Everything here is made from love and dedicated to memory
In 2013 a blog post appeared from two former students of the writer W.G. Sebald. They had returned to their notes and had gathered a list of remarks and tips from their teacher.
Panorama, from the Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar, has many allusions to Sebald. The influence is there in the black and white photos dotted throughout the book, in the long, winding paragraphs made up of long winding sentences, in the nested storytelling, as the narrator recalls the stories told by another party, who tells the story of someone else. The book lingers over the themes of travel, memory, destruction, loss.
However, reading that blog post, the one tip that stands out in relation to Panorama relates to something else:
Meteorology is not superfluous to the story. Don’t have an aversion to noticing the weather.
This book is positively drenched in weather. Open the book at any page and there is a good chance you will happen on a description of rain. Šarotar notices the weather.
It is a simple observation, maybe a trite one, but is permeates the book nonetheless. This is a book of interlocking stories, told to a nameless narrator as he spends time in Ireland, Belgium, Sarajevo, although those stories touch on other places too. Fellow travellers reminisce, speculate, wonder. Their tales stop and start, and often don’t have clear endings. A torrent of storytelling.
The narrator is told stories of stories of stories, and then tells them to us. It is sometimes hard to tell who is telling the tale, and to whom, and about whom. There is even more doubt reading this in translation – am I reading the author’s words or the translators? A further layer is added to the storytelling.
And the rain falls, as the stories do, disorienting further. A brilliant passage in a train station highlights this disorientation:
I looked through the panoramic window at the train tracks; I suspected that the man behind the bar, too, was gazing into the distance – his image, hovering next to mine in the reflection on the glass, had become still; we were like a mirage, wandering souls trapped in the thoughts of those who move eternally from place to place.
Much of this book articulates similar mirages, thoughts moving from person to person to person, place to place to place. And the use of the word “mirage” – an appearance of water – seems appropriate, significant.
These are stories of migration, of the people who went to Ireland when it was the edge of the known world, to those who left because of the famine, to the people going there now after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We hear of those who left their homes during the World Wars, or the Yugoslav Civil War, journeys across Europe. Journeys by road, cycle, train, hydrofoil run through the book. Movement has been a constant of the European experience. Language and place intertwine and unravel.
I was told, well, I think Caroline had said, that the idea of some inner bond between language and place is still alive for most people, it’s still a given, something eternal and immutable; I would say it was their only tangible identity, but for many this bond has been broken, or lost, or seemingly transcended – many people, painfully and sometimes tragically, are forced, or for more pragmatic reasons desire and are able, to transcend and break this bond.
This is a document of migration, and immigrant stories, yet it is much more than just an “issue” book. These tales cover broader, universal themes of home, belonging, isolation, loneliness. These are common experiences. The “other” isn’t so other after all. And while these experiences are common they are not straightforward, not easily explained or regaled. And as they told from person to person they become something else too, perhaps.
People here are made out of goodbyes – final, permanent, painful goodbyes.
Šarotar manages to address not only the immediate concerns of a continent, but also something wider that applies to us all whether we are migrating or not – that we are all travelling, moving, displaced in some way. This is a book full of humanity and empathy, qualities much-needed right now. As Gjini, the narrator’s driver and companion says:
Everything here is made from love and dedicated to memory.
He is describing a particular location, but he could be describing this book.
I have rarely seen modern technology dealt with so intelligently. Social media offers us a “meagre eternity”. Šarotar’s musings on Google Maps, meanwhile, reveal something philosophical and poetic in an everyday tool:
…as I slid my thumb and forefinger across the tablet to shrink the map, I saw my pulsating point, the beating of my heart, melt into an ever vaster landscape, as if my eye had separated from my body and was ascending high into the sky, swiftly, to the edge of space, from where I could see the entire planet.
An earlier piece of technology, the Marconi Station at Clifden, looms over the whole book. It was built to communicate messages wirelessly over the Atlantic, but would be destroyed by Republican forces in the 1920s. The station is a symbol of communication, and communication lost. There are tensions in “progress” and “the new”, they are not always happy incidents. Who owns the communication matters. Who tells the story, who relays that story, who translates that story. All of this conflict and opportunity is bound in this book. The remains of the station remain, as a reminder and as a challenge.
And the rain still falls.