Drago Jančar’s The Tree With No Name was published in his native Slovenia in 2008 and only managed to enjoy a release in English this year. It’s a shame that it wasn’t translated sooner.
Always a controversial figure in his homeland, Jančar turns his eyes to the grim past that haunts all former Yugoslav nations, but looks further than most. Instead of dealing with Slovenia’s hand in the dissolution of the Yugoslavian republic, The Tree With No Name splits most of its time between modern Ljubljana and the tail end of the Second World War.
Known for his penchant for modernist techniques, Jančar opens the novel from the middle of the story, with the first chapter readers see being 87. It is there we meet Janez Lipnik, an archivist and possessor of the most quintessential Slovenian name one could think of. Like the reader, Janez is befuddled to find himself on a country road after climbing a tree that bears close resemblance to one in a Slovenian fable that his mother told him as a child.
When he wanders upon a schoolhouse in the woods and somehow compels the pretty teacher there to open the door for him, we aren’t yet sure whether or not Janez is dreaming. When the woman’s lover comes home and is revealed to be Aleksij Grgurevič, a captain of the Slovenian Home Guard, we are further compelled to wonder what circumstances led Janez here.
After a partisan siege that Janez barely survives, the story shifts, and we are thrust into the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana in spring of 2000. A younger Janez is in a bustling shopping mall, a mecca of the post-socialist state. Janez is melancholic, and his thoughts soon shift to how his life and marriage have derailed in three weeks.
As an archivist, Janez has the mundane job of settling old land disputes and other trivial civic matters. His marriage to Marijana, a professor, might not be the most exciting, but memories of happier times exist. It is when Janez is confronted with these memories that he struggles to cope with his current challenges.
After finding the journal of a sex addict from the Second World War, Janez becomes obsessed with uncovering the writer’s identity. He spends weekends at the office to Marijana’s detriment, and increasingly becomes lost in the pages and consequently shoves aside all other work. For a long time, Janez romanticizes his trip with Marijana to an island right before the full onslaught of the Yugoslavian War, but he is crushed to hear that she may have taken the same trip with a sleazy co-worker of his.
Janez’s increasing obsession with the journal renders him a mess. Unable to confront Marijana with his accusation, Janez becomes increasingly passive-aggressive until she cannot bear it and moves back in with her parents. This abrupt change leads Janez to reminisce about his father who, in episodes similar to those that appeared in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, suffered from PTSD and made Janez get up in the wee hours of the night to sing for his drunken war friends.
With a stunning conclusion that revolves around one of the most horrific war crimes committed in Slovenia at the end of the Second World War, The Tree With No Name is a brave, unflinching look at the past that scorns nationalistic sentimentality in favour of astute reflection.