In the opening scene of this Freudian bildungsroman, the protagonist is wandering alone in the forest when he comes across his mother bathing in the moonlight and is overcome with a desire to sleep with her. Already, we’re compelled to ask the author why — in order to be original at any cost? For shock value?
The themes in Evald Flisar’s latest work, A Swarm of Dust, are not new for him. Flisar, Slovenia’s most widely translated writer, regularly uses his works to examine illicit familial relationships, psychoanalysis and religion. The original Slovenian title and cover present some additional underlying influences: the title, Greh, means sin, and in the centre of the cover is a red apple with two bites taken out. Upon further inspection, the bite marks reveal themselves as silhouetted profiles of a man and a woman. The story of the Garden of Eden lends Flisar the leitmotifs of innocence and knowledge, as well as a rich selection of snake-related symbolism.
The novel is set in 1960s Yugoslavia in two opposing locations: a Roma village in the countryside and the university student haunts of Ljubljana. Janek Hudorovec is a disaffected adolescent, the archetypal anti-hero in every way except that he must overcome the devastating effects of his incestuous relationship with his mother. In addition to his childhood abuse, Janek is already an outsider by virtue of being Roma, and doubly so because the Hudorovec family are strangers even among the Roma in their village. But when Janek is framed for stealing, a benefactor with his own moral debt recognises the boy’s intelligence and pays for him to study law in the city.
Janek moves to Ljubljana but finds no solace in education; while he is “interested in the heart and soul of law,” the professors are “interested only in its formal framework.” To him, the university is dogmatic and stifling. However, it is in Ljubljana where he meets Daria, a psychology student with an interest in psychoanalysis. An outcast on all accounts, Janek beguiles her with his violent outbursts: slapping a professor, beating a police officer and shouting incoherently from the audience during a performance of Oedipus Rex (an egregiously clichéd narrative choice). Daria longs to develop a post-facto justification for his actions, but in doing so relieves him of any accountability.
The best vignettes in the novel come from outside of Janek’s narrative: the priest describing village life; the seasonal workers returning in autumn and the ‘overnight melancholy’ that accompanies them
Janek’s interpretation of female attention, even accidental attention, is as a sexual advance. A woman looks at him doing up his trousers coming out of a bathroom and he assumes, by her gaze — which seems to be the simple mistake of having glanced at a stranger struggling with his fly — that she was “touching him with her thoughts.” Furthermore, Janek’s initial reaction to Daria (“She was beautiful; tiny, but beautiful”; “she was without the slightest trace of pushiness or falseness, she emitted an air only of simple obviousness”) is regrettably reminiscent of how not to write about women.
The author makes Daria complicit in these interpretations by having her manufacture a link between Janek’s aggression and women’s sexual desire: “Some kind of suffering gave you a disguise. That disguise is good looks, people say, but there is hatred lurking beneath, violent hatred… Your face is more frightening than handsome. It fills me with horror. Because it is cruel. Maybe that’s why women chase you. Have you thought of that?”
Not only is the syntax of Daria’s statement totally unimaginable, the sentiment is also ludicrous. In the end, she suggests that they have sex to “cure” him of his social anxiety and improve his appalling treatment of women. She assures him that, “with me you’ll find that your fear, which you first experienced with your mother, is unjustified.”
Janek’s internal rhetoric is jarringly similar to a subset of heterosexual men who call themselves involuntarily celibate, or incels. The term made headlines earlier this year when 25-year old Alek Minassian deliberately drove his van onto a Toronto sidewalk, killing ten people. The victims were predominantly women. Minassian referenced the deeply misogynistic online incel community on social media just minutes before beginning his rampage.
For incels, the line between violent hatred and sexual desire is nearly indecipherable. Incels blame women for denying them intercourse rather than looking inward for an explanation. While Janek’s inability to engage in sexual activity is explicitly linked to the mental health repercussions of incest, the blame remains firmly with women, who are repeatedly characterised as horrifying temptresses. The author seems at ease with portraying men’s sexual desire as something women are responsible for — even after Janek makes a conscious decision not to sleep with a young girl, Flisar writes without any discernible irony that “his body would not obey him.” Daria encourages this idea, arguing that his transition from boy to man can only occur if he releases his “suppressed male nature” by recognising himself as a free agent with women “at his disposal.”
The best vignettes in the novel come from outside of Janek’s narrative: the priest describing village life; the seasonal workers returning in autumn and the “overnight melancholy” that accompanies them; the allegory of a sacred tree (the Tree of Knowledge); an old man lovingly incubating turkey eggs under a lamp. In these moments, Flisar’s descriptive talent shines. Unfortunately, the instances of graceful writing are choked out by a series of unwieldy inner monologues and thinly stretched metaphors. As Elmore Leonard cautioned: “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
The author’s foray into the dark psyche of an anguished man is plagued by grating lyricism and distasteful attitudes
Despite Daria’s extensive psychoanalysis, Janek’s emotional development stagnates at that metaphysical age somewhere between childhood and adolescence and he returns to the countryside. Resuming a Biblical allegory, Flisar turns the village into a thinly veiled Eden and hammers home the strict dichotomy between city life ruled by reason and country life ruled by instinct. After tasting the apple and discovering a world beyond Eden — shame, knowledge, sex, and reason — Janek appears to reject it and opt for innocence. Saying farewell to Daria, he state: “The thing I like most about my race is their naivety. It reminds me of virginity, of something genuine.” While his rejection is portrayed as triumphant heroism, it reads as a simplistic interpretation of Roma life that both infantilises the people and romanticises violence, sex and natural impulse.
Flisar’s ‘diary of a madman’ is a difficult and chaotic read. The author’s foray into the dark psyche of an anguished man is plagued by grating lyricism and distasteful attitudes. The novel’s juxtapositions of obsession and hate, guilt and entitlement, and ego and shame unravel into a thriller-paced stream of consciousness in the final pages before reaching a wholly predictable end.