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.


Il-binarji: żewġ linji paralleli, ma jiltaqgħu qatt. Il-binarji ma jħallulek ebda għażla: imexxuk ’il quddiem, lura ma jħallukx tmur, l-aktar l-aktar, iħalluk biss tittawwal lejn dak li għadda u mar. Il-binarji tgħaddi dejjem tagħhom: iċaħħdulek il-libertà li tiddevja, li tagħżel mogħdija oħra. Il-binarji jippredestinawk. Huma jwassluk, trid jew ma tridx, iġorruk, anke jekk għal għonq it-triq jerġa’ jibdielek. Il-binarji tal-ħadid; fix-xitwa inġazzati; fis-sajf jikwu – jekk għandek ġilda sensittiva aħjar ma tmissx magħhom. Il-binarji huma identiċi, jaqblu, jikkumplimentaw lil xulxin. Madankollu, il-binarji huma dejjem separati, biswit xulxin imma jevitaw lil xulxin, waħda donnha l-anatema tal-oħra. Għaldaqstant il-binarji jistgħu jissarrfu fl-opposti, fit-truf tal-ispettru; il-binarji jistgħu jsiru rappreżentazzjoni metaforika tal-ħajja u l-mewt; tat-tfulija u x-xjuħija; tal-Punent u l-Lvant; tal-Kanada u Malta; tal-mara u r-raġel; tal-imħabba u s-solitudni; tal-bidu u t-tmiem. Tista’ toqgħod bejn il-binarji? L-esperjenza tgħallem li aħjar le – għax dak territorju mwiegħer, art sterili mimlija żrar, roqgħa li ma toffri ebda sens ta’ stabbiltà, ta’ permanenza, ebda ċans fejn trabbi l-għeruq u tarmi l-frott.


Il-persona, li leħinha nisimgħuh jidwi fil-versi tal-ġabra poetika Bejn il-Binarji, sabet ruħha proprju “titwieżen bejn il-binarji” (“Bejn il-Binarji”). Dil-persona qed iġġarrab id-disforija, tinsab f’post skomdu, taħseb li qiegħda waħedha, maqbuda bejn ħaltejn. Madankollu, x’aktarx li leħinha mhuwiex jidwi waħdu, jgħajjat f’deżert diżabitat, bħal dak tal-Battista. Hekk kif dal-versi jaslu f’idejn il-qarrejja, hemm ċans kbir li l-vuċi solitarja ssir minnufih vuċi korali, il-vuċi tal-ħafna. Għaldaqstant, il-ġabra poetika mħejjija minn John Portelli tista’ tissarraf f’esperjenza kollettiva, fl-esperjenza ta’ ħafna nies li flimkien, jgħixu waħedhom.


Hawn se nesplora xi aspetti f’din il-ġabra li  laqtu lili, bħala qarrej. Qabelxejn, xtaqt nibda b’motif li intrigani, il-leitmotif tal-għasafar inaqqru. F’ “Wara l-vireg,” nilmħu “L-għasafar tal-bejt moħbija/ jnaqqru l-għera ta’ triq imterrqa mistura fis-sħab rekkien,” filwaqt li f’“Il-vuċi tiegħek” hemm “kolonja t’għasafar tal-bejt inaqqru l-ħajja.” F’“’L hemm mill-Ħin” il-persona ssaqsi: “l-għasafar inaqqru ż-żrieragħ u d-dud,/dielja tixxeblek mal-arblu tal-eżistenza?” U jien insaqsi: Għaliex il-metafora tal-għasafar ċkejknin li qed inaqqru? Din ukoll, bħall-metafora tal-binarji, hija metafora ambivalenti. Aħna l-għasafar tal-bejt, aħna l-insinifikanti, aħna li mingħalina nafu ntiru imma mbagħad nittajru lil hinn mal-ewwel buffura riħ mingħajr ma jkollna ebda kontroll tad-direzzjoni, tad-destinazzjoni. Iżda s-simboliżmu tal-għasafar inaqqru jista’ jkun li qed jirreferi għal qawwa ’l barra minna: l-għasafar ta’ Portelli jsiru wlied Kronos, l-alla taż-żmien; it-tnaqqir tal-għasafar isir għalhekk il-metafora tat-tmermir, tad-deterjorazzjoni tal-eżistenza, tal-finitudni tagħna lkoll, aħna li fi kliem Friggieri m’aħniex ħlief “katavri ferħanin” (“Fil-Bar tal-Kantuniera”).


