Evald Flisar and the terror of political correctness
How to steal the limelight from Vladimir Putin
Recently you managed to overshadow even the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Slovene media. How did you do it?
With two compliments: to a woman and to female intellect. In reality, my worst nightmare has come true: since my childhood, I have often dreamed that I was wrongly accused of something I did not do. These dreams have proved to be prophetic. Just before Putin's visit I was pilloried for two statements. Because that was what someone wanted. In fact, it involves four parallel stories: my correspondence with the young critic Anja Radaljac and my supposed sexism; simultaneous goings on at the Slovene PEN Centre (which began before Anja Radaljac); and, finally, the unprecedented unprofessionalism and lack of morality of the Slovene media.
How did the whole affair begin?
Anja Radaljac wrote to me (the responsible editor of Sodobnost, journal for literature and the arts) that she was looking for work because Trubar's House of Literature had “shown her the door” (her words). At the same time, the newspaper Delo, because of the arrival of a new editor of its cultural pages, had reduced her cooperation by half. I quote (since she was the one who exposed our private correspondence, I shall myself make use of some quotations here): “Delo first sacked two regular contributors to the cultural editorial office, then changed the editor (Tanja Jaklič was replaced by Andrej Jaklič), at the same time getting rid of the Literary Pages or rather reshaping them so that they became much more marginal than before. They also reduced the number of reviewers. With regard to theatre, I am still present, but the new editor only wants to cover certain premieres, not everything as before. I reckon that the work will be reduced by 50 to 60 per cent.”
Why did you decide to help her?
Simply because several times in life I’ve also had trouble making ends meet and I know how hard it is to keep going if there is no sign that things will improve. And I knew that her partner, an occasional reviewer, was hardly in a better position. Basically, my desire to help was born of my social conscience. Will the media record that? I doubt it. No doubt they will pour scorn on it.
What happened then?
We corresponded. Primarily, she wrote and asked if I could find her some work at Sodobnost, and when. We agreed that we would meet for a coffee and she could explain what she would like to do. Because I was abroad and had other obligations that coffee was a long time in coming, but we eventually met in the restaurant of the PEN Club, where she cited a list of things she would like to do, above all editing a website like the journal Literatura had. She wanted to do this at the Trubar House of Literature, but they didn’t have the funds for it. And at that time Sodobnost wasn’t planning such a website either. Just then PEN’s part-time secretary had suddenly left because she had got a regular job and we were looking for a replacement. I asked Anja if she would be interested and she said yes, but it turned out that another candidate had more appropriate references.
And at Sodobnost?
In recent years, Sodobnost has consciously opened its doors to the younger generation, but with regard to Anja Radaljac the editor-in-chief and her assistant were sceptical from the very start. The reason was what happened in 2012 when Anja worked for a trial period. She wrote a review of a novel by Miriam Drev, but it didn’t appear in Sodobnost because Anja had misunderstood what the editor had expected of her. Moreover, one of the staff had had a disagreement with Anja when she was still employed at the Trubar House of Literature, when she failed to send out invitations to one of our press conferences. Instead of apologising, she yelled at the person concerned. Since 2012, I am no longer editor-in- chief of Sodobnost (that can be verified by a quick look at the cover of the journal), but only a responsible editor (mainly because I am the legal representative of the cultural-artistic society Sodobnost International, which publishes the journal and am thus responsible for all its projects, of which there are quite a few). Of course, because of my lengthy experience and the excessive workload of others I still help find suitable contributions, although most of this kind of work is done by the editors for different areas that the journal covers: poetry, essays, translations, interviews, book reviews, theatre etc. (For the information of the opponents of sexism, I think it worth mentioning that of the seven such editors five are women.)
What do these editors do?
They read submitted contributions and recommend those that are suitable for publication. What will be published and who we will cooperate with is decided by an editorial committee: the editor-in- chief, her assistant and the responsible editor. We decide by majority vote, but the editor-in- chief has the right of veto. Since the journals Nova revija and Revija 2000 ceased publication, we are overwhelmed by submissions and sadly we cannot publish everything – often even established authors – and so a choice has to be made. But in most cases we reach consensus.
But you still offered Anja Radaljac work.
