Thursday, 30 January 2020

Newcomers (Book 2) by Lojze Kovacic

Newcomers (Book 2) by Lojze Kovacic
First published in Slovenian as Prisleki in 1983. English language translation by Michael Biggins published by Archipelago Press in November 2019.

How I got this book:
Received a copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second part of the famous Slovenian writer's autobiographical novel describes his half - German family's life in Ljubljana during the Second World War. The young protagonist Bubi is a perpetual outsider - exiled from Switzerland in 1938, his family returns home to Ljubljana, where their half-German background makes them stick out in local society. Reeling from the loss of his home in Switzerland, and surrounded by a language he can't quite master, Bubi confronts the challenges and humiliations of growing up in a strange environment. Narrated with uncanny naivete, the novel flits between memories of tenderness and shocking violence as Bubi navigates friendship, family, and his burgeoning sexuality in a land under hostile occupation.

I wish I had discovered Newcomers when its first volume was on on NetGalley (if indeed it was) because I would love to experience the whole three volumes of Kovacic's novelised autobiography. As it is, for the moment at least, I am grateful to Archipelago Press for having made this English translation of the second volume available. Book Two of Newcomers essentially takes us through the years of the Second World War in Ljubljana for this half-German, half-Slovene family. Their fortunes aren't completely determined by the course of the war, but we see their decline run in parallel to that of the German army.

I loved the way Bubi understands himself in relation to his language. In the early part of this book, his spoken Slovenian is phonetically written with a Germanic accent which fades as the years pass by. Biggins has also translated all the Slovenian speech into English, but left the German dialogue in German (with English translation footnotes). As Bubi's mother and eldest sister only speak German and, seemingly, refuse to learn Slovenian this makes the whole family visible for their difference to the population surrounding them. Later, as teenage Bubi begins to try and make use of his writing talent, he struggles with feeling unable to really point his point across in either language. His childhood German is no longer his mother tongue, but he doesn't have a true breadth of expression in Slovenian yet either. This is an aspect of emigration that I hadn't given a lot of thought to before. I am aware of the difficulty of trying to make oneself understood to others in a new language just to get by in daily life. However here, Bubi cannot effectively address ideas in his own mind because he lacks the language tools.

Newcomers is written in the first person and in a kind of stream of consciousness style which I loved. I can see from other reviews that not everybody agrees with me though! I felt the prose style helped me gain a stronger understanding of what Kovacic tried to put across. There was a strong sense of being within each scene rather than viewing it as a passive observer. I would have appreciated a recap of Book One as a prologue to Book Two as, obviously, I had no idea what had gone before and previous events aren't explained as they generally are in a series novel. Instead this book simply continues from where Book One left off and abruptly stops where, I presume, Book Three will pick up the thread. That aside though, I was gripped by Newcomers Book Two. I knew very little about the Slovene war experience so appreciated the opportunity to read this compelling first hand account.

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