Year of publication
Number of pages
Czech Republic (Studio RUBATO)
English sample translation
prison literature, prison life, political prisoners, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, eroticism, sexuality
Levitan (A Novel or Maybe Not)
Levitan, a novel that might not be a novel, is an almost documentary testimony from the prisons of Tito's post-war communist Yugoslavia that showcases the treatment of political prisoners, prison hierarchies and internal power relations, Zupan's dealings with his libido, and his view of the world.
Everybody who knows the basic contours of Zupan's life will know that Jakob Levitan is an autobiographic character. Levitan doesn't wallow in self-pity or self-flagellation. He is an entertainer, a libertine who would rather talk about sex than about the mistreatment of prisoners. He is not even claiming to be innocent. He had ended up in prison after drunkenly phoning one of the heads of the regime and telling him that he'd heard on a Swiss radio station that Tito had abdicated and left the country. It was 1948, the Informbiro period. When he wakes up in the morning, he finds himself staring down the barrels of four handguns. In prison, he comes up with a strategy for survival. He goes to school of prison, as he calls it, entertains fellow inmates and writes and writes. He records the events that transpire in prison, as well as his own thoughts, his fight for survival and his battle with the institutions. He is internally free to study everything he wants, and finds erotic pleasure in constant writing, which is then sneaked out through the prison bars.
Župančič Award, the highest recognition of the City of Ljubljana for outstanding creation in the field of art and culture, 1982
Today, everything that was good about Zupan's novel thirty years ago, is even better, even more profound and – perhaps most unusually – even more intense. Instead of the intensity dissipating with the passage of time that turns current into not-so-current affairs, instead of the tension in the novel being relieved, Levitan is stronger than ever. Some of its strength perhaps lies in the biological age of the reader, but it's not just that. By taking the pathos out of his eventual fate, Zupan had left the story to run past the structure and narrative of the novel, to fork and branch into a Mississippi-like delta, into a book whose strength is above any and all ideological and religious particularities.
If it was once praised as a critique of communist terror, today Zupan's Levitan is a literary parallel of Italian comic Benigni's Life Is Beautiful. In his novel, Zupan creates an autobiographic character, a prisoner who understands his incarceration as a school of life. Because he counts on being killed, he is able to overcome his fears. All the while drinking up the days as if he were free.
[Levitan's] ambition is to be a document of its time, a justification of the writer's innocence, as well as a reflection of political and social oppression of the individual – all this in the literary form of a rather singular novel.
Written with exhilaration rarely encountered in Slovenian literature, Levitan is a refreshing and inspiring work that takes us a couple of decades back into the past.
Parts of Zupan's prison novel Levitan read like a survival handbook.
You know what they say about the Peloponnesian War: that it only happened so that Thucydides could write the History of the Peloponnesian War. And that also holds true for Zupan: everything that happened to him only happened so he could write novels about it.