In spite of the reservations of my two colleagues, we eventually agreed to offer her the translation of an essay and writing a review for the youth section Mlada Sodobnost. First, because she was facing real financial difficulties; second, because she struck me as a promising reviewer who it was worth persisting with (if she took into account editorial advice, then her writing would soon reach the level required by Sodobnost); and third, because I’ve always believed that conflict situations should be smoothed over and put behind you. I explained to the editor-in- chief and her assistant that I had a correct, conflict-free relationship with Anja, for it seemed to me that through our correspondence we had established friendly relations. Among other things, we had talked about anxiety, hers and mine, mitral valve prolapse, panic attacks, how I had had similar difficulties in the past, about what her psychotherapist had said, about the book by an Australian psychologist that cured my panic attacks, which I said I would dig out and give to her, since she needed it more than me. And so on.
The contact between the two of you was obviously on a friendly level.
It would be hard to see it as anything else. A trusting, friendly relationship between two people, one of which happened to be a woman and the other a man. I’ve had many such relationships in my life and still have and I’m convinced I’m not alone in this. In fact, almost all of my closest friends in life have been women. I must emphasise, that there wasn’t a hint of the erotic in any of them.
How, then, did those two unfortunate statements come about, which triggered the greatest witch hunt in the last fifty years, as some have called it?
The first (“You know you’re beautiful and sexy and self-confident – all that can be expected of a promising female intellectual, critic, author and who knows what else…”) came about when she sent me a photograph for publication in Sodobnost with the comment that she wasn’t too satisfied with it, but it was the only one she had. I express things in my own way, not according to the dictates of the suffragettes of political correctness. Have we really come so far that in friendly correspondence with a woman it is forbidden to offer a compliment? And is it necessary (not immediately, but three weeks later, when it suited someone!) to label it is an “insulting statement”, as sexism?
And the other statement, that some found more contentious?
The second one, which followed her reply (“Well, Evald, we learn something new every day, for example that a female intellectual/critic/author is expected to be sexy.”), went like this: “Didn’t you know that for a man the sexiest thing about a woman is her intellect? Physical beauty is just a bonus. I’ve never fallen for a woman, who hasn’t given me a hard on after a few sentences. And because Aljaž is my semi-compatriot, I’m sure that goes for him, too. But never mind that. And best wishes to both of you.” (Aljaž is her boyfriend and his mother was from Prekmurje, like my father and mother.)
In what way was that statement sexist?
It wasn’t. I used a metaphor – after all, I’m a writer who uses and is allowed to use metaphors. I simply said that, unlike most men, I am aroused primarily by the female intellect, much less by physical beauty. Maybe I am a freak, but since when is it forbidden to say in private correspondence or even, at the end of the day, in public (in this time of general pornography) that you are more excited by female intellect than beauty? Especially when that statement doesn't relate to a particular person, but is more a general statement of fact? Show me the law that forbids that! I have said or written similar things many times during my life. And I’ll continue to do so, at every opportunity. No one will take away my right to freedom of speech, free expression, my freedom to say something about myself (I emphasise, about me, my sexual preferences, we’re not living in the Middle Ages!) in my own way. Except perhaps that branch of feminism which thinks that mentioning sex (albeit metaphorically) in Slovenia in 2016 is suddenly a taboo theme that needs to be banned. I can only wonder why no one decided to burn all my books on a bonfire in the middle of Ljubljana!
Some have interpreted these statements as sexual innuendo.
Really? So why at the end did I write “But never mind that” and sent greetings to her boyfriend? Even Anja Radaljac herself only saw sexual suggestion in my words three weeks later. Is it possible that in the period of silence between us she became afraid she wasn’t going to get the promised work? And why in that time did she not contact someone else at the editorial office? When the last breakdown in communication occurred, the editor-in- chief’s assistant even gave her phone number with the request that she call or give her own phone number so they could clear up the misunderstanding regarding her review of a children’s book, so that cooperation could continue. Anja Radaljac neither called nor gave her phone number. I regret that because of her unjustified accusation of sexual suggestion I lost my cool and wrote that I was withdrawing from this farcical communication, but that’s how I am, explosive. Soon after I always apologise. Except when people make stupid accusations against me, like Anja Radaljac did.
Some have classified your statements as sexism.
If sexism means that we may not differentiate between the sexes or that sexual discrimination is forbidden then I would be the first to agree and the first to say that I’ve always acted in accordance with that. When I was in London editing the Encyclopaedia of Science, eight of my twelve sub-editors were women. Look at the journal Sodobnost, of which I was editor-in- chief from 1998 to 2012. How many new female authors did I publish and allow them to establish themselves, how many interviews with women were published? And look at the current editorial board – only women! Sexism? Let someone please explain to me what that is. Acknowledging the fact that the human race (like all mammal species) is made up of two sexes? Or simply the fact that a man cannot even look at a woman, whereas a woman can do what she wants to a man and any response to that is an attack? In the years that remain to me I’ll fight against this kind of idiocy with all my might, even if the members of the fundamentalist branch of feminism hang me on Congress Square. Evidently, it is not enough for them that Sodobnost is edited mainly by women; in their unlimited love for themselves (and less for humankind), when they have made mincemeat of their men, they would also like to castrate language.
