Skulls of Istria, by Rick Harsch
10€, 175 page pocketbook
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.