is still a very significant part of our national identity and our cultural production is pretty big for a nation of our size. Since I am a humanities bitch who always buys a book when I travel, I find it suitable to give you a short introduction to Slovenian contemporary culture, which can open your eyes not only to the Slovenian reality, but also in regards to the broader cultural tensions of the Balkans, central Europe and post socialist states as such. So, here are my recommendations for books, movies and music with a short introduction for every mentioned piece:
#1: Drago Jančar – I Saw Her That Night
Drago Jančar is probably the most well known Slovene writer and with good reason. Not only is he a really supreme stylist, but also gives a voice to the cultural anxieties of the current Slovenia in a quirky, postmodern fashion. He is also known for his vocal, controversial and strong opinions about the Slovene society and politics. Jančar is, for example, a former dissident from the socialist Yugoslavia and a conservative, who voiced opposition not only against vulgar nationalism, but also against capitalism, which is probably inconceivable to many Western readers. This unique view is also a part of this novel, which is constructed in a similar manner as Akira Kurusawa’s cult movie Rashomon. It shows an event from the Second World War through different eyes and gives the reader both a window into the pre-war Slovene society, and food for thought in regards to the interpretation of historical events. Link to the novel here.
At this point I should also mention two more of Jančar novels, which had been translated into English: The Galley Slave, which is set in the early Modern era and builds a real, paranoid atmosphere of religious struggles, witch hunts and the birth of absolutism in the Habsburg lands. The other one is The Northern Lights, which describes the tensions in pre-war Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city, and really shows the birth of totalitarian tendencies within a society. It is probably the most current of his books in this era of Donald Trump, Brexit and Viktor Orban. /Edit: My favourite among Jančar’s books is Zvenenje v glavi (Headnoise), which isn’t translated to English, but was made into a movie – here./
#2: Lojze Kovačič – Newcomers
This is a novel Petra hates and which I had to read and write an essay about for my high school graduation. It follows the author’s life story: he was born in Basel, Switzerland, to a German mother and Slovene father, which isn’t a surprising fact as Germans used to form a significant parts of the population in Slovenia. The author describes moving back to Slovenia, the stigma of being half-German and the cultural shock of encountering the reality of Slovenian countryside. Kovačič also possesses a very interesting writing style, which is the consequence of the fact that he was thinking in German many times while he was writing in Slovenian. This book is a nice addition to the works of Drago Jančar as an introduction to understanding the cultural and class anxieties of central Europe. Link to the novel here.
#3: Vladir Bartol – Alamut
This is probably the most famous Slovene novel and one that gained significant notoriety after the terrorist attack on 9/11 and the rise of political Islam as a force to be reckoned with. This work was a subject to both praise and criticism, praised as a prophecy of the future and criticised as being full of prejudice against orientalism. Both points of view are kind of correct, but both fail to understand the point of the novel and miss the spirit of the age.
Firstly, while Alamut is set in the Islamic world, the themes of the novel are much more universal and actually inspired by European events. Vladimir Bartol was originally from Trieste, the town which now lays in Italy, but always had significant Slovenian presence, and was very alarmed by the rise of fascism, which was specifically anti-Slovenian in Trieste. Inspired by the works of F. Nietzsche and psychoanalytics, Bartol’s Alamut offers us a timeless window into how extremism and fanaticism are born. Link to the novel here.
#4: Suzana Tratnik – Games with Greta
Suzana Tratnik is one the most important current Slovenian cultural figures and she can rightfully be called ‘’donna universalis’’ as she is a writer, translator, sociologist and LGBT activist, who was one of the most important figures in the alternative and dissident movements in the 80s. Her favourite art form is a short story. Games with Greta is also a short story collection, in which the protagonists are mostly from the margins of society and offer a perspective of rebellion and difference, which is kind of hard in a small country where everybody knows everybody. Link to the stories here.
#5 Goran Vojnović: Southern Scum, Go Home!
In the heat of the Black Lives Matters movement the voices from the margins are becoming more and more important. While Slovenia is seen as an extremely homogenous country from the outside, and most of the immigrants are pretty much blended into the mainstream society, due to being both white and Slavs, the cultural tensions and the use of Southern Slav immigrants as ‘’the Other’’ since the downfall of Yugoslavia are still present, specially since they replaced the Germans as the supreme Other after WW2. Vojnović offers a humorous and realistic view of the culture and society of immigrants from the ex-Yugoslavia without indulging in idealization. Oh, and there is also a movie based on the novel (Čefurji Raus!). Link to the novel here.
#6: Katja Perat – The Masochist
Katja Perat is probably one of the most important voices of the younger generation in Slovene literature, who first made herself a name with poetry, but also entered into the world of prose with her novel The Masochist. It is a fictional autobiography, which uses the backdrop of the 19th century central European culture as a way to dive into feminist themes and exploration of the female sexuality. Link to the novel here.