But the public is now convinced that Anja Radaljac lost work at Sodobnost because she did not want to submit to your advances.
If it’s clear from the cited correspondence that I was courting her, then quite a number of inhabitants of Slovenia are in need of being sent to an institution! The greatest irony in all this is that I really fought to ensure that Anja Radaljac would get some work from Sodobnost. I recommended that she write for Theatre Diary (alternating with our long-time contributor Matej Bogataj), because we need the view of the younger generation on the theatre scene, and also that we find her some translation work, which would greatly ease her financial situation. We agreed to offer her work and I let her know that on 1 June 2016. I added that “We can talk about the details only in September.”
It would only be clear in September whether Matej Bogataj would agree with the idea of taking turns and only then would it be clear whether we could get grants for books that would be suitable for a translator with few references. But in the meantime, much happened to complicate Anja Radaljac’s cooperation with Sodobnost.
There were problems with the review she wrote for Mlada Sodobnost. The two editors weren’t too happy with it and because of that a conflict situation arose. Then there was an extremely negative reaction to her writing by Dr. Maja Šorli and Urška Brodar on the Literatura website, saying that Anja knew very little about Slovene drama and that her writing consisted of “casually produced half-truths”. Anja Radaljac’s reply – in two parts – entitled An Obituary for Slovene Drama (Hoping for Resurrection) revealed that she saw herself as infallible, she stubbornly stuck to her guns and dismissed as “patronising”, even “sexist”, every well-intentioned objection to her stance. And so any possible cooperation with her might lead to unpleasantness, which we did not want and cannot afford, because we simply don’t have the time for such things. However, in spite of this, because I had given my word – I repeat, my word – I still tried to find some work for her. But I was outvoted. So I passed on to her the resolution of the editorial board.
Did you later come to regret the decision?
No, because we soon got new evidence that cooperation with Anja Radaljac would put at risk the peaceful relations in our literary organisation. Her boyfriend, Aljaž Krivec, won the Stritar Award for young critic of the year. It was awarded to him by a more than credible jury: Tina Vrščaj, Ivan Dobnik and the previous year's recipient, Tanja Petrič. Of course, the jury offered a justification for their decision. But Anja Radaljac didn't approve of it, she attacked it publicly and published on Facebook her own version, which she thought was better and more appropriate. Imagine, if my wife wasn't satisfied with the justification for my Župančič Award for lifetime achievement and wrote an alternative version that she thought more appropriate! Or the justification for the Prešeren Fund Award? And three Grum Awards? The whole of Slovenia would laugh at us. The editorial committee at Sodobnost, as well as many others, thought that what Anja Radaljac did was extremely arrogant. She convinced us that we needed to act with great caution.
What happened when you informed her of the decision of the editorial board?
A storm. With the help of friends at Radio Študent, Anja Radaljac triggered an attack that was based on a carefully and maliciously constructed story. With suspicious speed, the newspaper Delo referred to it as a “scandal”. At the same time, the publisher Air Beletrina (the internet magazine of the publishing house Beletrina) launched a petition calling for me to step down as president of PEN because of my “sexist” statements. And there then followed bloodthirsty media mudslinging, based on lies, copy-paste journalism, blowing up the two contentious statements into sexual harassment and sexual coercion, and even (after the intervention of one of these self-elected “guardians of culture” in the English Wikipedia) “sexual abuse”! There were also attempts to break into my Facebook profile and a vulgar campaign against me on social networks. I found it hard to believe with what unseemly haste some people put in their two pennyworth. In the background, Anja Radaljac and her friend Muanis Sinanovič fed the campaign by repeating the falsehood that she had “had work” and then “lost it” because she didn’t want to meet my “expectations”. Even worse, among the comments on the Radio Študent website there began to appear contemptuous comments about me in the name of four close female contributors to Sodobnost – someone had simply stolen (and exploited) their name. It quickly became clear that we were dealing with hooligans. Before I knew it, I had become in the eyes of the public a “randy old man” who made it impossible for young would- be contributors to get work or public funds. At the end of the day, this “affair” was always about one thing, and that was stubborn and directed denial or ignoring of the facts. It involved: 1) the publishing of private correspondence (which is unethical, if not illegal; in this case it was both malicious and infantile); 2) a carefully planned and malicious selection of quotes from that correspondence (which has overall a totally different context); 3) an orchestrated attempt at discreditation (on the part of the “Mafia boss” of Slovene culture, who would like to be a member of every committee, every jury, every council, every influential cultural institution that might influence his status and financial position, which he of course vehemently denies); 4) the negligence and mercenary nature of some Slovene journalists, almost none of whom thought it worthwhile to check the real facts; 5) an attempt at discrediting a Slovene author who has (at least at the moment) the most translations into other languages. And, above all, who is 71 years old, which seems to be a sin in itself. And who doesn’t want (because he can’t, since the statute of the society that publishes it does not allow it) to hand over the editing of the oldest Slovene literary journal to any casual passer-by who has just graduated in comparative literature (although managing the journal has for the last four years been in the hands of younger people – and women at that (!) – which also had to be kept under wraps, otherwise the immoral attack on the “responsible editor” would be without foundation).
