Blesok no. 50, September-October, 2006
From Messiah to Debt Collector
– On Pop's Drunk Again, an excerpt from the accompanying essay –
The character of a misunderstood genius, subjected to humiliation and doomed to a life in isolation, has obsessed generation after generation of Slovenian writers. This vision of an author's situation appears to be what they perceive as the prevailing reality of their social position and intimate determination. It is a landscape they wish to explore, to test its boundaries and perhaps finds authentic mooring points. Hence the quixotic social engagement, the erotic debauchery, the compelling need to verbally estheticize whatever happens, the bouts of heavy drinking and all the other things done by writers-as-Slovenian-literary-heroes, from behind whose backs their real-life creators peek. But no matter how far the framework of myth is transgressed, individualism deepened, excess exacerbated, their stories still remain gloomy, shot through with rays of the setting sun as it were, while their protagonists fail sadly even when emerging as moral winners -and this is far from unimportant. The archetypal image of a writer proficient in the use of national mythology multiplies into often unusual variations, united by the tragedy of mental excess; these are elements which blend in well with the expectations of the nation. At this point, excess becomes the author's sacrifice for the good of the community, his or her existential and creative deviation becomes a sacrificial rite. The glow of an end in torment, an ecstatic fixation on nothingness at the end of the horizon radiates from the writer-as-protagonist in Slovenian literature. The thought of the end, of a lonely death, has a special patina echoing the significance attributed to literature in the Slovenian tradition, where it is seen as the flower of language, more prestigious than even the dreamed-of state.
But the dream of a Slovenian state has already come true, so, presumably, the nation no longer needs sacrificial victims to weave the fabric of community founded merely on language, that is to say, on the symbolic level. The state has deprived the image of a writer of some of its historical magnitude, and at the same time, has ceased to compel the author to assume this long-familiar role. But if the national patina is peeled off the character of the author (frequent in pre-secession literature), there still remains the inner skeleton, an intense being, always persecuted, yet valiantly struggling for survival. The intensity is usually attributed to the adversity, sometimes downright impossibility, of the circumstances under which the Slovenian tradition historically developed. Yet there seems to be something more profound in these creative projections of the fates of writers. Some kind of masochism, opposition to the fates, a permanent basking in the future glory of the works which will survive their authors and vindicate the lives they were forced to lead, constrained by the pettiness of their herd. In particular the prose writers who became prominent in the 1990s often deal with the self-image of an author; they are no less interested in their own status than their forerunners. Among them, Dušan Čater has dedicated himself to portraying the character of an author with particular frequency and passion. While wordsmiths feature prominently also in his other works, Ata je spet pijan (Pop's Drunk Again) seems to be the novel in which his truly fresh and convincing approach to this familiar topic really comes to the fore. Čater's latest novel thus seems to be, in addition to everything else, a meta-fiction-al commentary, as worn as this designation may be.
Čater's writer, like most others, is a person from the margins of society, with no regular income. In the views of the other inhabitants of his building, he is the only one capable of such disgraceful behavior as throwing empty bottles out the window. He can not even bear to think about conforming to the rites of the herd. Also because he goes on being an idealist, in his fashion, a believer in the reality of the heightened states of awareness which provide decidedly lively departures from an otherwise drab existence. Hence the unrest which drives pop Čatko into forever new adventures, from Orto Bar in Ljubljana to the Czech town of Pardubice. Here new zones open up, where the old image of the troubled author acquires new undertones. Čater strives to present the familiar excessiveness and marginality shorn of their tragic aura, setting the perspective of self-reflection at a distance from genius and the social and metaphysical paranoia, though even in this vision of the world there happen things which penetrate deeply. Pop Čatko is the long familiar excessive marginal type in a new, or at least different, guise. The difference is seen on three fronts: in the domains of his social life, love life, and creative writing.
Čatko certainly does not move in the circles of the social elite, at least not those who wield real power. His milieu consists of eccentrics of all kinds, bohemians intent on beating the established order of conventional behavior and values. In addition to his usual pranks, Čatko decides to take some sort of social action; his adventurous spirit and the lure of money make him look for employment. The job he opts for is not some menial work or even humanitarian agitation, but the anything but lofty calling of a debt collector. In a nutshell: getting back money owed – dirty, profane work, to say nothing of the danger which accompanies Čatko's team's “routine” operations. Debt collecting, Pop's only social obligation, is the expression of a certain frivolity which has replaced the old vision of writers' vocation being to save mankind. In Pop's world, the mob represents the real politics, the gloves-off exercising of elementary superiority over a fellow human being. Our debt collector is afraid of the vindictiveness of the mob, but what can the mob do compared to the apparatus of politics, the legal form of theft, as experienced by Čater's writer-protagonist. His teaming up with the bad guys is in a way a refutation of the logic of the victim, an attempt to go over to the winners, to the demons of power dancing on the edge of the abyss. It is a resolution to fight fiercely in a world which has long since dispensed with Ideals and Values. Being a warrior in such circumstances demands the agility of a cat, the ability to bounce back and strike out. The danger is no less than in the time of Cankar, but the distinguished sacrifice of an author is apparently no longer sufficient. The investment of the genius' suffering, with which he was to pay for the freedom to indulge in excess, is all used up. Pop Čatko enters into manly battle like an armed nomad, on the lookout for his window of opportunity, for the trace of an experience which will seem authentic, really genuine in the chaotic world of his hallucinations. I can not shake the impression that the benevolent narrator is having a private joke at the expense of the reader's sedate expectations when he mentions that what he does for a living is collect debts. A lusty, ecstatic undermining of the icon of a suffering man of letters. He doesn't want any part in this game, he refuses to take on the burden of guilt and humiliation. His love of life and his sensual unrest are too powerful antidotes to the tragically oriented daydreaming. To be an adventurer in the urban maze, among the hallucinations with islands of the known and submerged landscapes of the unknown. In a world increasingly dispersed, devoid of great ideas which would furnish at least a mask of clarity. In such a world any Messianism is condemned to being just futile eccentricity with the pathos of self-pity.
Translated by: Tamara Soban