Panorama by Dušan Šarotar review – a Sebaldian journey

A Slovenian writer seeks perspective and peace in this shifting, melancholy narrative illustrated with his own photographs

About two-thirds of the way through this book, I broke off to read the afterword and fossick around on the internet to do some research on Šarotar, and I discovered that what I had been reading was, in fact, a novel. Oh. And I had been enjoying it so much. I exaggerate my reaction a little, but it does not read like a novel until the end. It begins in Galway with a Slovenian writer, in first-person narration, watching a storm build up across the bay. The text is illustrated with black-and-white photographs; the tone is melancholy, thoughtful, the sentences long, the paragraphs sometimes taking up nine pages at a stretch. We are evidently meant to recall WG Sebald, who is, indeed, cited towards the end. If it is a novel, it is not a typical one. And it is all the better for it. It’s also, as far as I have been able to gather, the first of Šarotar’s five novels to be translated into English.

Šarotar (I’m not going to call him “the narrator”) is at the extreme western edge of Europe trying to find peace and quiet to finish a manuscript; we don’t learn what it is, but presumably it is the book one is holding. He has a driver/guide called Gjini, an Albanian who emigrated 11 years before, and who rails against Ireland:

“You can’t make arrangements with anybody, they don’t know what clocks are for, just like they can’t predict the weather; they keep you waiting for hours and hours, like the sun that comes out every once in a while, but in between it’s always raining; for foreigners, this is a cursed country.”

Later, Šarotar finds himself in Belgium, in Brussels, then Ghent; he runs into Gjini again, or Gjini just pops up. The narrative shifts like a fog. In one paragraph we are at Ghent railway station, in the next, we are carrying a bucket of water through a peat bog in Galway again, without any explanation. I won’t say you get used to this kind of thing, but you learn not to be too surprised by it.

The story ends in Bosnia, in Sarajevo and Mostar. At this point it dawned on me, finally, that there is a very artful construction to this book. The style it is written in and its title made me think this was a slow pan across a European landscape, west to east. I now realised it was more of a zooming in, a return to what had made Šarotar fling himself as far away as he could in the first place. (The title is also taken from an exhibition by the German artist Gerhard Richter, an influence on Šarotar’s photography.) It’s in this section – not that there is anything so strictly demarcated, but it’s the best word I can think of – that Sebald is namechecked, and also Ivo Andrić, whose “Letter from 1920” is referenced. “Bosnia is a wonderful country,” says Andrić, but is also “a country of hatred and fear.”

And so the heart of the book lies in its end, as Gospođa Spomenka (“Gospođa” means “miss”, but with more deference and respect, says a footnote by the translator, Rawley Grau) tells Šarotar in a reminiscence about the time of the war that tore Yugoslavia apart. “I was running out of everything – tobacco, will, food,” she says (I was reminded here of Samuel Beckett’s “We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom, our ideals”). “I think somebody was burning rubbish that day in front of the Eternal Flame, which had gone out long ago, she said.” The irony is plain, but not overstressed.

This is not a novel in which anything happens; it has all happened already, catastrophically, and the condition of exile is the only place from which one can achieve peace or perspective. This is what I think this marvellous book is telling us.

Panorama is published by Peter Owen & Istros Books. To order a copy for £8.19 (RRP £9.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Nicholas Lezard

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