Why did you resign as president of PEN? Because of the petition?
Not in a thousand years, although that is how my decision was interpreted by those behind the petition (who claimed that, although I had cited other reasons, this was the first resignation from a public position in Slovenia because of sexism; whoever wants to claim they’re right will do so, regardless of the truth). The real reasons for my resignation I explained in sufficient detail in my resignation statement, which everyone stubbornly refused to read, let alone take into consideration. After the traumas I experienced between 1995 and 2002 as the president of the Slovene Writers’ Association, I decided that I would never again take on any public position. Why, in spite of that, I stood for president of PEN (and all the unpaid obligations connected with it and the loss of time for my real work, which is writing) is no longer clear to me. All I can say is that I bitterly regret the decision. I was persuaded to do it by a number of people I respect: Marjan Strojan, my predecessor in the position, who wanted to breathe freely (how I understand that!), Igor Škamperle (whom I respect immensely and unreservedly), a number of other respected figures and of course Dr. Edvard Kovač, who seems to me the noblest person at PEN. I later discovered also the exceptional personal qualities of Ifigenija Simonovič. Since soon after being elected I fell off my bike and suffered mild concussion, I was unable to prepare last year’s meeting in Bled, but I did do it this year, when the gathering received a great deal of media attention, which even my current enemies acknowledge.
In short, everything was in good order.
No. First, I was greatly bothered by the fact that I received via email a communication from PEN with my name at the bottom, but which I had never signed or authorised, and which I saw first as one of the recipients! It was sent by the secretary of PEN, Tanja Tuma. At the next meeting of the managing board I lost my cool because of this (some would say I behaved arrogantly!) and explained that as the president I was the legal representative, responsible for the organisation’s operations and that I could even end up in jail, so I would not tolerate such arbitrary actions. Otherwise I would resign. That was my first threat to submit my resignation.
Was it followed by another?
The second, now realised, followed this year. The Slovene PEN Centre also has a committee known as MIRA, or Women’s Committee. This committee is still, of course, part of PEN (otherwise it would have to register as a separate legal entity) and so as president I was legally and formally responsible for its actions. As the legal representative, I must be kept informed about everything that happens on committees and sub-committees – how else could it be? And then it happened that Stanislava Repar, a member of MIRA, sent other members an extremely contentious communication simply because Sodobnost published an essay by Metod Češek in which he described the injustice he had experienced as a freelance contributor for the publisher Apokalipsa (where until recently Stanislava Repar and her husband were co- editors). Because of the publication of this article (which was selected for publication by an independent jury as one of the ten best essays in the interests of precarious workers!) Stanislava Repar, in her letter to members of MIRA, labelled me “morally base” and called on the recipients to go and “vomit on my door”! This letter reached me by chance. The members of MIRA, representatives of “PEN values” (as they like to call themselves), tried to keep it from me. Including the leading member and secretary of the managing board of SLO PEN, Tanja Tuma.
How did you react?
As you can imagine. That I was the president of an organisation where it seemed normal to some to send messages in my name which I saw for the first time as a recipient; that they had kept quiet about a grossly offensive personal attack on me because the former co-editor of a publishing house that had lost the financial support of the Slovene Book Agency was offended by an article published by Sodobnost (and not by me personally!), simply because they didn’t want to upset me (was the explanation of a leading member of MIRA) – this was as far from “PEN values” as I understand them as you can get. This sort of behaviour borders on malevolence. And then when members of MIRA (without the knowledge of the PEN managing board) in the name of “PEN values” publicly called upon me to show “integrity” and completely ignored my request that the call to “vomit on my door” be dealt with by the court of honour, I said to myself “Enough!” That was the reason for my resignation. Complete disappointment at relations within the Slovene PEN Centre.
