At two decades’ remove from the Cold War, we Westerners can only imagine how Drago Jancar’s masterful, picaresque “The Galley Slave” must have resonated with his fellow Slovenians trapped behind the Iron Curtain when the novel was released in 1978. A Polish friend of mine who was a member of Solidarity once told me that Communism was a “crime” in which people were ruled by what were in effect gangsters.
In locating roaming protagonist Johan Ot in a Slovenia trembling on the brink of modernity, the author finds historical circumstances in which the proper human response is paranoia; in fact it is the only effective defense mechanism. As the saying goes, it’s not really paranoia when they’re actually out to get you, and “they” are certainly out to get Johan Ot. In his world, all is madness.
Riding from community to community, trying to escape his “covenant” to spread word of a group wanting “to create and order things in this world,” Ot is painfully aware that he raises suspicion wherever he goes, just by being. The country is in the grips of a pervasive, corrupt Catholic rule being challenged by an insurgent Protestantism seen as heresy.
The regime’s response is inquisition—accusations of witchcraft, arrests and interrogations, convictions and torturous deaths. As if a physical metaphor for the internal spiritual conflict, plague likewise spreads across the land. Obviously devilry is responsible, but who are the devils?
Unmoored, Ot falls in with one group and then another. Does he actually take part in a devilish orgy or merely hallucinate it? In a way, it does not matter because whatever choices he makes, his worst fears are realized; dreams become nightmares. He is both witness and perpetrator.
Somehow, the cumulative record of his transgressions, both truthfully and falsely reported, trails him across the land. To survive, he must find allies, but then also leave them and even betray them. “Why was it necessary to keep running and running through this unhappy country, through this insane and bloody country? … he was a beast, a beast on the run, incessantly on the run…”
Falling in among traveling merchants for self-protection, he finds brief but happy respite in a town suddenly disrupted by the imminent arrival of the supreme ruler, Holy Roman Emperor Leopold. Beforehand, law officers, soldiers and interrogators seek out any evidence of the notorious burgeoning “conspiracy” against Leopold’s and the Church’s rule; one of Ot’s companions has notoriously been spreading insurgent pamphlets.
Is it fate or coincidence that lands a government functionary in the home where Ot dwells, claiming his lover Dorotea for a sexual assignation with the craven Leopold? Behind the grandeur of Leopold’s marching retinue and crowd is the great “millipede,” the “crawler with a thousand legs, flicking its countless limbs and thrumming with a multitude of voices.” Through Ot we witness rottenness at the core. Not only is the young ruler weak and homely with a “shifty gaze,” but he insists on sharing a bed with a mummified dwarf he hauls around like a valued relic.
Ot falls to the lowliest of the low when he is sentenced to serve as a rowing slave on a galley ship on the Adriatic. But he does not descend further, thanks to the bad example of one who did, “Simon the Gull.” Amidst his suffering, Ot for a spell finds a Zenlike peace. “The galley slave traveled through dreams.”
Although depictions of miry travel make for a slogging beginning, Jancar’s book achieves a hypnotic rhythm, a journey made more rewarding by Michael Biggins’ able translation. But this is no quick Western “read.” Instead we come to occupy a different kind of mind in another place and time. Jancar’s close attention to nature offers moments of stunning grace even amidst misery and horrific violence, and his relentless exploration of the imperfections of human nature is very like wisdom. (Martin Northway)
By Drago Jancar; translated by Michael Biggins
Dalkey Archive Press, 376 pages, $24