‘There is nothing reactionary in pointing to the truth’ | Jasmin Frelih

Ahead of his participation at the Campus Book Festival, Slovenian author Jasmin Frelih speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his award-winning debut novel Na/Pol (In/Half) and how our current political climate is helped along by the insidious legacy of postmodernism

Jasmin Frelih
Jasmin Frelih

How would you describe the literary scene in Slovenia, and how did you first negotiate it during your early days of trying to establish yourself there?

The literary scene in Slovenia is very much alive. Though the plurality of voices would find you hard pressed to notice a dominant aesthetic mode, and the resources offered in support of literary endeavours are to everyone’s mind forever dwindling, I consider it in a vibrant state.

Right out of high school I sent a short story to a literary contest of one of our oldest reviews – it didn’t win, but it did merit a publication, which then made it easier for me to continue my work. We set up a literary review with fellow poets at the university and for a while lit up the scene in Ljubljana with readings and performances. The review is still running, though I am no longer a part of it – it’s called the IDIOT, or affectionately, ID.

What were some of your main influences as you were developing your literary voice, and how did you balance out your academic interests with your creative efforts in those early years?

The influences are too many to count, and I’m sure there will be many more to come – as for the balancing, I didn’t do much of it. During the work on my novel I was more than happy to put college on hold; while it did cause me some grief later on. I consider the time spent pursuing my interest both inside and outside the curricula necessary and invaluable.

The university pointed the way, and then I followed the path on my own. Learning about Symbolists, for example, sent me on a journey through large parts of French literature, and I’ve come out of it having enjoyed the benefit of conversation with some of the finest literary minds in history.

During the writing of the novel the voice most helpful along the way was David Foster Wallace’s – not necessarily in terms of the themes, but foremost as a boundless store of creative energy.   

Na/Pol (In/Half) enjoyed the kind of critical success a lot of authors can only dream of. What would you say contributed to its success, and how do you look back on the work now?

I truly don’t know. The premise fits within the broader cultural moment, the book as a whole is much smarter than its author, the characters have a life of their own and there are a few set pieces in it that I am still really proud of. I was 24 when I started writing it, and I put as much effort in it as I possibly could. It seems to have worked.

Given the currently fraught global political climate – where plenty are seeking refuge in ideologies that present iron-clad and, in many ways, regressive certainties – what would you say that the postmodern idiom (which you seem to traffic in with relish) can still teach us?

These iron-clad certainties are actually not regressive; they are the children of postmodernism, filtered through it and presented anew, seeming ever fresh to the fickle, forgetful and demanding minds of societies. That is a large part of my work, the fleshing out of the idiom, the attempt to show its aggressive path out of the tomes of postmodern masters and literary academics into the playbooks of capitalism and modern politics. Contemporary reality is a vast postmodern game of capital and democracy, the effects of which appear to us ever so slightly unreal.

Fiction, which used to serve to unmoor or even break the entrenched narratives, now finds itself in a role of a custodian of the real, and that is a very demanding and sometimes even dangerous task (as journalists would very well know).

Some even go as far as to call it reactionary – the way it insists on imbuing the lived moment with quality, when the whole culture is geared to just consume and discard it – but to my mind there is nothing reactionary in pointing to the truth – the truth is always in the vanguard.   

Are you looking forward to participating at the Campus Book Festival at the University of Malta? What kind of atmosphere are you expecting from the event?

I am, very much so – any place where literary-minded people gather is a pleasure to be around, and doubly so if they are students. I imagine a pensive and relaxed atmosphere, but expect anything.   

About the book Na/Pol (In/Half) by Jasmin Frelih

Na/Pol (in/Half)
Na/Pol (in/Half)

In/Half is a globalist novel set in a post-globalist future. The book interweaves three distinct narrative threads: Evan, an addicted theatre director in Tokyo in the future, is staging a play and lamenting the loss of the love of his life. Kras, a family patriarch and ex-war-minister, is celebrating his 50th birthday in the Slovenian part of what could nowadays be called Fortress Europe. Zoja, an anarchist poet, is getting ready to read at the Brooklyn festival Poetrylitics, attended by a motley crew of intellectuals, artists and madmen.

In/Half uses every trick in the postmodernist playbook, while also taking the tricks seriously. Not content to push the limits of the text’s possibilities, the novel charges its investigations into the fate of the individual, of the family, and of society, with a solemn ontology and sends its characters hurtling through a disconnected world filled with the debris of past histories for them to find a sense of belonging.

With its sharp focus on the contradictions of modernity, and with the reading experience likened to an extended surfing session on a world wide web crafted by an ingenious demiurge, In/Half is a powerful statement on the nat-ure
of the novel by a voice from the new
generation of writers.

The novel received the best literary debut award at the annual Slovenian Book Fair, was shortlisted for the novel of the year and book of the year awards, and was showcased as the Slovenian entry for the 2014 European First Novel Festival in Budapest, Hungary.