Many said that you shouldn’t have resigned. Do you regret taking that step?
Not in the slightest. The correctness of my decision was confirmed when Meta Kušar, a member of PEN’s court of honour, without the knowledge of the chair of the court (Dr. Janko Prunk), stated in the magazine Mladina that the court would not sanction Stanislava Repar’s call for people to “vomit on my door” because, by the definition of Tomaž Šalamun (who is certainly turning in his grave), it was “semi-literature”! I’m sorry, but for me that went beyond what anyone in their right mind could take on board. I now hear that the “women’s committee” wants to negotiate with PEN’s elected managing board over the demand that the next president of PEN be a woman. Well, good luck to them, that's all I can say. I’ll remove myself from these dishonourable events to the other end of the universe.
And the fourth parallel story?
The fourth story is the Slovene media. There wasn’t one of them that did not distort the facts, in contravention of point 2 of the code of practice of Slovene journalists, which states that “the journalist should avoid incorrect, personally abusive presentation of data and facts”, and even more point 3, which says that “in presenting information that includes serious accusations, the journalist must obtain the comment of the person harmed by that information”.
You’re saying that not one journalist who wrote about the affair contacted you?
No one checked the truth of Anja Radaljac’s claims with me or with my editorial colleagues at Sodobnost. On the contrary. Hatred towards me spread like wildfire; there was barely a publication that did not, for two weeks, lay into me. The whole affair was launched cunningly by Anja Radaljac and Muanis Sinanovič on the Radio Študent website, where Sinanovič first prepared the reader with a description of the supposed state of affairs on the Slovene literary scene, saying that it is all just a brothel, then with my two statements, torn from the context of my personal correspondence with Anja Radaljac, he tried to create the impression that I was the worst symptom of this state of affairs. The other media simply picked up this distorted story, copied it, added their comments and intensified my supposed “sin”. In Crnkovič’s FokusPokus I became a “fucksupplicant”; first I should resign, then I should not resign; the “celebrated” Požar Report reported that “the currently best-known Slovene reviewer lost her job because she didn’t want to blow me” and so on. With regard to my clarification as to what actually happened, Večer didn’t want to publish part of our correspondence which showed that Anja and I had a friendly relationship; by so doing, it broke the press law. Nor did the cultural editor at Večer want to publish the statement of the editor-in- chief of Sodobnost, giving the real reasons why we ended our cooperation with Anja Radaljac. Not one of these people was in the slightest bit ashamed. Meanwhile, Air Beletrina was sending out its agents across Slovenia; I heard that some people were literally forced to sign the petition calling for my resignation. Although, of course, as the managing board of the Slovene Writer’s Association wrote, the public has no right to interfere in the decisions of independent organisations, operating in accordance with their establishing acts.
When the managing board of the Slovene PEN Centre announced its support for you, the journalist Jožica Grgič got very worked up in Delo’s Saturday Supplement.
The managing board of the Slovene Writer’s Association labelled her response in the readers’ letters section as a “highly unprofessional and unethical piece of journalism”, which it undoubtedly was, for she maliciously extracted quotations and joined them together as she saw fit, aggressively insulting a number of people. Among other things, from my two supposed “sexist” statements, she omitted the central passage and joined together two sentences, giving the whole thing a completely new meaning. She quoted thus: “You know you’re beautiful and sexy and all that can be expected of a promising woman intellectual. I’ve never fallen for a woman, who hasn’t given me a hard on after a few sentences.” By joining together two unconnected sentences in this way, she gave the impression that the comment was directed at Anja Radaljac. Jožica Grgič left out the intervening sentence in which I say that female beauty is a bonus, what matters is intellect. And thus she transformed a tribute to female intellect into a “statement” that involved “sexual innuendo”. No one can convince me that Jožica Grgič did that innocently, especially considering the whole tone of her “column”
Among other things, she demanded the dismissal or removal of all those in the managing board of PEN and at Sodobnost who supported you.
In her contribution in the Saturday Supplement, Jožica Grgič, the mother of Manca G. Renko, responsible editor at Air Beletrina, who launched the petition for my resignation (and who is also, surprisingly, a member of the committee for the promotion of reading at the Slovene Book Agency!) forgot herself to an extent I didn’t think possible. Primarily because the Saturday Supplement has always seemed to me the best newspaper in Slovenia, and Ali Žerdin the best newspaper editor. First I wanted to ask him who would do all this “dismissing” or “removing” – the Central Committee of the Communist Party or perhaps the SS. Or perhaps he himself, Ali Žerdin, editor of the Saturday Supplement who must have approved the publication of this execrable piece of work. Or perhaps Manca G. Renko, maybe in the hope that in the future she would extract more public money for Beletrina. Had Ali Žerdin overlooked this article or did he agree with it? The malicious nonsense in Dnevnik and elsewhere I didn’t even read. I simply couldn’t believe that something like that could happen in Slovenia in 2016. Even less did I expect that at my age I could learn something new about human nature.
