Minuet for Guitar

By Vitomil Zupan

Dalkey Archive Press
December 2011

Reviewed by Nathan Huffstutter


To the tune of automatic gunfire, the dance, if you will, in five traditional movements. There is, first, enlistment:

"To tell the truth, he had no call for The Profession. At least not then. As a dissatisfied son of a Harlan County miner, he just naturally gravitated toward it, the only profession open to him." —James Jones, From Here To Eternity

October, 1943. In the army now, Jakob "Berk" Bergant. Poker-player. Pugilist. Cool-handed nonconformist. Robert E. Lee Prewitt as played by Steve McQueen instead of Montgomery Clift. German troops have begun pressing deeper into Slovenia; the region's former occupier, Italy, has capitulated, leaving a chaotic, deeply-divided state. Armed guerillas march the streets and patrol the countryside: old factions once loyal to the Italians; gangs of foreign mercenaries; new factions collaborating with the Nazis; religious, sporting, and fraternal orders; the swelling Partisan force Berk has joined, the Slovenian Liberation Army.

"Some philosophers maintain that war is the natural state of mankind," suggests Berk, and from this nasty, brutish Dasein, Slovenian author/dissident Vitomil Zupan waltzes in time to the classics of world literature. Containing dozens of epigraphs, from Ovid to Voltaire and De Sade to Sartre; in direct textual conversation with canonical works by Dostoevsky, Koestler, and Céline; composed with structural contortions and post-modern flourishes—Minuet For Guitar is no little book.

Originally published in 1975, Zupan's semi-autobiographical novel opens with Berk's hard-boiled narration, pitched with enough pulp to read either as noir parody or reason to suspect the translator's steady hand. Berk, fresh off the train from Ljubljana, is tossed in among a hodgepodge of raw recruits. There's Vesna, attaching herself to whoever has the biggest gun and the loftiest rank, her desire for a full stomach, strong drink, and robust song perhaps symptomatic of the Slovenian national character, perhaps implicating a full-blown misogyny. There's Anton, a man of substance like Berk, only his is the stuff of quiet experience and political commitment, all that is lacking in the brash, undisciplined narrator.

In the army now: students, clerks, farmers, laborers, layabouts. No formal drills or military training, with rank as arbitrarily assigned as roles in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Forget the Nazis—odds are, Berk's own Comrades will have him shot long before he gets a whiff of the front lines.

There is, subsequently, the compulsion to new laws:

"Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time... Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941." —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

No matter where he is, even in an entirely different galaxy, the War never leaves Billy Pilgrim. Nor Berk. Unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, where formal section breaks mark abrupt transitions in time and space, Minuet concludes certain sentences in WWII and the succeeding capital takes up thirty years later, without so much as the pixilated flash of switched channels.

Spain, 1973. On holiday in Andalusia, Berk strikes up a cordial relationship with a pair of German tourists, Joseph Bitter and his hearing-impaired wife. Of compatible age and temperament, Bitter and Berk enter into a progressive conversation that soon shifts from sangria and soccer to ruminations on bullfighting, violence, and the War. By far the more direct of the two, Bitter marches headlong into revelation while Berk stays on the outskirts, engaging the dialogue at choice opportunities and then swiftly withdrawing.

Without direct orders or any stated objective, the Partisan troops begin their own march, frigid autumn giving way to early winter. The indomitable German fighting machine looms and Berk has been issued nothing more than a handful of hinky grenades, a carbine that "shoot(s) farther downhill than up," and a few choice maxims:

—"A spoon is more important than a gun."

—"The bullets you hear have already missed you. The ones that do not miss, you do not hear."

—"Don't ask questions in the army."

Circumambulating, this human convoy treads an endless, purgatorial ring, forest to mountain, mountain to forest. Nocturnal marches with only one natural end. Baseless, sleepless, debilitated: barely living, not quite dead. Bodies riddled with sores and crabs and lice; gangrenous wounds and blackened feet; fed from festering cookware and clothed in rancid damp; a man so cold he shoves frost-bitten hands in a mule's rectum.

