In a café where Polish publishers Czarne present their latest novel Smeh za leseno pregrado ('The Laughter On The Other Side Of The Wooden Fence') by Slovenian author Jani Virk, Balkan music and the smell of food help to ease a difficult discussion about the region, culture, employment situation and identity of Virk’s native region. ‘I don’t want to leave the Balkans, but the truth is I feel a fondness for European culture,' says the 45-year-old. 'However, I don’t think the rest of Slovenia shares my opinion. I feel closest to the Slavic culture, although I do value the Balkan culture highly too.’
But Virk does not hide his indignation when speaking of rock musician Goran Bregovi. ‘I have always felt an aversion towards the folkorisation of Balkan culture,' he explains. 'That was what led us into a terrible war. I don’t want to talk now about specific nations, but I have always felt a lot of sympathy for Bosnian culture.’
Slovenia’s importance in Europe
The Balkan conflict is a sensitive term and one which challenges politicians and everyday citizens alike. ‘I still follow what’s happening in Kosovo very closely. I fought, and I cannot see peaceful co-existence between the nations. I think the solution is that all of them should join the European Union. That way, borders wouldn’t be important like they are now.’ After a pause of a few seconds, he adds: ‘It is only intransigent Westerners who refuse to see that Europe is one’.
Regarding his own country’s influence on European policy, he states: ‘Slovenia could pave the way towards understanding between the Balkan states. It could have an important role for the whole of Europe, being a small but multicultural country, which is a fundamental characteristic of Europe.’
Like others from war-affected areas, Virk knows what it is to lead a nomadic life: ‘When I was in the US, I realised why I wouldn’t want to stay there: central Europe has no influence there, because of its nature, its spirit. Maybe I was feeling nostalgic, but I wanted to get back to Europe, even though at that time it wasn’t a common feeling, and despite the accelerated pace of life in other places.’
The spiritual is a basic dimension for Virk. ‘I was never interested in running a race. I had the chance to experience success and get rich in the US, but I wouldn’t have known what to do with such luck in 20 or 25 years time. Smiling a little, he explains what is most important for him in life: ‘Love. It’s human nature, because you live in it and you take risks without hurting anyone. We have to look after the world, so future generations can live in it, and look for something more in personal relationships. We can't be concerned with just owning things.’
For Virk, the concept of love and his fascination for women are intrinsically linked. When asked if the exuberant erotic fantasies in his book are based on real women, he blushes. ‘If my wife were here, I’d have a quick answer to that. In this novel, I have tried hard to develop the female characters, because women aren’t mere icons, subservient to men’s thoughts.’
Looking towards the window, Virk talks about the role of women in his country. ‘At least since Slovenia's independence in 1991, women's participation in society has increased as writers, sociologists, psychologists, and so on. But the absurd effects of a patriarchal society still show themselves. This is because in the society of today, some people still haven’t understood that you can’t rule the world the way politicians did in the past.’
Culture versus commerce
This allusion to Communism recalls the everyday life of the characters in his novel, 'The Laughter On The Other Side Of The Fence'. To come to terms with the Communist past, current-day politicians have chosen to open up the files in a process of de-Communisation. In many eastern European countries, people from all walks of life are being 'verified.'
‘This process also has a place in Slovenia. Carrying it out is justified, if - and only if - it doesn’t infringe upon the professional integrity of the individuals concerned. That’s not to say that a person who learnt one profession during the Communist regime needs to do it all their life. The idea is to allow later generations to create new standards.’ Virk also comments on the current situation in Poland: 'I don’t know the situation in Poland very well, but I do know what the Kaczyski brothers want.’
Indignant, he continues: ‘I’m surprised that Lech Wasa (former president from 1990-1995), a symbol for the whole of Central Europe during the period of liberation, now has so little support in the elections. I don’t understand it. Fifty years of Communism has forged some real stubbornness in people, some of whom even claim to be democrats.’ However, Jani Virk can see future developments: ‘I’m sure that the Poles will achieve change, given that there are many intellectuals in Poland.’
Virk is not afraid to exhibit his professional credentials: ‘I make cultural programmes on public television. On the majority of European public channels like the BBC, political and commercial concerns are gaining importance. It’s a trend that is dangerous for culture in general.’