Did you report Jožica Grgič to the court of honour of the Slovene Association of Journalists?
I thought about it. And then, somewhat taken aback, I discovered that a year ago Jožica Grgič very eloquently “defended” me from some of her own accusations. In a column entitled The terror of political correctness she wrote, among other things: “Today, every reference to the differences among individuals, nations, races, cultures is seen as politically incorrect, camouflaging the truth, impoverishing language and thus thought.” Every reasonable person can agree with that, but obviously not the signatories of the petition, nor the author of the above comments a year later. And further: “There’s nothing wrong with words, what matters is context.” So why wasn’t it important in my case? A year ago Jožica Grgič also wrote that the homeland of political correctness was North American universities. “In the Eighties, they began to use language, newspeak, which is not allowed to be insulting in particular towards someone who is a member of a minority or gender, and now they are already saying that the expression black coffee is insulting to black people.” Just as here, a compliment to a woman (“You know you’re beautiful and sexy.”) is insulting to women? Then in The terror of political correctness Jožica Grgič continued that “we have come to the politically designed perception of people without their particularities, without content. Political correctness has become a euphemism for hypocrisy, it has become an industry”. And: “Political correctness castrates language ... because of it we have lost a selection of words, shades and meanings.” How unusual, that this journalist now vilely attacks me precisely on the basis of what she condemned a year ago!
But you have clearly stated the real reasons for your resignation.
They couldn’t be clearer. But everyone is trying to hide them, keep quiet about them, push them aside. Even the newspaper Delo managed to do something unheard of. I offered them an exclusive on my resignation statement, giving the real reasons for my departure. In spite of that, on the front page, instead of a summary of my resignation statement, they published the news that I had resigned because of my sexist statements and Air Beletrina’s petition, with all the details that my statement denied. All the other media then ran with this lie, not with the content of my resignation statement. I also published it on Facebook, but even there my persecutors wilfully ignored it. How the real reasons for my resignation were suppressed (or how little anyone was interested in them) was shown by Janko Lorenci in Mladina and Rok Svetlič in Delo. The first in his otherwise reasonable comments wrote that I should apologise for my comments, but that I shouldn’t have to resign because of them, even though they were “disgusting”. Really? More disgusting than Stanislava Repar’s call to members of MIRA to come and “vomit on my door”? Did Janko Lorenci overlook all of that? Did the content of my resignation statement not interest him at all?
Of course, it’s possible that he didn’t read it.
It was published in Delo. And on Facebook. And I informed the managing board of PEN about it. Should I have hired a hundred metre advertising hoarding on Congress Square and stuck it on there? I was even more hurt when I read in Delo a contribution from the philosopher Rok Svetlič, who I have immense respect for, entitled The PEN affair and premodern morality. Although he is completely right about premodern morality, even he didn’t look into why I resigned, for in his introduction, among other things, he wrote that “the critical public recognised unacceptable communication, suitably evaluated it, demanded sanctions and – with this resignation – achieved this.” And Dr. Vesna Mikolič, also in Delo: “On the one hand we have gender (and generationally) weak representatives of female literary workers, who are only just establishing themselves and are condemned to precarious work, and on the other, dependence on a group of older male literary workers with high status, who have often maintained that status through a sexist relationship towards the former group.” Hello?! And I am supposedly the worst example of this “sexist relationship”? A little later Vesna Mikolič writes that it’s a shame we don’t know all sides of the story. It really is a shame. Evidently, it is impossible to get my phone number. Or my email address. Evidently I live inaccessibly on Mars. Did Vesna Mikolič show any interest at all in my side of the story? No. Clearly she was satisfied that my side of things was being told by others. And clearly that suited someone. In this media lynch, it was impossible for me to be an equal participant.
Did you read any judicious commentary in any of the media?