 "If we think of infinity as a circle, without beginning or end, and look at it below from a frog's perspective, or take a bird's eye view, we shall see only repetition in the running circle," narrates Berk. "In reality, it's a moving circumference, a helical curve." The Heideggerian corkscrew, every existing moment composed of future, past, and present; the spiral staircase Comrade Rubashov descends to meet his fate in Darkness at Noon (or, in the French, Le Zero et l'Infini). Forget Nazi firepower—odds are, the march will be the death of them all.

(Here, ha ha, technically we ought to leap ahead to the fourth or fifth step, or perhaps cheekily return to the first. However, continuing our progress in proper order…)

There is, third, the face of the enemy:

"So for night after idiotic night we crept from ambush to ambush, sustained only by the decreasingly plausible hope of coming out alive, that and no other, and if we ever did come out alive one thing was sure, that we'd never, absolutely never forget that we had discovered on earth a man shaped like you and me, but a thousand times more ferocious than the crocodiles and sharks…" —Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey To The End Of The Night (Translated by Ralph Manheim)

Joseph Bitter: all in all, a pretty good Joe. Wife fusses over his blood pressure, keeps a keen eye he doesn't drink too much. Mother was a Pole. Delivers his remembrances in ellipses, à la Mort à Crédit. In a War where command decisions were made by men in cushioned chairs, Bitter no more fought to advance the cause of Nazism than Berk fought to promote Marxist revolution.

In humanist terms, Joseph Bitter is admirably drawn. In dramatic terms, kah-kah-kak-kak, the subplot between Berk and Bitter misses. Audibly. Though their respective speech patterns reflect the dueling histories of guerilla and infantryman, with palaver as their prime motivation, there is no rooting out of positions, no move-countermove, no pressing intrigue. Point blank, Berk asks Bitter what he thought of Hitlerism, to which the German replies grössenwahn eines Österreichers – "megalomania of an Austrian" (translated by Google Translator).

Since neither Berk nor Bitter embody conflicting ideologies, their dialectic has none of the historical oomph of Rubashov and Gletkin, the old and new guard sweating out their interrogation under Darkness At Noon's punishing lamplight.

Of Bitter, Berk says: "Altogether he  regarded me as a good companion, not realizing I was only a good listener." And, not merely a good listener, simultaneously a good soldier. Though the brutal march succeeds in grinding most of the Bogart from Berk's voice, his mettle is such that he begins to rise through the ranks. Contrary to the doomed inevitably of Prewitt's refusal to bend in From Here To Eternity, in Minuet the military doesn't crush it's finest individuals: protective of his alter-ego, Zupan allows us to see Berk bruised, but never fully broken.

So…who exactly is Berk fighting? What "Other" defines Berk's "I"? Céline's stand-in, Bardamu, stared out across the trenches, looked inside his own, then concluded you're all fucking crazy! Proclaiming himself "the last coward on earth," Bardamu possessed the total separation to needle and prod the absurd spectacle, our collective willingness to forgo the survival instinct and line up to shoot one another in the throat.


Zupan's Berk, on the other hand, is nobody's coward. He surveys the combatants: Nazis capable of incomprehensible atrocities, Partisans withstanding superhuman torments, agreeable old Joseph Bitter, chatting from across the table in cafés, pubs, and tourist traps. At root, all soldiers are simply men. This is confounding. Though, as an ultimate Truth, perhaps not terribly novel.

Ever onward, whatever screw you make of time, there is, at some point, a defining split.

"We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man's skull." —Arthur Koestler, Darkness At Noon (Translated by Daphne Hardy)

That climactic moment after which nothing will ever be the same: Comrade Rubashov's realization he's begun thinking in the singular "I" instead of the plural "we"; Prewitt's vow for blood vengeance when Fatso Judson tortures and kills the unbreakable Blues Berry; Fuck—Dresden.

"From the beginning of a soldier's training," says Bitter. "The greatest possible physical stress is laid on one demand: that he should become completely integrated as 'one of us'." So much depends on the totality of this integration that severance comes as a profound, isolating shock. Leading his own platoon, Berk receives orders to cover a retreating column of wounded: for once, a defined tactical objective. Here the helical curve flattens and Zupan choreographs a sincere, spectacular scene—with plain awareness and sharpened senses Berk comprehends the entire scope, the men in his command all dug into their positions, ordinary men holding their ground against superior firepower, superior numbers, enemy soldiers who've eaten hot meals, ridden to the front in transports, slept under blankets—hell, slept period. Ordinary men whose lives Berk will carry for the rest of his. Mirko, the broad-shouldered machine-gunner. Vili from the municipal orchestra. Stefan, the earnest student. Shorty the tagalong. The cinema usher. The Lowlander. The Croatian. The man in the dormouse cap. Christ, he doesn't even know most of their names, all Berk knows is he cannot allow the Germans to break their ranks. The Partisans hold their position, and in the onslaught, the slaughter, only Berk and Anton make it out alive.

