On 26th February 1992, following its declaration of independence from Yugoslavia and victory in the Ten-Day War, the government of newly-independent Slovenia erased 25,671 people (1.3% of the population) from its register of permanent residents. Overnight, these people – many of whom had lived in Slovenia since early childhood and had Slovenian parents and/or children – lost all of their citizens’ rights, waking up as illegal immigrants in their homeland. This decision by the government was poorly communicated; many of the so-called ‘erased’ had no idea about their new status until they came into contact with the state via a hospital appointment or a border check on a trip to a neighbouring country.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that there has been little public debate in Slovenia about the erased. This is what spurred Miha Mazzini to first write the novel Izbrisana [Erased] about the topic in 2014, followed by a feature film of the same name in 2018. In this excerpt from the as-of-yet unpublished English-language translation of the novel, we meet two of its protagonists – Nikola and Zala – as they have an unpleasant surprise when trying to return to Nikola’s apartment in Ljubljana.
You can read more about the history of the erased here.
They set off across the bridge to the other side of Ljubljana, past the railroad station and continued on to an old housing development of apartment blocks with even older apartment buildings in between them. The yellow pollen was everywhere, covering their shoes as soon as they veered off the trodden central part of the pavement. On the way Nikola spoke only once when a pair of youths in shell suits and fake gold chains round their necks came in the opposite direction. They waved and greeted them, shouting across the road and when they had gone by he looked at Zala and said:
“This gets to me. Did you see them? My friends can walk about dressed normally because they have citizenship, but I have to pretend to be a well-dressed Slovene, fuck it. How low must one stoop?”
He shook his head and continued grumbling under his breath.
A few minutes later, they came to an empty road. A man and woman carrying some groceries proceeded along the crosswalk, ignoring the lighted red figure standing still. Zala began to follow, but Nikola held her upper arm and pulled her back. She turned towards his sad eyes and realized: they had to obey every single law.
As they waited, Zala raised her face to the sun, hoping to rid herself of the feeling that had been building up inside her though she did not know how to define it, a mixture of anger and revulsion with herself. Here she was, walking along, even joking, with Nikola, when she should be devoting every second to saving her child from the claws of the Director. After a few days of breastfeeding in the broom closet every morning and evening, she’d begun to feel that it was part of her normal routine, as if it always had been and always would be. Now she felt disgusted with herself, with the way she had been forced to nurse her son in hiding, and her compliance with it. At the same time, Zala knew these feelings would pass, and that it was the small routines of her days that prevented her from being crushed by it all. She remembered the books she had read in the past, how warmly they had embraced her even when Father was ranting away in the kitchen. She hoped Mark would be able to arrange a meeting with the writer, he would be someone whose voice people would listen to. Anyone who wrote like he did simply needed to be listened to.
“Right, here we are!” Nikola said. They stood outside an apartment building with a dilapidated façade and a large park around it, littered with dog shit.
“Now look!” he said and boastingly pulled a bunch of keys from his pocket. He fiddled with them until he picked out a dark green one and used it to unlock the front door.
They entered the building and walked up the first flight of stairs to a long corridor. The door on the left opened just enough for a puffed-up red face to peer at them. It looked like a bloody stain surrounded by veneer. They glared at each other and the man instantly shut the door signed CARETAKER. Zala could sense his gaze on the back of her head as they went past. Nikola extended his thumb and thrust it toward his mouth, gesturing at the same time behind his back, as if to say the caretaker was a drunkard.
Once they reached the first floor he once more fiddled with the keys until he picked out a blue one.
It didn’t fit the lock.
Nikola seemed puzzled, looked at the keys in his open hand, tried another, then another...
“Aha!” Zala said.
Nikola blushed, once more grabbed the blue key and tried to push it into the lock.
“Your father has a very Slovene sounding name!” Zala commented and Nikola stared at her in bewilderment. “Janez Gorenjc?” she said ironically.
“A?” his mouth dropped as he read the engraved name plate.
The name suddenly retracted to make way for its embodiment. A man with a moustache and a fat stomach. He looked like one of those tradesmen who did just enough to live on and spent the rest of their time talking in the local pub.
“What is it? What do you want in my apartment?” he shouted and Nikola retreated backward.
“I’m sorry, but I...”
All Zala could do was watch. Everything was happening too quickly. All the sense organs could do was take note. A smell of stuffed peppers wafted from the apartment.
“Don’t come again!” Janez Gorenjc hissed so loudly that his moustache shook.
“But...” Nikola made another step backward and hit the railing. This awoke him and he looked at the other two apartments on the same floor, half shutting his eyes to read the names on the other doors and gaped:
“Hey, this is my apartment!”
“Really?” the man threateningly pulled up the left sleeve of his flannel shirt and then roared at the top of his voice:
The red stain above a blue work coat was already standing at the bottom of the stairs.
“Yes, Mr. Gorenjc?” he said in a docile voice.
Mr. Gorenjc didn’t even look at him:
“Whose apartment is this?”
“Yours, Mr. Gorenjc!”
Nikola’s fury was building up:
“What’s up with you two? Are you crazy? This is my father’s apartment, I live in it!”
“Really?” the man raised his chin, “Listen kiddo, your father is a member of an enemy army. He has no business in Slovenia,” and then turned to the caretaker for the first time: “Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right, Mr. Gorenjc,” the stain nodded, not daring to even approach the first step.
“I can’t believe it,” Nikola shook his head: “You broke in and changed the lock. You stole my apartment.”
“And now you add slander to insult. The apartment was empty when I found it.”
“How was it empty when I...”
Mr. Gorenjc stepped out onto the corridor, his stomach taking up half the stairway.
“Listen to me, kiddo, you don’t exist. You have disappeared. You are not in Slovenia, nobody knows where you are. The apartment is empty.”
Nikola lunged at the man and landed exactly on a punch that returned him to his starting point. For a moment it even looked like he might fall backwards across the railing, but he caught his balance and pressed his hand against his cheek.
Mr. Gorenjc approached him and pressed against him with the top of his pot.
“Will you go to the police? Will you go to court? You don’t exist, fuck off. Get out of here!”
He turned toward the apartment when Zala hit him on his back with her fists. It did not affect him.
“You thieving bastard! Taking advantage of other people’s misfortune!”
He pushed her away like a fly.
“Who else’s should I take advantage of, my own, or what? Who are you anyway? Are you one of them? Will you go to the police? Ah?”
Zala took a step forward.
“Will you go to the police?” Mr. Gorenjc kept provoking her, grinning at her with the entire breadth of his yellowish teeth. “Go ahead!”
His grin widened; previously there had been a slight shadow of doubt on it, but now he knew for certain.
“In fact,” he said, “Mr. Caretaker, why don’t YOU call the police – you are responsible for peace and order in this apartment block, aren’t you?”
“Right away, Mr. Gorenjc.”
In long steps the caretaker quickly dragged his slippers toward his own apartment.
Zala clenched her fists and teeth until she began to tremble. Her muscles tensed, calling for a fight to right the injustice she had just witnessed. Father once told her about a sergeant who stole food from the kitchen with the excuse that this was, after all, the People’s Army, which meant it was also his, and that everyone did it anyway. Father reported him and the sergeant was excluded from the corps and had to ask for a transfer.
He stole food, this guy was stealing an apartment.
This is an excerpt from the novel “Izbrisana” [Erased] by Miha Mazzini, published in 2014 by Goga Publishing House.
Translated from the Slovenian by Gregor Timothy Čeh
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