Introduction to the English Language Edition of
Evald Flisar's Tales Of Wandering

by Karl Young

Travelers' tales have been around since the beginning of time, and may have helped create our sense of chronology. Among written records, The Odyssey is an early example of travel lore. In the Biblical Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve only get a few verses before they make their journey out of Eden. This is the first of literally thousands of journeys in The Bible reaching their conclusion in the psychedelic trips of the Book of Revelation. We can assume that the origins of travel stories predate writing, that such stories made a significant contribution to all forms of narrative and may have helped shape the nature of language itself. Spirit quests, boasts, parables, romances, and travel guides may have been among the earliest genres, and these continue to reappear in endless variations, cross-bred almost into infinity. True or false, such stories launched pilgrimages, jihads, journeys of exploration and conquest, journeys for education and for enlightenment. Even those who don't leave their homes seek "guidance" and such metaphors as "the journey through life" are as deeply rooted in our speech and psuches as tropes based on sight or sound. For better and for worse, travel stories have done as much as anything else to bring the world together. At a time when virtually no place on earth remains inaccessible and literally millions of people travel between continents every year, travel stories remain an ideal framework for fiction writers.

In Tales of Wandering, Evald Flisar makes subtle shifts between travel genres, from moral tales to picaresque to cautionary warnings to tellings of marvels. A bawdy joke such as "The Price of Heaven" may elicit bemused smirks, as surely as the parable that makes up "Safari" can provoke a reader to cheer for the heroine. Among cautionary tales, "The Lord of the Train" can act as an antidote to sentimentality just as "Executioners" can suggest the limitations of the best-intentioned generosity. "The Lady with an Iron Bite" may include the most complex interrelation of travel genres. In this story, expansions of grotesque fantasies constantly reshape pilgrimage, fable of innocents abroad, journey-as-escape and journey-as-hope. For those who remember headlines of a decade or so ago, the name of a boat lurks slyly in the background, casting the story as a recension of the venerable "Ship of Fools" genre.

Flisar tells his stories from the point of view of the traveler, who becomes a sort of Everyman. His place of origin shifts from one story to the next. His reasons for traveling remain vague, usually stated, if stated at all, in a sentence or two. He's seldom clearly delineated in terms of appearance, experience, or personality. As often as not, he plays little significant role in the action of the story beyond that of observer. Although often accompanied by a wife and friends or acquaintances, he tends to come across as a solitary figure, alone in the flickering parade of strangers. He generally does not stay long enough in any one place to become thoroughly aware of the nature of the lives of the inhabitants of the regions through which he moves. This transience underscores the nature of his restless wandering. Though the book includes no continuous narrative linking episodes, the work as a whole retains a unity of theme and tone, much like Joyce's Dubliners or Hemingway's In Our Time or Camus's L'Exile et le Royaume. This lack of comprehensive narrative, coupled with lack of a unified character, supports the sense of transience in a manner completely appropriate to the theme of wandering.

A solitary wanderer needs to be aware of cons and con artists. Con artists are, virtually by definition, people who can make up convincing stories. Many of Flisar's stories involve such sub-stories, and many of them include strange twists in which the con men con themselves or produce effects on their "marks" that the con artists could not have predicted, and about which they may not care. Those which the wanderer sees most clearly come not from the natives of the places visited, but from other travelers from the North Atlantic cultures. At times, the wanderer or those he observes unconsciously con themselves. As in many travel stories, the world around the wanderer presents a dull and at times desolate surface appearance, but one of the things that perpetually enlivens it is the textures created by stories and illusions within stories and illusions. Stories that carry the most significance find a means of breaking through the illusions that form their base. Discovering how a con -- or a story -- works becomes an epiphany, the revelation that turns narrative into a means of understanding. From "street smarts" to "worldlyness," the accumulation of this kind of revelation leads into the ability to get along in the world. That is, the capacity to travel further in physical as well as psychological terms.

Many of the native peoples the wanderer encounters remain enigmatic even after such mechanisms become apparent. In a story such as "The Sentence," the wanderer cannot be certain whether the ruse perpetrated by children originates with them or came from the instigation of an elder. This remains something the mark, an outsider at a different remove from the wanderer, may never discover himself. Still, the mechanism remains a minimalist masterpiece dependent on writing. The deeply human nature of ploys such as this become enmeshed in cold protocols, habits, preconceptions, and bureaucratic rules and regulations -- essentially preemptive narrative structures created by cultural dominance. This works out in a much more complex manner in "No Ticket," where a simple misunderstanding impels the victim into a totally indifferent political mechanism.

Since this is a book of Wanderer's stories rather than a pilgrimage or quest, there is no final destination. Presumably, Flisar will continue writing travel stories, and they will form other collections. In strictly geographical terms, the places to which a traveler may go both expand and contract in the turn of the millennium world. Few inaccessible places remain on the face of the earth today, and the search for the exotic becomes part of a different era. Perhaps one of the main tasks of the 21st Century will center on integration, on becoming more familiar with the large but finite environment. At the extreme of optimism, this may be a time when people throughout the world can reach greater tolerance and cooperation. Language and translation would play a key role in that task. Flisar is adept at speaking and writing English. In working with his translator, he may be contributing to a process of preserving local languages while making use of colonial languages as a means of exchange and outreach. I don't read Slovene, so I don't know how these stories come across in their native language. What I do know is that their English recensions come through without the stiltedness characteristic of some translations.

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, there was nothing unusual about taking inexpensive flights on stand-by, often with forged passports and visas, to Amsterdam or Paris or Mexico City. Young people in the 1960s and 70s usually found counterparts wherever we went in the global youth-culture. As exhilarating as that could be, it provided a warped view of the world outside the hothouse of the moment's socio-political foment. At the turn of the millennium, many people travel in search of slight variations on the familiar, engaging in such activities as playing golf on nearly identical greens throughout the world. At the same time, plenty of westerners now sincerely seek spiritual guidance in such places as Japan, Sri Lanka, and India, while an equally large contingent seek adventure in any destination that suggests an exotic or non-restraining environment. At a more practical level, travel as part of education has become part of the status quo. On a more sinister level, armies of ideologues, missionaries, and entrepreneurs seek domination as avariciously as did the Renaissance Conquistadors. Following the same air lanes, perhaps the largest mass migrations in history seek to escape from nightmares or to find a better life. The number of people in the air at the moment you read this may be greater than the total population of the world at the time of the codification of the first writing system.

Paradoxically, as much as the world has mobilized as never before, intellectual trends have turned inward toward self-referentiality. Theory replaces experience as the source of knowledge, while experience, at best, becomes little more than abstract data, only useful in supporting ideological debate. As this trend tightens its inward spiral, Post Modernism recasts the goal of history as the "timeless present" of a commodity based North Atlantic shopping mall. The constant look outward in Flisar's stories makes a healthy contrast to this tendency.

I mentioned The Bible and The Odyssey as basic travel stories. There's a curious catch in such stories: The Christian Bible is essentially a book of instructions for regaining Paradise. For Odysseus to get home, he first had to take a side trip to Hades in order to gain the knowledge he needed to return to his native Ithaca. In this mode, home never remains what it was when the travelers left, but becomes renewed by the experience of the journey. Perhaps Evald Flisar's stories contribute to finding ourselves at home in a world at once interconnected and always shifting under our feet, a world in which we can no longer see home in limited or isolationist terms.

"Safari" by Evald Flisar

Light and Dust

Copyright © 2001 by Karl Young

This is a cooperative presentation by
Textures Press and Light and Dust