Summary: “A man sits at a bar in Piran on the Adriatic coast in former Yugoslavia and tells his story to a large man who speaks no English, yet plied by free liquor remains, at times in a drunken sleep, head on the table as the words drift over his skull. This tavern confession is told by a defrocked historian from the United States, who unwittingly, perhaps naively, brought his talents to the turmoil of the Balkans. His tales in the first chapter take us to Capodistria, Ancona, Venice, and back to the bar where we began, linked by the physical presence of a wind known as the Burja (the Italian bora), a great wind capable of lifting cars into the air. But the unnamed narrator is not simply telling random stories. As we move through the next four chapters, we realize that this book is indeed confessional, an apology of sorts, yet with a broken man’s defiance; it is a meditation not only about hats and a historian’s attempt at written redemption, but about love and politics, history and warriors who drink blood, the isolation of a stranger in a strange land and the choices that lead us to death and our inability to use language to transcend ourselves – a paradox, as the language does indeed transcend, not as poetry transcends, but as exceptionally precise prose armed with irony, with philosophical insight, transcends. But I must do better than that when trying to describe the impact of the prose! There are passages throughout that possess a Joycean verbal inventiveness, emotionally charged language and unsettling images that force the reader to capitulate to a vision of reality that resonates with a beauty we rarely glimpse, and a truth that of necessity must expand our notion of whatever reality we think we inhabit. As example: “You look at me in that aggressive quid pro Balkan way, sizing me up by what you take to be elemental mammalian factors — how much can he drink, how long can he hold a live and kicking sheep over his head, how many Turkish boys will he rape, how long can he stare into the squidless Adriatic ink with his miner’s helmet and not see himself, what fair widow could make tender his heart—but you don’t see all the dimensions available to you, you don’t see a past. An admirable blindness, I grant you, to be envied. Whereas a trained historian such as myself sits next to you and I can smell your past like the placenta from a birth of pigs rotting in the sun. I can’t look at you and avoid your past.” In short, the tales in the first chapter and those that follow, in particular an eponymous episode that captures the horror of the Balkan war through historic mayhem, with an echo of both Hamlet and Breughel, are all lost in the trail of a Burja, that great wind which is like a cleansing of the soul. And that is in the end what Skulls of Istria is – a cleansing of the soul, comparable to similar novels such as Camus’ The Fall, which it exceeds in artistry, and Antonio Lobo Antunes’ South of Nowhere, perhaps the only comparable book of its kind.” –Klaus Hauser
What begins as a confessional novel with the casual beckoning of William F. Aicher’s A Confession, Albert Camus’s The Fall, and László Krasznahorkai’s “The Last Wolf” transitions into a frenetic descent into the bitter truculence of William Gaddis’s Agapē Agape and finally into the intense crescendo of historio-geographic onslaught found in Henry Miller’s Black Spring and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Yet Rick Harsch, an American expatriate living in Slovenia, stands out from the pack with an utterly original voice, a craftsman under the spell of Joyce, in command of every element of the prose. Not an ellipsis is out of place.
The rambling narrator, who cares not whether his subservient audience of one is coherent or not, sweeps the reader away like the famed burja, a powerful wind that blows from the Hungarian basin to the Adriatic. From the first page we know that our narrator will be digressive, forceful, and sardonic. Who better to give us a diatribe of eastern Europeans and Slavic history? Matching the ever-rushing pace of his confession is the glut of word play, effortlessly compounding English and Slavic languages to achieve neologisms as poignant as they are inventive. A small example would be “squidnuncs,” which, in the context of fishermen, is a maritime play on the word quidnunc (an inquisitive, gosspiy person).
Effortlessly peppering the lingual rampage are an abundance of aphoristic quips and deft locutions: “Hyperborean philosophers bleating Wagnerian from the peaks”; “Never mistake religious or linguistic fidelity for the abominable integrity of blood”; “…that’s the best thing about being in a foreign land, the language barrier, it takes a great deal longer to despise the people you meet…”; “…what are academicians if not gangsters of the mind?”; “…American tourists always think that to step out of western Europe is to step into a war”; “…fascism is not possible without nationalism”; and “You don’t acquire virtue by the evil of your adversary”.
The narrator is a defrocked historian, whose credentials are stricken on the discovery of plagiarism. Nonetheless, his mind is brimming with historical knowledge, especially of the eastern European and Slavic territories. Istria is an interesting locale shared as it is between the three countries of Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia. From this store of knowledge, I was forced to dig into the stories of Josip Broz Tito and Gabriele D’Annunzio, among others. You get the sense that this narrator (and his creator) absorbs every book and every conversation on these matters. He mixes facts with the jousts of many presumably late-night conversations over maybe a little too much viljamovka. But the resulting synthesis, for us, is a veritable feast of signposts for further study, further broadening of mind.
