In 1938, as war loomed again and European nations looked at their neighbors as either potential allies or enemies, 10-year-old Lojze Kovaˇciˇc and his German mother and Slovenian father found themselves no longer welcome in their adopted home of Basel.
Branded undesirable aliens by the Swiss authorities, they were told to pack up their belongings and leave the country immediately. The family made for Yugoslavia and resettled in Slovenia, but their new start came to be fraught with chaos, hardship and danger.
Kovaˇciˇc grew up to become one of Slovenia’s most celebrated authors, and “Newcomers,” his three-part autobiographical novel about his family’s struggle to adapt and survive in exile, is regarded as one of Slovenia’s most important literary works of the 20th century. Originally published in 1984, Kovaˇciˇc’s first installment has now been translated into English by Michael Biggins.
It is a powerful chronicle of conflict and upheaval within both a family and a country, as told, and experienced, by a young, engaging, clearsighted boy.
The book opens with the narrator, Bubi, describing his family’s brusque eviction under police supervision followed by their expulsion from Switzerland in a sealed train car. Once in Slovenia, they move in with Uncle Karel on his farm. Despite a pervading “sour and wilted” smell (“Maybe our aunt”), Bubi enjoys his new, rustic, slower-paced life. He sleeps on a stove, bonds with peasants, goes horse-riding with his male cousins and has a crush on a female one.
But soon cracks appear in this cocooned world, letting in outside noise — not least news of “the dark Führer” marching into Austria: “A whole forest of upraised arms, flowers, black swastikas like crossed-out gallows or broken extremities in the white circle of their flags.”
When the family swaps the countryside for the big smoke of Ljubljana, their situation goes from bad to worse. Bubi gets into fights, flounders in school and has difficulty learning Slovene (“All the words were wrapped in thorns or compressed into balls of tangled threads”); his parents bicker, suffer ill health and run out of money.
Kovaˇciˇc skillfully depicts a tough, nomadic, hand-to-mouth existence in a city gripped by ethnic tension, rampant nationalism and the threat of war. Bubi and his family stay strong to weather the gathering storm, and it is this drive and resilience in the teeth of adversity that renders them so sympathetic.
However, “Newcomers” has two dominant singular conceits that take some getting used to. First, Kovaˇciˇc’s characters speak German, forcing those unversed in the language to resort to English translations in small-print footnotes. Secondly, Kovaˇciˇc dots practically every page with an abundance of ellipses (“Nobody spoke … laughed … or waved”).
The former is no more inconvenient than scanning subtitles in a foreign film. The latter lends the narrative a distinct musicality — sometimes jerky, sometimes rhythmic. Don’t be put off. This fine novel is not only accessible, but deeply memorable.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
By: Lojze Kovacic, translated from the Slovenian by Michael Biggins.
Publisher: Archipelago Books, 356 pages, $18.