#7: Mojca Kumerdej – Harvest of Chronos
As I already mentioned in the introduction, the Reformation was an important event in the building of the Slovene national identity, even if mostly through later interpretation. Therefore it seems fair to include a novel, which deals with it and the early modern Slovenia. Mojca Kumerdej uses it as a backdrop to explore universal, or even modern topics such as violence, intolerance and scapegoats, but she does it with stunning historical accuracy – she was helped by Dr. Sašo Jerše, who is one of the most important Slovene historians of the younger generation. Link to the novel here.
#8: Boris Pahor – Necropolis
Since we live in an age when extreme right is re-entering the political arena and the crimes of the 20th century are on a brink of oblivion and a source of material for Internet memes, a holocaust novel written by a member of the Slovene minority in Italy is a must read. Particularly because Boris Pahor has a great command of language and is an important figure in both Slovene and Italian culture. /Edit: He’s also 106 years old and considered the world’s oldest Nazi concentration camp survivor/. Link to the novel here.
#9: Jela Krečič – None Like Her
Another Slovene novel, which deals with highly contemporary and universal themes, is None Like Her by the Slovene author and philosopher Jela Krečič (who is also Slavoj Žižek’s wife – /Edit: Žižek is the world famous crazy Slovenian philosopher/). The basic plot of the novel is a guy’s obsession with his ex girlfriend: to prove that he is over her, he goes on a series of dates. Through his interaction and dialogues, the author offers a clear window into crypto-misogyny, which is still present in the millennial generation, despite their nominally progressive views. Link to the novel here.
#10: Maja Haderlap – Angel of Oblivion
While it was originally written in German and not in Slovenian, this book still deserves a place, as Maja Haderlap is a member of the Slovenian minority in Carinthia, Austria where their belonging to the Slovene nation is much more reflexive than in Slovenia itself. There are two reasons for it, firstly of course the historical discrimination and the Nazi terror, and secondly is the role that Carinthia plays in the Slovene national mythology. The novel deals with contemporary history and the search for identity, and is, despite dealings with a highly specific time and place, extraordinarily universal. Link to the novel here.
Ivan Cankar – The Bailiff Yerney and his rights
Petra asked me to avoid Cankar, as some of his works are probably a source of trauma for every Slovenian school goer, but he is also an extremely important writer and a testament of his time. His work offers a corrective view to the Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday and shows also the poverty and ancient regime mentality of the old Austrian Empire besides the elegance of the Viennese society. Link to the novel here.
/Edit: While I agree with Andreja that Cankar is an extremely important historical and cultural figure, he is often hailed as the greatest Slovenian writer. I actually like his plays, but not his prose – as you might have gathered from this list, lots of Slovenian novels tend to be firmly rooted in the horrible past, reliving all the woe which had historically befallen Slovenians. We’re obsessed with it, to the point that this pathos is a part of our national and cultural identity, which must be understood within its political and historical context. I’ve found that both Slovenian students and foreigners often read Cankar as the best representative of Slovenian literature and give up on it entirely, because his prose is heavy, suffering and melancholic to the point of being unreadable, which is a shame. We have many other good authors (most of them listed in this post) and they deserve to be read and not overshadowed by the “greatest Slovenian writer”, whose quality is, in my opinion, not so much in his actual works, but rather in what they meant for the Slovene nation during his time (although it is fair to point out, that Cankar was actually quite optimistic regarding the future of Slovenians and that based on the Slovene achievements in the 19th century he had good reason to be)./
Fulvio Tomizza – Materada
OK, this author was born in Croatia and was Italian by nationality, but his works are probably the best window into the culture and society of Istria, the region caught between Slovenia, Italy and Croatia, which was caught between Austria and the Republic of Venice even earlier on. Materada is a highly empathic novel, showing the diversity of the Istrian penisula, which is also my homeland. Link to the novel here.
Peter Handke – Sorrow Beyond Dreams
Peter Handke is a controversial Austrian recipient of the Nobel prize, but his controversy steams more from his blind support for the Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević than his writings. While he is from Austria and writes in German, he is also the son of Slovene mother and the closest that we have to a Noble prize winner so far. This novel deals with mother, a Carinthian Slovene. Link to the novel here.
#1: Oto Luthar – The Land Between
The best overview of Slovenian history available in English, which includes contributions from many famous Slovene historians. Link to the book here.
#2: Slavoj Žižek – Sublime Object of Ideology
It is hard to recommend a book by Žižek, as they are all mostly very dense and a hard read, but the Sublime Object of Ideology is the book which is largely responsible for his fame and offers a unique thought about Marx’s concept of ideology with the help of concepts borrowed from Jacques Lacan. If you aren’t exactly a bookworm, you can also check the various documentaries from Astra Taylor’s Zizek! to Slavoj’s own The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. Link to the book here.
#3: Jože Pirjevec – Tito and his comrades
Probably the best book on Tito, the Yugoslavian leader, available in English. Link here.