With skull imagery always comes the enigmatic scene of Hamlet with Yorick’s skull held aloft. Earlier in Hamlet, the titular Dane refers to the encasement of his mind as a globe (no doubt a play on the venue in which the play was performed). The mind, then, is a symbol of confinement–Hamlet’s nutshell. In Harsch’s book, the image of the skull is conflated with that of a prison. “Islands are perfect prisons, for the mind so readily adapts itself to the idea of isolation…”. The mind, here, is “happily trapped in his skull,” and can be counted as king of infinite space. The paradox of slave and free man.
Recent Instagram post about Skulls of Istria
Rick Harsch’s tavern confessional is a brilliant look at the bloody history of the Balkans. It reminds me of a bit of Mathias Enard’s Zone as remimagined by a drunken Joycean master storyteller. Such an excellent thing of wonder it is! Get in touch with @rick.harsch for your copy. Do it now!
matthew.s.brown: “At least one great truth is revealed looking down from the sky: you don’t see people. What did our agents see from the moon? The Rift Valley, where humans came from, and the Great Wall of China, the emblematic human structure. Even from a few hundred feet you don’t see people, just their toys.”
‘about halfway through, so much to unpack and love on every page. hit mr. harsch up and order some books from his corona/samizdat publishing house.’
Essays on Skulls of Istria
Clare Vassallo, Professor of Semiotics and Translation, University of Malta
Skulls of Istria begins as a seemingly aimless chat between two men in a bar taking shelter from the burja (bora) wind. One disgraced American historian with an overwhelming need to talk driven by bottle after bottle of Viljamovka, and the other, presumably a Slovene, simply taking in the stream of booze and words and keeping his uncomprehending silence through the swells and sweeps of both the recent horrors of the Balkan atrocities as well as the ancient terrors whose evidence continues to be encountered in the skulls and debris that will not disappear. This movement, this apparent unburdening of guilt, love, passion, more guilt and self-loathing, unfolds through the telling of one betrayed friendship and two connected love-affairs, through escape and death, to the final pages which reveal the underlying structure of a work that was deceptively free-moving and associative at its surface level.
It is in his associative use of language, echoes of assonance that seem too good to ignore, puns as self-indulgent as a drunken confessor in their reach for connections whether semantic or phonetic, that the spirit of Joyce appears in Harsch’s style. The playfulness in the language draws the reader into following signifiers and associations into labyrinthine pleasures, through ancient myth, historical warfare, sexual passion – and the pure pleasure of the chase.
Of course, Harsch’s geographical positioning in Istria, the Adriatic peninsula shared by the three countries of Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, and within spitting distance of Trieste and Venice, places him within the same linguistic hunting ground as James Joyce which makes the connection between the writers even more evident. Umberto Eco in his fascination with Joyce described him as the true modernist, as the remover of the rational mental structures derived from the medieval summae, and also of the eradication of the ‘well-made plot’ which maintains that each action in a novel is either meaningful with respect to the final denouement, or else is “stupid”. But, as Eco said, “with Joyce we have the full acceptance of all the stupid acts of daily life as narrative material” (39) – and with Harsch also.
We are swept along with these ‘stupid’ acts of daily life driven by sexual attraction, emotional attachment, guilt and pain – as well as the even more stupid and senseless acts of power and domination, destruction and shame that shaped the lives and deaths of too many in the Balkans – and as the short novel seems to be carried forward with an almost burja-driven force, seemingly with no deeper plan, aim or structure than the chase of passion and language – the novel in a few short pages in the final chapter, draws all strings together, all points of view into one overwhelming understanding that there was a point, a direction, a structure and the underlying decision of all story-tellers in love with language and the patterns of memory – to ‘tell a tale’. And to go back to Eco’s description of Finnegan’s Wake that “to create the impression of a complete lack of structure, a work of art must possess a strong underlying structure” and “a cunningly organized network of mutual relationships.” (67)
Harsch’s Joycean inability to ignore the underpull of words, together with the location of his tale, clearly invite parallels. However, there is also a strong undercurrent in the rhythm of the prose and the subdued music of the language that recall another of his modernist compatriots fled to Europe, T.S. Eliot and his persistent vision of a dry wasteland on the borders of a river. Those souls of the dead, undone, and moving to the unseeing and uncaring bells of St Mary Woolnoth calling to all in a Dantesque nightmare of soulessness. The rivers of blood, the heads on pikes, the senseless slaughter in the wake of nationalist politics, and the highest disregard for human life at the core of the very essence of this Balkan journey unfolding through three bottles of potent pear brandy create another wasteland of human barbarity. The historian-narrator takes the tale deep into the underworld of depravity to re-emerge from the depths of Hades, Orpheus-like, telling his tale and unable to keep entirely within the rules of the game.
Clearly this journey, this short novel with its dense surface associations of sounds, rhythms and signifiers could either be a translator’s nightmare – or else a fascinating game of re-creation and re-writing pushing the rules of literary translation to the edge.
Clare Vassallo, Translator and Professor of Semiotics and Translation Studies, University of Malta.
The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, trans. Ellen Esrock, London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.