“Nothing is easier than being against war,” wrote journalist, publicist and war reporter Boštjan Videmšek in his literary debut, the novel Vojni dnevnik.
At the center is an individual who finds himself confronted with the fact of war almost overnight. What is his role, what should he do, should he do anything at all, when war becomes personal despite all principles, what is the situation right?
In eleven days or chapters, as long as the novel lasts, we get to know Val, the first-person narrator, historian and writer, who wakes up to war in the capital, turns into a journalist due to circumstances and then goes north together with the Catalan photographer Sergio to the battle line, where the action predictably reaches its climax. Meanwhile, he is constantly writing a diary, journalistic notes for the German media, which are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek and to offer foreigners a look into what is happening in… But where are we anyway? Videmšek never names the country, he only mentions that it is Eastern European, but there are enough clues to easily recognize Ukraine and the current war in it. Why this apparent camouflage? The interpretation could be taken in the direction that the war atrocity is to some extent generic regardless of where it takes place, but for this thought to work convincingly, the abstraction should be greater, and this is how we are and at the same time we are not in Ukraine. Despite the universality of evil, war conflict is nevertheless the result of individual circumstances, although perhaps unfathomable, banal. It would be difficult to confirm the thesis Goran Vojnović, who says in the accompanying foreword that the novel brings the events of the war closer to us and places us as active subjects, so that the war becomes ours. That the current war in Ukraine is also ours, there is no doubt, but not only because we are human, Slavs, Europeans, Caucasians and whatever other characteristics connect us with Ukrainians, but the broader socio-political context is decisive for such an understanding. By giving up the novel, he also gives up a good part of his own flesh.
But it must be admitted that Val never pretends to write and talk about a wider context, but puts the individual’s position and intimate relationships, values and feelings, which are put to the test in radical circumstances, to the fore. It is a character who, in all his inconsistency, helplessness and doubts, could be eminently likable, so similar to any one of us who is weighed down by a sense of duty and simultaneous acceptance of an active-passive position, if it were not for the passages about vegetarianism, (a) social networks, political correctness, pandemic lockdown and anything else that could be found giving the impression that he is speaking from the pulpit. An alarm that instinctively compels me to defiance. It’s a rather ungrateful situation if you agree with a person, but at the same time you wish that he would say it differently or rather in a different text.
But if Val, in spite of everything, acts as a character made of flesh and blood, occasionally even disgusting, the other characters show themselves mainly in their relationship to him. Of course, this is partly to be expected due to the first-person narrative – they’re just as Val sees them – and it wouldn’t be controversial if it weren’t for the fact that they seem rather one-dimensional. Father rational, mother sensitive, vulnerable, caring soul. In this respect, Maša shines the most, the smartest, best person Val knows, who always does everything right and who gave up the world in order to improve her own. And when gently like an elf with a lioness on her pregnant belly, she walks along the trench and praysher saintly glow just painfully blinds us.
Val’s relationship with his best friend Vik is similarly rocky. And that’s not just because they talk to each other like brothers all the time. The portrayal of intimacy between two men in an effort to be sincerely authentic remains at a rather elementary level. Testosterone spurts everywhere, whether you’re playing hockey or, in the style of the movie The Bare-Fist Club, getting naked to the waist for fun. I’m not saying, maybe they’re really only capable of expressing emotions this way, and with that we find ourselves back on the slippery slope of clichés. The dynamic of their relationship is shaken by a meeting at the front, when Val finally learns what has been clear to the readers for some time, namely that Vik is an actor by day, a member of the special forces by night and the future father of Masha’s child. The real breakthrough is therefore not the revelation of the obvious, but rather what is happening on the front. Here, for the first time, we really see what Val sees. In contrast to dialogues and occasional wisecracks, Videmšek describes the rescue operation, the convoy with humanitarian aid, the suspension on the bridge and the extremely uneasy atmosphere very convincingly. Linguistically, the passage describing the explosion is also the strongest. In this place, fragmentary language, cut-off sentences, fragments of pictures indicate the inability to express reality in all its complexity. Similar solutions would be much more welcome than constantly fiddling with brackets and equations. Okay, once, twice, we expand the semantics, and the fifteenth time, e.g. The (m)classroom already stings like a cheap forum. The very description of the explosion is also an excellent example of the naked display of reality, the brutality to which Val constantly strives. Much more than plastering with clumsy erotic and scatological images. Literature, no matter how faithfully it tries to imitate it, is never just a cast, an indigo of reality. It works according to its laws, which are often diametrically opposed to the postulates of reality.
But let’s get back to the war. Videmšek still has a lot of potential in terms of craftsmanship, but War diary is conceptually elaborate and raises very important questions. As Val says: “and I no longer knew what was right and what was wrong. How easy, almost infantile, these questions are if they are not provoked, least of all faced with the threat of suffering, pain and death.” So if it’s easiest to think from a safe haven, what are we left with? Shall we throw books into tanks? Yes, metaphorically, that’s what literature has always done.
From the show From the book market.