And so, in the final steps, there is nothing but the recourse to memory.

"Once, when I was listening to myself read the Greek plays out loud, certain of the lines sounded as if they had been written under the influence of William Shakespeare […] Finally it occurred to me that the translator had no doubt read Shakespeare." —David Markson, Wittgenstein's Mistress

The PEN award for lifetime achievement in literary translation is named in honor of Ralph Manheim. Not only was Daphne Hardy an intimate of Arthur Koestler, her translation is the surviving text, versions in the "original" German now back-translated from her work. With Minuet For Guitar, in the early seventies a sixty-something Slovenian reconstructed the swagger of his twenty-something self, and over a decade later, that voice was then translated into English by a retired London philologist. On one level it couldn't be more apropos, Zupan references the exploits of Napoleon and Hitler as forever mediated by the page and uses formal techniques to disrupt linear engagement with his own text, effects translator Harry Leeming then augments by dubbing in Britishisms: Vesna is described as having "Duck's Disease" (UK slang for stubby legs), there's a "bonny lass," a "reliable chap," at one point "no one gives a bloody toss," at another there's even a "bloody bollocks."

The bullets you hear have already missed you…

Ultimately, the cross-cultural idioms are no more a pebble in the shoe than James Jones's periodic lapses into second person—the narrative marches on, but between skirmishes Zupan often leaves Berk adrift in the same "Oceanic Sense" that proved Comrade Rubashov's undoing, the cosmic wonder of man's reciprocal connection to the immensity of the world.

A tree grows, a bush lives. An oak is an oak, a lime tree a lime tree, and so with the hazel, the cornel. They grow if they can, they mature, produce, bear fruit, die off. They are never equal, never unequal. They have no dreams of becoming animals, human beings, or gods.

In his Theory Of Prose, Viktor Shklovsky (translated by Benjamin Sher), notes how, even with acquired fluency, non-native speakers have difficulty appreciating the poetry of secondary languages: they lack the innate recognition of the norm, the "differential perceptions" that in turn allow one to perceive lyrical deviations from that norm. In its original tongue, perhaps there's a more idiosyncratic edge to Berk's frequent musings, perhaps they cohere into a worldview that transcends cliché; in translation, however, Berk's metaphysics mostly float across as strands of marshmallow.

Equally vexing, within his interrogation of man's place in the universe, Zupan only appears intrigued by man's place. Woman's seems predetermined. When a hoydenish farmer's daughter threatens to turn Berk and Anton over to the patrolling Germans, Berk beats her bare ass with a soup ladle and straightens her out with a good rogering—tamed, the shrew then serves the men supper. Different era, different culture, no dancing around it: Zupan's handling of women stinks.

Setting aside all such concerns, beyond vivid descriptions of the Partisan experience, beyond timely insight into guerilla tactics and wars of occupation, beyond gripping combat sequences, Minuet separates from its forebears in the wake of the "split," with Zupan executing that singular maneuver in the form of a duo. Behind enemy lines, half-dead and mutually dependent, Berk and Anton are forced to place their survival in each other's hands: "We lost our separate physical and mental identity and fused into a new entity, rather like two drops of water which come close to each other and then, after a momentary tremor, leap together to form one single drop." Possibly a reflection of man's reliance on his fellow man, possibly something more symbolically and psychologically complex, a literal synthesis of id and superego: Anton has shadowed Berk from the very beginning, Robinson to his Bardamu, and in light of these closing sequences, a Fight Club re-reading of Minuet wouldn't be completely unwarranted.

This, though, requires more thought, more time, more context, more conversation, without pause the movements begin anew, and there's never any certainty of what will fade and what will endure.

The shots that do not miss are the shots you do not hear…