Review: Panorama by Dušan Šarotar

I received a review copy of this title from Istros Books .  It was published in the original Slovenian in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Rawley Grau.

My Review:
panoramaFiction, poetry, travelogue, history, short story, memoir, photo essay. Šarotar’s latest work, translated into English from Slovenian for Istros Books as part of their World Series venture with Peter Owens Publishers, defines categorization into a single,  specific genre.  The unnamed narrator, whose own biography resembles that of  Šarotar himself, opens this piece with a poetic description of his journey through the landscapes he encounters while in Ireland.  The moods and textures of the Irish landscape, with a focus on the sea, dominate his literary illustrations.  The narrator also describes a trip to Belgium where he encounters some follow writers and translators who are expats from his part of the world.  Everywhere he travels, this unnamed narrator captures the plight of the immigrant in his writing as he encounters men and women who are displaced from their homes either by force or by choice.

The narrator is a writer who has journeyed from his home in Slovenia to Galway in order to find time and inspiration to finish writing a manuscript.  He gives us snapshots of his surroundings through his disjointed stories and through his camera lens.  In the first scene our writer is sitting in his damp and cold third floor room in Galway listening to a storm raging outside and in the next scene he is walking along the Galway Bay and looking at a plaque with the names of all the families who had escaped the famine via the ocean between 1847 and 1853.  In another moment he is passing by the Aquarium, a glass semicircular building,  when he encounters a an old pier with diving platforms.  The sea is the dominant force in this landscape and he captures its focal point in a variety of unique vignettes.  For visual interest the narrator also includes photos that serve to enhance the written descriptions throughout the text:

People are really swimming, I thought and was delighted by the chance of seeing somebody dive into the cold, rolling Atlantic Ocean, although at the thought of swimming I felt a chill, in spite of the sun, which was glowing like a white spot on a blue eye.  I sat down on the wet, black rocks beneath the pier and watched a sparse procession of bathers, both male and female, all older townspeople who had probably been bathing here since childhood; they walked in silence, backs straight, with the practiced poise of swimmers, the men in simple blue linen knee-length trunks, the women in black one-piece swimsuits, everyone with close fitting rubber caps on their heads;

panorama-diving-tower

Embedded with the narrator’s story of his journey, is the story of his tour guide and driver through the Connemara region, an Albanian immigrant named Gjini.  Throughout the course of Panorama, the narrator picks up the thread of different pieces of Gjini’s story who leaves his wife and children behind in Albania in an attempt to make a better living in Ireland.  When he arrives on the island, he doesn’t know a word of English so he begins by working at the bus station selling sandwiches during the day and cleaning offices at night.  He gradually learns enough English to pass the language test and enroll as a student in Irish cultural heritage studies.  Gjini’s reflections on being a foreigner, as he is viewing the empty landscape of the peat bogs with the narrator, are profound, enlightening and timely:

Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skillfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me….—that’s when I realized we were in some ways alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this.

panorama-irish-shore
The history of Kylemore Abbey is also woven into the narrator’s text and serves as a bridge between his journeys to Ireland and Belgium.  The Benedictine Order arrived at the Abbey in 1920 after their own abbey in Ypres, Belgium was burned to the ground during World War I.  The nuns flight on foot to Paris is mentioned in the narrative and Gjini tells the story of how they settled at Kylemore and restored the castle and the garden.  The narrator himself makes this trek in reverse as he travels to Belgium after his trip to Ireland.  He is giving a talk in Ghent and while on his trip he meets up with a woman named Spomenka who tells him the story of her escape from the dangerous wars in Sarajevo.  There is a deep, underlying sadness in her story because she feels as if she is forced to leave her home with her young daughter in order to escape the violence and bloodshed that broke out all around her.  A kind neighbor helps Spomenka to escape and she never goes back.

Finally, a comment must be made about the style of writing that Šarotar employs for his narrative.  The meandering nature of his story reflects his own restlessness as he journeys throughout Europe and encounters others who have been displaced from their native homes.   Different threads and characters are brought up and dropped; some of the threads are brought up again and others are left without a conclusion.  Šarotar is a master at using vignettes to capture the struggle of immigrants and refugees who are attempting to find a place in the world that feels safe and like home.

About the Author:

Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012). Šarotar is also author of fifteen screenplays for documentary and feature films. His short film, Mario was watching the sea with love, based on authors short stories from the collection “Blind Spot” and on his screenplay, won in 2016 Global short film award in New York and the first prize in Ningbo, China, for the “best short film” in selection of Central and East European film selection. Šarotar has also a several photographic exhibition in national galleries and abroad. Photographies from his series “Souls” was included in permanent collection in Art gallerie of Prekmurje.

6 Comments

Filed under Istros Books, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

6 responses to “Review: Panorama by Dušan Šarotar

  1. Lovely review Melissa – this one has been turning up on my radar a lot recently so obviously I need to explore the Istros catalogue!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this book absolutely fascinating for all the reasons that make it exceptionally difficult to capture succinctly in a review. My NC review at 2600 words could have been much longer and my challenge was to say only what was necessary about the actual journey (actually four separate trips) that the narrator is remembering. I could talk about this book for weeks, I do hope people read it and that we see more of Šarotar’s work come into English.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did have a hard time reviewing it because it was hard to narrow down what I wanted to talk about. He makes it seem like it is one continuous journey to Ireland because the are no real transitions in the text. I do hope that more of his works are translated into English.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think what he manages to do is layer multiple narratives mediated through memory which is, to me, one of the things that ties this book to Sebald’s novels and yet sets it apart. I did read it as one trip to Ireland but in his visit to Belgium, he describes it as his second trip within a few months and while he is there he is, in part, referring to the earlier visit. Then, finally he spends time in Sarajevo where a friend recounts temporary escapes from the city when it was under siege which sends him back, in his memory, to close with his visit to Antwerp. What I felt he was doing was building the power and impact of his themes by telling the story this way. I was also deeply impressed, as you also noted, by the way Gjini’s (and through him Jane’s) stories kept resurfacing throughout. I can imagine how the lack of chronological consistency would frustrate some, but one has to let go and let the story unfold.

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