In Mladina, written by Grega Repovž, who lucidly drew attention to the fact that calls for the removal of “old farts” was dangerous ageism, which is “just another form of discrimination”. We “old farts” evidently hold “positions of power” which we should collectively hand over to young precarious workers. But regrettably, Grega Repovž also talks about “sexism” in a way that I don’t understand. Let me quote Principle Four from the Declaration of the Global Ethic by Hans Küng: “Alaways be tolerant and speak truthfully.” I have done that all my life and I will continue to do so. So let me repeat: “Much sooner than by female beauty I am given a hard on by female intellect.” Can someone please explain to me in what way this statement is sexist? I may be blind and stupid, but I fail to see it. I really do beg for an explanation. (I’m sure there are many people out there who are dying to make fools of themselves.) All I can see is a metaphorical statement that I like clever women. How sad that in 2016 I have to explain that to supposedly clever women (and men).
What about the accusations in some media that you are managing public money?
And so we should give some of that money to everyone who drops by? Please! The Ministry of Finance manages public money and gives some to the Ministry of Culture, which gives some to the Slovene Book Agency, where an expert committee decides who in the literary world should get some of it and how much. The level of subsidy is dependent on the proven quality of work. In 2016 Sodobnost is getting 80,000 Euros, roughly the same as the journal Literatura, and that is on the basis of the expert committee’s judgement that the “programme of the journal Sodobnost is top class, extensive and consistent, and it remains the central Slovene literary and cultural journal, which publishes the work of different generations of Slovene writers”. The Book Agency subsidy represents only 70% of the journal’s budget; the rest we have to get from sponsors or from the sale of the books that we publish. The subsidy covers the cost of the fees we pay for contributions, printing and print preparation, and distribution (the precise data on costs is submitted to the Book Agency at the end of every year). The money to cover all other costs has to be found elsewhere.
How does the artistic society Sodobnost International, the publisher of the journal, actually function?
With the exception of one person who we have employed for two years because of an extensive European project (which is now finished, and so is the lady’s full-time job), we are all part-timers. Because of the quality of her work, the editor-in- chief, listed in the register at the Ministry of Culture with the status of an editor, has for a number of years been entitled to have her social, pension and health contributions paid from the public purse. Her assistant is self-employed and in addition to Sodobnost does work for a number of other institutions. I am retired. My pension amounts to the exact amount of 292 Euros a month. The national recognition payment for artists of note I am entitled to raises my monthly income to 717 Euros. That’s how luxurious is the life of us “old farts” who “stop younger ones from getting to the trough”. That’s the “position of power” we occupy. Let’s swap. Let them give me their youth and I’ll let them have my pension!
And if such a swap were possible?
I find it hard to believe my pension would improve their financial position! I would once more do what I did when I was young. To advance professionally and seek work I would act honestly, not with aggressive calls for resignations, dismissals and dissolutions. When I arrived in Australia, I didn’t immediately demand that they employ me as an underground traindriver: I began by sweeping platforms, receiving and seeing off trains, then in the middle of the night and in all weathers putting together goods trains, then I was a conductor for quite a while and only at the end, after the appropriate training, was I promoted to being a driver. When I got work at one of the biggest publishers in London, I didn’t demand they employ me straight away as an encyclopaedia editor; I began by correcting indexes, proofreading, language revision, writing contributions, studying editorial demands and habits. Only when a position became available did the director offer me a job as one of the two editors. I didn’t go around London grumbling that old hags were making it impossible for me to get a good job. I didn’t launch a petition for their resignation. I behaved as I thought was proper. As my parents raised me.
Have you learned anything from this witch-hunt?
Not long ago I published on Facebook a short reflection on why, in this time of digital mockery, so many youngsters commit suicide rather than fight against wickedness that cannot be defeated. My own case (for let’s not deceive ourselves, I was also maliciously mocked) I evaluated by quoting the words of Dušan Jovanović, which he used in reply to the question in the Sunday paper Nedelo as to whether I should resign because of the Air Beletrina petition. He said: “Political correctness has overstepped all reasonable boundaries and threatens to constrain language and thought to sterile, restricted, polite clichés. The signatories have either gone crazy or they have long been middle class sycophants and arselickers, who feel they have to demonstrate their moralising orthodoxy. I despise the smug stance of these people! I reject their ideology and the way they act in public. Anja Radaljac has shamelessly used her correspondence with Flisar for her own media promotion. And that’s all about this provincial affair that you need to know.”
What was the response?
