Comment by Keith Simkin’s
How would you respond to occupation of your country by a foreign invader? In her most recent novel, Big Oak on Little Mountain (Horizon Press), Lou Drofenik gives us the raw material to think about how we would answer this question. She describes the responses of the people in Ljubljana to the Italian and German invasions during World War 2. Her initial curiosity was not casual. A relative perished in the Dachau concentration Camp. Years after the war, she found a badge in the family garden in Mestinje, Slovenia, inscribed with a swastika. Intrigued, her research into the experiences of her family and neighbours during the war led her eventually to write this powerful story. In a prefatory note she describes the awful truth she discovered through her research:
“After reading many books, I realised that Slovenia’s war story is not a simple story of good versus evil… it is a story of a people divided among themselves; a people without a common enemy… the enemy was also the brother, the neighbour, the sister, the father even.”
In this imaginative reconstruction of life in occupied Slovenia Lou Drofenik helps us to comprehend the behaviours and motives of the many different types of people who found themselves caught up in this maelstrom — peasants, townspeople, factory workers, intellectuals, priests, resistance fighters, collaborators, military officers in the occupying armies and the majority of people who, as in all wars, try to cope as best as possible by complying or resisting to various degrees as opportunity allows.
To provide a focus, events are filtered through the thoughts and observations of Eda, orphaned after her mother committed suicide and her father disappeared at sea. Eda was never told the truth of how or why her mother died. All her life she disbelieved most of what people told her. She felt exiled from her rural birthplace of Mala Gora and yearned to recapture the security of her mother’s love. She was brought up by her aunt Alma in the small Slovenian town of Sveti Mihael. Discontented, resenting the constraints of village life, at the age of fifteen Eda fled to the capital Ljubljana and found employment as a nanny in the house of anti-Communist Catholic academics. .
The Italian and German invasions of Yugoslavia and the deterioration of living conditions divided families and social groups. Hatreds erupted, based on class, education, language, politics and religion, all of which provided rationalisations to justify dispossession, imprisonment murder and mass executions. Swept into the maelstrom of wartime life in Ljubljana and in Italy, people were forced to make difficult choices. Father Micallef is desperate to make amends to his Slovenian parishioners for his younger brother’s atrocities in the Fascist army; Frank, the cycling champion feted in Italy, subverts his patrons by organising escape routes for Jews; Alma flees to the rural village of Mala Gora in a desperate effort to protect a gypsy boy she has looked after since his family was casually executed. Eda is pressured by some of her former neighbours in Sveti Mihael to assist the Resistance but threatened by others with execution as a collaborator.
The scarcity of trust and the search for belonging, especially in wartime, are the central existential issues of this novel, but fans of Lou Drofenik will recognise several additional themes that have characterised most of her imaginative writing. Her love of nature is reflected in the contrast she draws between the insecure, threatening and contingent nature of city life and her dreamlike accounts of life in rural communities before the Italian invasion. Her passionate belief in the nurturing influence of mothers and the power of female bonding has earned Lou Drofenik the reputation of being an influential writer of the feminine. In this novel the nature of feminine strength is subject to critical scrutiny in her analysis of Eda’s problematic relationships with her foster parents Alma and Lovisa, and with Slavica, the maths professor whose baby she looks after as a live-in nanny.
Lou Drofenik has written often about the inter-relatedness of the Roman Catholic church, education, language and social class in the lives of people. The persistence of these themes in her writing is not accidental. She loves nature and enjoys growing vegetables and flowers in her country property. She is a devoted mother of four children and until her retirement to write novels she was a committed and much-loved elementary school teacher. She was educated in Maltese schools, married into a Slovenian family, completed a university degree and wrote her doctoral dissertation on the sociological experiences of post war women immigrants to Australia (of which she was one).
This correlation between Lou Drofenik’s passions and her creativity is a possible clue why she can employ a range of techniques so successfully. She manages to corral a large cast of characters because each one personifies a major theme and can be related in some way to Eda, so the narrative strands are firmly interwoven. She uses thematic contrast to balance mood and purpose. The first half of the narrative sets up the background of traditional rural communities; the second half descends into the abyss under foreign control, mostly in the uncertainty of intrigue in Ljubljana but also in the ravaged lives and lands of the once bucolic Slovenian heartland.
Lou Drofenik also uses contrast in descriptive techniques. Her long, lyrical descriptions of the countryside remind us of vistas that have caused us to stop and wonder at the beauty of nature. She details the objects in kitchens that remind us of houses we have loved and meals we have enjoyed. When she portrays her main characters, however, we relate with them mainly through their internal soliloquies, their calculus of ethical options and the (mis)match between intentions and outcomes. We are permitted to observe her minor characters less intimately, mainly through their direct conversations or their actions. This contrastive technique departs from the usual injunction to writers to ‘show, not tell’, but it highlights the relevant plot points and thus powerfully reinforces the main themes explored in the novel.
One particular technique illustrating Lou Drofenik’s skill is her use of a kind of Chorus, or anonymous commentator, whose voice appears in italicised sections at various parts of the narrative. These sections do various things: provide context for an incident, speculate on a character’s motives, excoriate the invaders and become a mouthpiece for Slovenian patriotism, and at other times provide an insight into the motives of the actors not given to us in the main text. Readers might like to indulge in speculation about these choral passages. At times I wondered if they represent the Big Oak, a symbol of rural solidarity and reverence for life, and at others I heard in them the voice of the Slovenian heartland. Whatever one’s speculation, this device assists the author to provide a third party point of view that anonymously adds both information and suspense.
Fans of Lou Drofenik will be well satisfied with her eleventh novel. It confirms her place as an internationally recognised writer of literary fiction. She demonstrates the power of creative literature to show us truths about war more powerfully than is possible through the ‘objectivity’ of nonfiction documentaries. There is another strong reason to read this book. In her Foreword, Lou Drofenik writes: “The hatreds and the silences about the choices people made during a terrible time of history, when choices determined personal survival and the survival of one’s family, left a bitterness in the Slovenian psyche to this very day.” Our mass media show us in great detail the physical damage of current military conflicts, but less about their long-term effects on the minds of individuals and the soul of their country. This novel is a potent correction to the dangers of this kind of myopia.