And Love Itself by Drago Jancar
Dallas. Dalkey Archive Press. 2022. 352 pages.
ALTHOUGH HE IS RELATIVELY UNKNOWN in the United States, the philosophical and historical sweep of the fiction of Slovenian author Drago Jancar has been compared to Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka, and Günter Grass. Jancar was awarded the European Prize for Literature in 2011 and in 2014 received the Best Foreign Book Prize and the Kresnick Award for best novel of the year for I Saw Her That Night.
In And Love Itself, a World War II novel, Jancar asks if love can exist in wartime. Its title comes from Byron’s poem “So We’ll Go No More a Roving”: “For the sword outwears its sheath, / And the soul outwears the breast, / And the heart must pause to breathe, / And love itself have rest.” These lines accurately summarize the action. Sofia and Valentin’s prewar romance will return to the narrative again and again but only as memory.
Jancar skillfully changes points of view, from the peasants in the villages to the Resistance fighters in the woods adjacent to the front lines. When people speak Slovene instead of German or Russian, it signals their nationalism. Intermingling present and past, he moves around the war years to provide a Slovenian perspective. From their hidden camps the Partisans sing, “We bring thunder to the devil, / With weapon in hand. / Write justice in the blood, / Demanded by our land.” Fierce love for their land fuels their fighting spirit. That land’s occupiers threaten harsh penalties for not speaking German. They decimate the population either by murdering people on the spot or sending them to camps on trumped-up charges.
The army of occupation and the Resistance each use interrogation to test loyalty. Trust is a scarce commodity—both sides fear infiltration. Successive waves of armies pass through—Germans, Russians, Partisans, bandits—each taking their toll on the local populace. In scratched photographs, faces appear blurred, looking out of ruined windows. As they push the Germans out, the Russians kill collaborators. When factions disagree about guilt, Slovenes fight Slovenes, brother against brother. The hour of victory brings revenge. Love and poetry can conquer everything except war.
Jancar has created a tender love story about the impossibility of love, about heroism without reward.
Center Valley, Pennsylvania