L-eżistenza mwiegħra tagħna lkoll hija fil-fatt preokkupazzjoni ewlenija tal-persona F’Bejn il-Binarji. Fil-versi ta’ “Wara l-vireg” jinħass l-angst eżistenzjali li jasal għand il-qarrejja permezz ta’ emozzjonijiet relatabbli: f’mumenti tinħass tidwi r-rassenjazzjoni ta’ min tgħarraf biżżejjed biex fehem l-illużjoni: “Issa kollox ħolm tat-trab jittajjar.” F’mumenti oħra, il-persona tinħass li qed titlef sabarha quddiem l-inkejja tal-eżistenza: “Kemm tista’ ddum tissabbar b’xita traxxax?” (“Wara l-Vireg”). Minkejja li jissarraf f’tentattiv fieragħ, il-bżonn għal xi forma ta’ sens eżistenzjali, ma jerħina b’xejn: fi kliem Portelli aħna bħal “papri jaħbu rashom taħt l-ilma tal-lag: / bugħaddasa minn twelidhom ifittxu pedament fittizju” (“Metamorfosi falza”). F’“Imħabbtek” jerġa’ jfeġġ l-att tat-tnaqqir, din id-darba mgħobbi bl-ambivalenza tan-“nostalġija” u tal-“kullana tal-ġiżimin”:


Issa biss it-tektik tan-nostalġija

jnaqqar il-memorji mtappna: ħabsin taż-żmien

imlibbsa l-iswed, imtaqqla

kantun bil-piż tal-ħin.

Għadek ma fhimtx xi jfissru l-kullani tal-ġiżimin

jaqgħu waħda waħda. (Imħabbtek)


Ma jistax jonqos li l-poeta, li trabba f’raħal f’tarf l-irdumijiet ta’ gżira Mediterranja u li għadda ħajtu jaqsam il-meded kbar tal-ilma li jifirdu l-kontinenti, ma jitnebbaħx mill-baħar. F’din l-antoloġija, il-motif tal-baħar isir il-mera tal-emozzjoni mġarrba mill-persona: xi drabi jissenslu mal-baħar konnotazzjonijiet ta’ diqa (“Id-Dizzjunarju tas-Skiet”), drabi oħra l-baħar isir għelm ta’ ħelsien (“Ħelsien”) jew ta’ ħajja eterna (“Iħaddnek Bla Tmiem”). Il-baħar għandu żewġt uċuħ – kwalità li dejjem nebbħet il-poeti Maltin, minn Dun Karm u Ġorġ Zammit sa Daniel Massa u Immanuel Mifsud. Portelli wkoll iġarrab dawn l-aspetti antitetiċi tal-baħar; f’poeżija minnhom, “Bla Xkiel,” ilaqqagħhom flimkien b’mod effettiv:


Qaltlu ħudli kollox barra l-passjoni.

Dak l-imgħarraq baħar jaqtagħli nifsi.


Ibqa’ stenna fil-bajja ta’ tfuliti titbaskat f ’kull staġun mingħajr waqfien.

Hawn is-siġar iħaddru biss fis-sajf, il-bqija mistrieħa fil-bogħod,

joħolmu ġibdet qalbek tħabbat – bla waqfien.


Fertili ħafna dil-passjoni mxekkla mix-xejn ta’ ħajja trieġi t-tregħix dgħajjef:

u anke llum il-mewġ kajman

iċafċaf (“Bla xkiel”)


Iżda f’“Tistenna għalxejn,” il-baħar isir biss xbieha mbiegħda: “Imellisni l-ilma baħar imbiegħed minni; / maħruq it-tluq sfurzat / rifless biss.” Din hija tema oħra rikorrenti f’Bejn il-Binarji: il-ġrajja tan-nomadu li tbiegħed fiżikament minn gżirtu li, madankollu, baqgħet imwaħħla fih qisha mħara, imqar jekk f’rokna mudlama ta’ qalbu. Spiss il-vjaġġatur jipprova jħares lura, lejn il-punto-di-partenza, bir-riskju li jintebaħ li issa tbiegħed iżżejjed (“Ħlewwet it-Tluq”). F’din il-ġabra jiġi evokat ukoll il-mument li l-poeta żagħżugħ, darba waħda, qatagħha li jterraq lil hinn mill-imluħa tax-xtutna, lejn art ferm ’il bogħod, ferm differenti: “Niftakar iż-żaqżiq taż-żarbun fuq borra inġazzata / imkaħħla mal-memorja ta’ żgħożija tfittex bla ħniena / mogħdija mbiegħda” (“Passi”).


Il-poeżija “Calypso,” fil-fehma tiegħi, tikkondensa fi ftit versi l-essenza tal-impatt li ħalliet fuqi din l-antoloġija. F’dawn il-versi ma jispikkax biss il-motif tal-baħar u l-atmosfera mistika, mitoloġika tal-ambjent Mediterranju. Din il-poeżija tuża l-elementi tan-natura biex tirrifletti dwar il-qagħda umana; b’lessiku sempliċi għall-aħħar jirnexxilha talludi għal temi kumplessi u universali. Fuq kollox, ħa nagħlaq b’din is-silta għax togħġobni l-estetika tagħha, jogħġbuni l-ħsejjes, il-kuluri u  x-xbihat li tnissel f’moħħi:


Sellimtli mill-għorfa ta’ fuq Calypso

u għattejt ġismek għeri bil-fjuri bojod;

sabiħa s-siġra tal-bajtar tax-xewk misjura

tistrieħ fuq ħajt tas-sejjieħ

issejjaħ lill-gawwi li ħareġ mis-sema mtaqqal

bit-tqala tal-bieraħ u lbiraħtlula,

u stedintni għal-loġġa ta’ fuq il-baħar,

illum kważi mċaqlaq jaħsibha jibqax xi ftit kajman

bħal ġibdet ħsusi magħkusa biż-żmien

li għadda bla ma ried u jaf


David Aloisio