Minuet For Guitar

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Make room on the top shelf of great war novels for MINUET FOR GUITAR by the late Slovenian writer Vitomil Zupan. Thanks to Dalkey Archive Press and translator Harry Leeming, English-speaking readers can now catch up with Zupan's remarkable 1975 novel.

The storyline of MINUET FOR GUITAR is deceptively simple: Jacob Bergant, better known as Berk, is a Slovenian who joins his country's partisans during WW II to do battle with the occupying Nazi army. Berk has seen previous action; as part of his country's regular army he had fought the Italians, only to be taken prisoner. After Italy capitulated in 1943 and he was freed, he made his way back to Ljubljana, his home city, and decided to take up arms once again, this time as a communist guerilla.

Berk's war is a relentless, brutal one. Living out in the open, at times pelted by rain and snow, he and his fellow partisans take on the better-equipped and -provisioned Germans as best they can, trying to set up ambushes, striking at night, then beating hasty retreats when the Germans retaliate in vastly superior numbers.

Up and down the mountains they go, fighting here, there, taking a village back from the Germans, only to be forced to give it back again. The zig-zag nature of Berk's war is reflected in Zupan's narrative, which has a non-linear structure that places it squarely in the post-modern literary camp. Some chapters are long, others short, with interspersed quotations, maxims and bits of poetry livening things up (sometimes for no apparent reason).

Zupan also breaks from tradition by setting sections of his story in the future, when Berk visits Spain and encounters Joseph Bitter, a German tourist who fought on the other side during WW II. Over pitchers of sangria or during visits to the bullfights, the two old enemies rehash the past and try and make sense of their memories, their confusing, blood-spattered time on earth.

The greatness of MINUET FOR GUITAR, though, lies in Berk's ruminations, his interior monologues regarding such things as fate, politics, history, morality and life itself. Here is one of his typical observations: "In human organization, you will find nothing like bird flocks, beehives, ant heaps. Any herd of elephants can get on with the business of living but human herds in search of 'the right way' blunder on through self-inflicted disasters, plague, famine, war. And there is always someone else who comes along and once again claims to have the secret of happiness. Some follow him, some wonder whether they should not do so, while others resist and object. The most convincing arguments are then used: the cudgel, the axe, the sword, the rifle, the cannon, the tank, the bomb."

MINUET FOR GUITAR is packed with pithy remarks like that, the product of a worldly European mind, but the book also has a visceral, down-to-earth side. Zupan doesn't shy away from giving the reader the full horrors of war: danger, hunger, thirst, fear, violence, blood, dysentery, lice, festering wounds. In a key chapter, he recalls what it was like to be pinned down by enemy fire for days on end, days of brutal hand to hand fighting that ultimately forces him to take shelter in a tree.

It's up there that, while hiding under a canopy of branches, with dead bodies strewn everywhere below him, he hears a guitar. "Who's playing it so well?" he wonders. "He can really play. And that's a minuet in A major."

It's only much later, after he survives the ambush, that he realizes who has played the minuet. "It was the dead," he thinks. "The dead who were very powerful...the most numerous race on earth."