Anja Radaljac didn’t waste a moment. She intervened immediately: “I’m sorry, but this is really morbid and grotesque. Through manipulation, the oppressor is now trying to appear as the ‘great victim’ … and through the same channels that allowed him to become an oppressor (his social position, the functions he has, his fame, and so on) he can now portray himself as the injured party. And in so doing once again exploit (!): women, opponents of sexism, the young generation, precarious workers… That is why this discourse is so dangerous and that is why we must do everything in our power to put a stop to it. Not to mention the fact that the ‘victim’ uses a quote from a person who in Yugoslavia – at least this is what they say on the theatre scene – shot actors with an airgun if they got on his nerves too much at rehearsals... And now, to quote Stanislava Repar, I’m going to throw up.” Why not, since in the opinion of Meta Kušar, member of the court of honour at the Slovene PEN Centre, “vomiting on my door” has become “semi-literature”? At least this is what they say … That is the foundation on which the whole affair was based. I regret that so many journalists that I valued have allowed themselves to be manipulated. I regret that in the incomprehensible desire to humiliate me, they have humiliated themselves. Maybe one or two of them have already realised that. Maybe one or two more will. In some cases, there is no hope of that happening. It’s high time to think things over, I believe. For if we don’t, then those who yell that discourse they don’t agree with should be “abolished”, that someone needs to be “dismissed” and something “dissolved”, will sooner or later resort to violence.
Perhaps you should have offered them work. Hasn’t Sodobnost been doing that for years? Where do the rest of the funds actually come from?
We publish books. Over the last three years, 70 of them. For most of them we got European funding. The Slovene Book Agency has so far financed only a limited number of our books and that modestly. It was only this year that our programme was accepted and we got a subsidy for seven books. We also get modest subsidies from institutes and agencies in other countries, such as Finland, Slovakia, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, India. Some years ago we started the project Our Little Library, which is aimed at boosting reading among primary school children. Two years ago, the project crossed the border and is now running successfully in Poland and Lithuania. We got a generous EU grant for it (and a big organisational headache). How did we manage this if there are so few of us? Well, there aren’t few of us. For all these projects we employ people from precarious professions on contracts: translators, language revisers, proofreaders, designers, moderators, event organisers, authors for school visits and so on. Anja Radaljac labels us “oppressors” and so we are “oppressing” precarious workers by employing them and getting money for them all over the place.
Are you not afraid that from now on the media will ignore you?
Do you really think that my greatest wish is to see my name as soon as I open the newspaper in the morning? The Slovene media have more or less ignored me up to now. In spite of that, at the exhibition about my life and work at the National and University Library, the floor was literally “paved” with photocopies of interviews, reviews, reflections and all kinds of other texts from all over the world. I’m too old and too wise to want even more of that. At home I have (prepared for the National Library) 22 folders of studies, essays, reviews, interviews and writings about my novels and plays from every corner of the world. Wouldn’t it be perverse to want more than that at my age? And if I do (at the first attack of dementia) wish for that, I will tell some young female reviewer that she is “beautiful and sexy”, and the Slovene “cultural” press will once more set itself in motion and devote whole pages to me! About my work, perhaps the odd line or two. That’s how it’s been the last five years!
How much space did the main Slovene newspaper Delo devote to your Župančič Award for lifetime achievement?
Not a single word.
And how much space did it devote to the two-month exhibition of your life and work at the National and University Library?
Not a syllable.
Would you describe this farce connected with Anja Radaljac as a storm in a teacup?
Let’s not delude ourselves: the main protagonist of this story has not been Anja Radaljac, nor myself, but the Slovene media. That they flung five tons of mud at me using lies and pretence and selective reporting because of two statements, which were (let’s have some perspective here) a compliment to feminine beauty and intellect (without preconditions or expectations), while at the same time showing little interest in the fact that in the same period at least ten thousand children in the world died due to hunger or bombing, and half a million were made homeless – that is eloquent enough testimony that there is something seriously amiss with Western society (whose uncritical part we have become). Many will remember this. And many will realise (quite soon) that it was a case of unforgivable media bullshit, where Anja Radaljac was exploited by those who would like in every possible way to “control” Slovene culture. If she doesn’t realise that herself, sooner or later she will.
Do you despise the people who have bloodthirstily tried to destroy your reputation?
What did I do? Did I kill someone? Rape someone? Blackmail someone? I expressed myself in my own way. And I’ll continue to do that. In a free society, I won’t live in accordance with the shrill dictates of those who disagree with me. They have every right not to agree with me, but they have no right to demand that I agree with them. They have even less right to insult and persecute me because of that. Or dictate what words I should utter when I open my mouth. My persecutors have destroyed their own good name. The members of MIRA have destroyed the good name of the Slovene PEN Centre. And who can destroy the good name of my books and plays? 160 translations in 40 languages? No one can do that. Least of all those who worked from behind the scenes to trigger the abominable attacks on me. I don’t despise all those who have been involved in this ridiculous “affair”, but I do despise quite a few of them. Contempt is a cold thing and until now it has not been in my repertoire of feelings. Now at least I know who’s who and which people I need to avoid.