Blesok no. 77-79, March-August, 2011
An Excellent, Promising Opening
(Sibila Petlevski: The Time of Lies)
"We were both fascinated with the life story of Viktor Tausk, and we decided to look into it, each of us in our own way", says the storyteller somewhere at the beginning of Sibila Petlevski's novel Vrijeme laži (The Time of Lies), the first in the series of three novels (the novels which follow are: Bilo nam je tako lijepo! / We Had Such a Marvellous Time! and Stanje sumraka / The State of Dusk) of the "necrography" jointly entitled Tabu (Taboo). The other one who was fascinated in the quoted sentence is the Croatian writer Tvrtko, a character who, needless to say, belongs to a world of the novelistic reality, therefore the world of fiction, and who is, according to the "List of Real, Fictional and Fictitious Characters" added at the end of the book, a "fictitious character": "Tvrtko from Vrijeme laži is a character composed of the elements of the biographies and testimonies of a Tvrtko (T. Zane) and a Vlado (V. Gorovac)". Namely, into his literary form, the author has skilfully and functionally integrated a documentary material – certain statements of Branimir Donat (which was the pseudonym of the citizen Tvrtko Zane) about his imprisonment experience revealed in an interview, and parts of the charge brought against Vlado Gotovac in 1972.
At another point in the novel, the storyteller, whose position mainly corresponds to that of the author, also emphasises the difference in their attempt to answer the question "Who was the real Viktor Tausk?": While Tvrtko is interested in the story of his life ("What did this man live for?"), the storyteller is interested in the story about his death ("Why? Why in that particular manner?"; Tausk, namely, ended his life committing unusual "double" suicide – by shooting himself in the head and by hanging. It is why the author talks about the "necrography" and not about biography). The disparity of those interests has determined the course and the logic of their research. The curious Tvrtko/Donat – who was always inclined to drag out of the darkness those unjustly forgotten or neglected creators – made an effort to – marking the 150th anniversary of Sigmund Freud's birth (in 2006) – pull out from the deep shadows the lawyer and the doctor, psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk (1879-1919) – one of the most talented students and protégés of the "father of psychoanalysis" – a man who was in youth, education and work connected to this part of Europe. In his text "Viktor Tausk, Sigmund Freud i hrvatska moderna okupljena oko zagrebačko-bečkoga časopisa Mladost ("Viktor Tausk, Sigmund Freud and Croatian Modernism associated with the Zagreb-Vienna journal Mladost) – included in the book Središte na rubu (The Centre on the Periphery, 2007) – Donat provides Tausk's basic biographical data and underlines the Freudian context in which he became established in Vienna and where he worked as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Nevertheless, Donat's essential intention is to draw attention to his literary inclinations, and certain ties with the Croatian Modernism (Art Nouveau), and the initiators of the journal Mladost at the turn of the century, when he arrived in Vienna to study. However, Tausk's presented literary statement is very scarce, and the data on his ties with those associated with the journal Mladost are rather insufficient, which is why it turns out that his literary adventure is a projection of good wishes rather than one of real literary potential.
I have said several words more on Donat's research than it seems, at first, necessary here. With this, I have primarily wanted to emphasise that both his and the author's fascination with the life story of Viktor Tausk results from the same impulse – the need to alert the public to these forgotten prominent individuals, and while doing that to look into the mechanisms (everyone in their own manner and using their own means) which lead to some "meritorious genius souls being condemned to a silent, cruel contempt of history"; due to that a part of their research overlaps. Secondly, in the fictional world of this novel by Sibila Petlevski, the character of Tvrtko is not just a parade figure and a litmus paper who in occasional dialogues with the storyteller reveals what he thinks about certain actions or nodal points in Tausk's life; based mainly on certain elements from Donat's biography, that character finely fits into the author's fundamental idea, while at the same time, it seems to be a certain homage to Donat's spirit of a self-confident intellectual who does not mince words.
The novel Vrijeme laži is written in the style of the Postmodernist paradigm; it is characterised by the usage of different types of quotations, the reliance on the documentary and historical materials, and also the combination of the so-called high and low literature: in the book we find the elements of the historical, psychological, war, spy, love, crime novel. Typical of Postmodernist art, the writer has reservations: despite the great share of historical facts and real people, Tabu is a fictional work, while the life of Viktor Tausk serves only as an inspiration. Bringing to light the story about that, not entirely realised genius of psychoanalysis, therefore the details of a forgotten life, Sibila Petlevski does not write a biographical novel in the traditional sense. Admittedly, the reader will encounter in the text certain crucial points of Tausk's biography – Law Studies and marriage in Vienna, a return to Bosnia, a departure for Vienna again and a divorce, a bohemian life and journalism in Berlin, the third arrival in Berlin, meeting Freud and the study of Medicine, the incursion into a group of the most expert psychoanalysts of that time, the traumatic medical experience on the front lines of the First World War, the last return to Vienna and the suicide. But, the narrative structure of the novel Vrijeme laži is far from such a chronology: indeed, Petlevski applies the principle of the temporal and spatial discontinuity, narrative cuts, and insists on the fragmentary, with which the story gains in dynamics, intriguing quality, while the reader's attention is undivided and rapt.
Numerous characters from the novel – of different social classes and from different parts of the world, of different status and roles with whom Tausk is in a direct or indirect relationship and who, each in their own way, affect his life and decisions – have a similar function. The network of those relationships is very complex, which is why it is of the utmost importance how the author of Tabu is going to solve that jigsaw puzzle in such a manner as to convincingly explain to the reader what it is that leads the protagonist to such a brutal act of suicide. We have, namely, already seen: the storyteller herself says that, "for the beginning", she is primarily interested in the mystery of Tausk's death and that the complete story will pursue its explanation. It is not in the least accidental that the reader meets with the protagonist's suicide already on the first pages of the novel, and that the novel ends precisely with the description of his burial.
The writer's intention (already from the title of the novel) is clear: to offer – in the individual fate of Viktor Tausk and in the fates of people who were, in a certain way, in contact with him – the interpretation of signs which determined or marked the fates of people in the entire twentieth century, first and foremost in the Central European region, but also in the region that is considerably wider. These signs are the war, killings, prosecutions (especially of "the different"), the feeling of uprootedness, the use of compulsion by the state, coaxing people into the madness of politics, repressive regimes, show trials, manipulation of science data, illnesses, hypocrisy.
Thus Vrijeme laži (the recent winner of the T-Portal Award), the first book of the announced trilogy, lies before the readers. Although in similar cases, it is usually stated that it can be read as an individual work; this is still an open question, which is why, in principle, it is difficult to provide a complete assessment (in the first book certain themes are merely hinted at, which means they may still be undefined as they are awaiting development; for example, it remains to be seen whether the author will offer a certain, more logical, literary motivation of the awakening of an Austro-Hungarian soldier from 1916 in a conscript of the Yugoslav army in 1972, etc). With that reservation, I can say that the first book of Tabu is an excellent, promising opening, which exudes the skill of the trade, the writer's intelligence and the narrative maturity. And, of course: Vrijeme laži is one of the few Croatian books I would gladly reach for again for the pleasure of reading.