#4: Noah Charney – Slovenology
This is an interesting book, written by an American who moved to Slovenia and whose enthusiasm for our society and system serve as a great corrective view to the often overly critical Slovene voices. It is also a good portrait of Slovenia for a foreigner. Link here.
#5: Renata Salecl – The Tyranny of Choice
A book by Slavoj Žižek’s ex wife (P.S.: Slavoj Žižek is the proof that being an incel is a choice) in which she offers a great exploration into the problematic of choice and the obsession with it in the neoliberal society. Link here.
/Edit: There are of course many more good books out there, but few of them are translated into English. However, another author that should be mentioned as #6: Miki Muster, a famous Slovenian cartoonist and comic writer. His comics about Trickster the fox, Hardie the turtle and Hungerly the wolf are a part of every Slovenian’s childhood and you can check out his animations in different languages here. Link to the comics here, but most are in Slovenian.
Slovenia isn’t exactly a force in the world of popular music, but I still decided to choose 5 Slovenian contemporary albums, which are very well worth a listen:
#1: Laibach – Spectre
Spectre (link here) is neither the best, nor the most popular of Laibach’s work (that honor would go to albums Laibach and Opus Dei), but it is their most accessible and contemporary work, which deals with the heated problems of our era in a traditional Laibach fashion. /Edit: Laibach are probably the most famous and controversial Slovenian rock band, which even managed to have a concert in North Korea, a first for that tightly controlled nation./
#2: Melodrom – The Guide
A great artsy Slovene synthpop band with a Laibach female vocalist as their frontwoman, The Guide is their accessible album in English. Link here. /Edit: My favourite Melodrom song is September, but it’s in Slovene./
#3: Silence – Vain, A tribute to Ghost
Another band, which collaborated with Laibach on their album Volk, is a great and innovative electro band that also creates soundtracks for theatre plays. Link to the album here.
#4: Katalena – Noč Čarovnic
A Slovene folk rock band, which dives really deep into our musical and ethnical tradition. This album is based around witches and has lyrics written by controversial writer and poet Svetlana Makarovič. Link here.
/Edit: Svetlana Makarovič is a genius in my opinion and if more of her work was translated in English she would be a world literary force to be reckoned with. Although she claims she doesn’t write books for children, every child in Slovenia in recent generations grew up with her cheeky mouse Sapramiška and strange furry Kosovirji, which fly on flying spoons with tomatoes. Here is her poetry collection Aloneness, which has been translated into English./
#5: Pankrti – Stožice 2017
A live album by one of the most important European punk bands from behind the iron curtain. Link here.
/Edit: It’s hard to recommend music to others, if they can’t understand the language. However, Andreja did a pretty good job choosing contemporary bands, without the tacky, supposedly traditional turbofolk Slovenian stuff (by that I mean this horror, which is quite popular amongst an embarrassingly large part of Slovenian population, specially when they get a bit drunk). I do have a few suggestions to add though:
#6: Magnifico – Hir aj kam, hir aj go
This is a song by one of Slovenia’s weirdest controversial pop stars, who somehow managed to make a name for himself as the charlatan of the Balkans. His music is a mixture of traditionally influenced bad party music and to me it always seems as if all his work is a sarcastic counterpoint to regular Balkan party hits, so he’s worth a listen for the bizarre factor alone. Link here.
#7: Neca Falk – Dravski most
This album is named after the title song, which is a Slovenian rendition of the Banks of Ohio, sung by Neca Falk, a legendary Slovenian vocalist. Personally, I consider her one of our best contemporary singers, as her voice is crazy good. Link to the song here, you can find more of her songs here. /
A critically acclaimed lesbian romance, which also dives deep into the problems and lack of vision present in the millennial generation. Link here.
#2: Class enemy
An exploration of the teacher-student relationship, high school society and the meanings of freedom and authority. Link here.
#3: My last year as a loser
A movie about an art historian who is slowly getting tired of temporary jobs and lack of perspective and tries to take her life into her own hands. Another great millennial movie, link here.
The movie shows the changes in the Slovene Istria, following the exodus of Italians and the arrival of the immigrants from the other ex-Yugoslavian republics. Written by G. Vojnović, who also wrote the novel Southern Scum Go Home listed above. Link here.
#5: The Curse of Valpurga
Oh, yeah, Slovenians can also make horror movies and this one is pretty funny. It also includes a Swedish black metal legend as a guest star. Link here.
/Edit: Slovenians are proverbially bad at movies, but we’re getting better in recent years. In conclusion I feel like I should add another movie:
#6: Houston, we have a problem
A seriously amazing recent Slovenian mockumentary, a documentary about the Yugoslavian space programme in the 1960s. It features real archive footage of Tito, as well as Slavoj Žižek, and shows the history that never happened: how Yugoslavia scammed the U.S. and sold them their non-functioning space programme during the Moon race. Their conspiracy theory/myth is airtight, it features a healthy dose of Yugonostalgia and I promise you will laugh your ass off while watching it, even if you’re not from the Balkans. Link here. /