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from the November 2015 issue

Evald Flisar’s “My Father’s Dreams”

Reviewed by A. M. Bakalar

Evald Flisar is Slovenia’s best-selling and versatile author of literary fiction, plays, travelogues, and children’s books. He has been awarded the most prestigious Slovenian literary awards, including the Prešeren Foundation Prize, the highest state award for prose and drama, and the Župančič Award for Lifetime Achievement. His novel On the Gold Coast, translated from the Slovene by Timothy Pagacar, was shortlisted for the Kresnik Award, the Slovenian “Booker” prize, and was longlisted for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. My Father’s Dreams, recently published in the UK by Istros Books, an independent publisher of Balkan literature, is regarded by many critics as his best novel, and the author translated it into English himself along with Alan McConnell-Duff. Recently, My Father’s Dreams was selected for the European Literature Night in London.

This masterful and disturbing novel, tells the oneiric-like story of the relationship between the fourteen-year-old Adam and his father.  The thing about My Father’s Dreams, and the greatest pleasure in reading it, is that the episodes referring to reality and the ones belonging to dreams are woven together with such perfection that the reader can easily lose herself between these two realms, without realising where reality ends and the dream begins, and vice versa.

The seemingly idyllic family life in the novel centers around Joseph, Adam’s father, a doctor in a small village who conducts mysterious experiments in the basement, a place to which no family member has access.  Adam’s quiet life is turned upside down after a horrified teacher notifies his parents about a disturbing essay Adam penned entitled “What I Dreamt Last Night.” Then the novel turns toward the grotesque and the morbid. Adam describes a dream discussion he had with his father:

[W]hether the way someone died was predetermined by fate, or whether it was a matter of chance. Our reasoning went like this: if the train bringing Mother home gets derailed, she will survive, but only if fate had decreed that she should not die in a train accident; otherwise she will die. But if she does die, this might also be due to chance, simply because she had found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. So there was no way of telling. Except, suggested Father, if someone deliberately derailed the train.

Together they set off to the train tracks and remove a section of the rail, then hide behind the trees to wait for the train to arrive. After the accident, Adam and his father rush back home to watch the report of the carnage on the television. The aftermath is worse than they expect: “one hundred and twenty-three dead, among them Mother, no survivors.”

Joseph does not find this particular dream disturbing, unlike Adam’s mother, “so shattered by the event, and especially of my [Adam’s] literary endeavour,” she takes three days off work to recover. If the mother fears what kind of future awaits her son Adam, Joseph has the entirely opposite opinion: “A dreamer often turns to a genius,” Joseph says to his wife. To remedy the mother’s uneasiness, Adam’s father suggests his son stops reading serious books and keep a diary of his dreams and fantasies, in case Adam develops “any kind of mental disorder.”

Soon, the dreams begin to invade Adam’s reality, and neither he nor the reader can be certain what is taking place in reality and what is the product of Adam’s unconscious mind. Flisar brilliantly details the hellish events of Adam’s life, keeping the reader in constant tension, right up to the novel’s unpredictable finish.

The characters’ names in Flisar’s novel are heavily allegorical and feed into the author’s literary design of weaving dreamworld and reality. Adam, son of Joseph and Mary, is attracted to Eve, one of his father’s patients. Joseph supplies Eve with drugs and also has sex with her, an act witnessed by Adam, and later manipulates his own son into believing what he witnessed was just another dream. Eve is entirely unperturbed by Joseph’s inappropriate relationship with her, unlike Adam. In her mind, the fact Joseph is a doctor justifies his behavior, even if it means abusing his status as a physician. Adam’s inability to distinguish between reality and dreams is a convenient excuse for Joseph to manipulate his son. Ultimately, Adam becomes his father’s personal experiment.

When Adam sneaks into the basement where his father conducts secret experiments via a chute, he makes the most horrifying discovery: the fetus of his dead brother in a jar:

In a strange way he seemed almost alive. He was also the only one with a name; stuck to the jar in which he floated was a label on which someone had scrawled: ‘Abortus, the son of Mary and Joseph.’

If there is any doubt how Adam’s little brother died, the name on the jar reveals the ugly truth. Adam’s mother, however, pretends she knows nothing about the other child. Disturbingly, Abortus becomes the person Adam confides in and to whom he reveals his most secret thoughts. Adam carries the jar to his room and observes the content. At this point, his reflections pull the reader even deeper intoconfronting the similarities between reality and dreams:

I joined my hands in front of my chest, closed my eyes and said, ‘God, if this is a dream, I want to wake up.’
Then I said, ‘God, if this is real, I want to start dreaming.’
There was no sign that God had any intention of responding.

Adam’s dead brother is his unborn other self and his best friend: “Only to Abortus could I talk as an equal, as one half to the other half; only together were we a complete person.”

To make the transition from Adam/Abortus to Dominic, what about: There is only one adult Adam trusts enough to share his “evil dreams”: Captain Dominic, Eve’s grandfather. Eve’s grandfather is almost a mythical creature; he resides in an old house among the statues of African gods he collected on his sea voyages, “like an interpreter of their thoughts.”Adam trusts Grandpa Dominic enough to introduce him to his brother in a jar. If the old man is a little startled by the foetus, he does not reveal it, and agrees to keep Adam’s jar in the house: “I can see no reason why. We’re unlikely to have many visitors, so there is little chance that anyone would suffer a heart attack. Actually he is quite likable.” It is also Grandpa Dominic who encourages Adam to keep a diary, unaware that Adam is already working on his second volume, Dreams II. Grandpa Dominic does not berate Adam for the bizarre content of Adam’s dreams, unlike his father Joseph, who begins to refer to Adam as “the author of mad compositions, the dreamer of salacious dreams.”

At the heart of My Father’s Dreams is a brilliant interplay of human deception and the unsettling lies and obsessions of which humans are capable. If the purpose of dreams in the narrative is to cope with the unfolding tragedy of reality, it is not so, dreams seem like further manifestations of human cruelty. The course of the novel, the barriers between reality and dreams crumble, and both worlds are places that can impact one another with disastrous consequences for Adam and the people he dreams about.

Flisar has the rare ability as a writer to move the reader from laughter to disgust within the space of a single page. My Father’s Dreams revels in sensual descriptions of its protagonists’ lives, their fears, hopes and dreams, and in the complexity of human relations. It is an eccentric novel that pulls the reader inside the most unusual illusions of reality.  

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