In The Tree With No Name, Drago Jančar weaves together thought and plot in a rich and disturbing way. It is the year 2000, and regional archivist Janez Lipnik stops working, drives his wife away from him and wanders underground—or is it up a tree?—to find himself in World War II, fighting Italians and Home Guards with the Slovene partisans. This can all happen because the novel takes place in Lipnik’s mind. For Lipnik, every name, event, memory and association available to him is linked in a burdensome web of meaning. Jančar has written a novel that delights, disturbs and urges us neither to forget our past nor to dwell too much in it.
Janez Lipnik works in a Ljubljana archive researching citizens’ property and inheritance claims after Slovenia’s denationalization in 1991. He finds a file in the archive that contains an account of the sexual adventures of a man Lipnik comes to call “The Great Lover.” Only once this file has transformed Lipnik’s mind (and the reader’s) into a hive of sexual possibility does Lipnik hear his coworker Beno boast that Lipnik’s wife Marijana may have gone sailing long ago with Beno and some friends to Dugi Otok, the island where Lipnik and Marijana spent their honeymoon. But Marijana told Lipnik that she’d never been to that island before their honeymoon!
Lipnik’s unwillingness—or inability—to dissociate work from life, past from present and imagination from reality is the beginning of his descent into insanity. Beset with sexual jealousy and too proud to confront Marijana about her premarital past, Lipnik lets jealousy control him and immerses himself in The Great Lover’s wartime sexual exploits. Suddenly, his jealousy for Marijana is consonant with The Great Lover’s jealousy for his wartime lover. Consequently, Lipnik fantasizes about shooting Beno in the head, just as The Great Lover shot his beloved’s one-time suitor.
After associating similar images, Lipnik begins to associate the most disparate ones: the meatballs in the Chinese dish “ants climbing a tree” with the Pohorje Slovene folk tale about a man climbing a tree; Lipnik’s household bread knife with the knife that a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz used to stab an SS guard; the rain running down shopping mall windows with Slovenia’s underground rivers that explorers used red dyes to trace—red rivers that will one day well up like history and drown the mall and everyone in it in bloody savagery! The “dark beast” of the Slovene people will rise again! As go Lipnik’s thoughts, so goes the novel.
Lipnik is the man with “thousands of stories of words that keep getting jumbled, a whole century in his head” (267), and in the year 2000 he decides to climb the tree with no name and so flee a world forged and sustained by war, holocaust, murder and revenge. But in climbing the tree, Lipnik finds himself in 1943 at the root of the problem that created the world he fled. The more he tries to flee them, the more poor Lipnik becomes prey to the traumas of history and sexual jealousy.
Like Lipnik, Jančar seems to have many stories in his head: the novel abounds in intertextual references to Kundera. Lipnik’s sexual jealousy begins when he misinterprets a postcard (as in The Joke) and the idea of eternal return informs Lipnik’s worldview (The Eternal Lightness of Being). Moreover, the name Janez Lipnik echoes of Ludvik Jahn, returning us to The Joke, its intersection of politics and sexuality and the ability of misreading to ruin a life. And just as Jahn refuses to denounce Trotsky before the tribunal in The Joke, Lipnik fails to (in his overactive imagination, of course) denounce the Slovene Home Guards and is sent with them to the killing fields. But what do these references to The Joke mean? Jančar seems to suggest that intertextuality is its own form of eternal return.
Lipnik’s name could also be an intertextual reference. I know no Slovenian, so I learned online that the name Lipnik refers to a place where lipa—linden trees—grow. The thickest tree in Slovenia happens to be a 700-year-old linden tree in Ludranski Vrh. These connections suggest that Janez Lipnik himself is a bridge between the past and the present, this world and other worlds. Perhaps these details are of utmost significance, or perhaps Jančar wants the reader to get lost in details like these just as Lipnik gets lost in the details of his life.
If the names and ideas of the novel referred us to other stories, the near constant presence of violence in the novel refers us to our own time. Did Europe learn nothing after World War II? Jančar seems to be asking. How fast it forgot! Are Europeans still capable of succumbing to the base national prejudices that tore the Balkan countries apart? Despair over the permanence of those prejudices is what impels Lipnik to flee. But will more violence one day haunt Ukraine, Estonia and Lithuania in a similar way? Jančar suggests that Lipnik can escape the horrors of the past neither by ignoring them nor confronting them. Bereft of optimism, The Tree With No Name hangs its head in irony at the inevitability of war. Legions of rough beasts will forever slouch toward Bethlehem to be born!
The book’s timelessness aside, some aspects of Lipnik’s character are implausible. Lipnik is accustomed to doing research with all the resources at his disposal. But instead of asking his wife whether Beno’s claim is true, he lets suspicion eat away at his peace of mind. If Lipnik is otherwise so meticulous in his research, and if he mixes the methods of life with those of work, wouldn’t it have made more sense had Lipnik just asked his wife, as he constantly fantasized about doing? Lipnik’s pride seems to be Jančar’s answer to that problem. But I don’t believe that, for the sake of a dubious slight, an otherwise content regional archivist would destroy his life without first determining what really happened.
Just as Lipnik’s pride is implausible, Jančar’s construction of the book seemed contrived. The narrative begins in the year 2000 on page 56. The “end” of the book on page 208 allows us to return to page 1 and read until page 55 as if we had not finished the book. Although this construction seems clever at first glance (in light of eternal return and the inevitability of violence), it is not justified. There is no link between chapter 99 and chapter 1, page 55 and page 56. The book would have worked just as well had Jancar begun chapter 1 on page 1 and finished chapter 99 on page 208.
On first read, Lipnik’s merging of imagination and reality can be cumbersome, especially when Jančar moves between perspective, tense and historical time—sometimes within the same paragraph. But this is not inappropriate at all. Given how close the narration is to Lipnik’s mind, the reader experiences his insecurity, confusion and sensitivities. Likewise, that Jančar did not develop other characters, like Marijana and Beno, is not a problem, considering that these characters matter only insofar as Lipnik perceives them.
Despite its despairing view of humans, The Tree With No Name was fun to read. At no point was I bored. I think that was because Jančar never stopped developing Lipnik’s interior. Every detail either had meaning when it was introduced or acquired meaning as the novel progressed. That does not mean that the novel’s resolution was facile. On the contrary, just as Lipnik thinks he has escaped this world, he finds himself in a much darker version of it. Jančar didn’t give us any advice or answers about how not to end up there, so here’s to hoping that we can find a way to deal with reality that Lipnik never did.
This review was published in Literatura as part of the project “Slovene Literature and Foreign Critics.”