Reviewed by Benjamin Kumming
Valent Kosmina, a bored and idle retiree, has an ominous hunch that he has been thrust by someone or something beyond his control into “a situation that would later be difficult to get out of.” So begins The Succubus by Slovenian author Vlado Zabot. It is a prescient beginning: The Succubus weaves a web of paranoia, fear, and distrust, from which, ultimately, it cannot extract itself.
Though told in the third-person, much of the narration is given over to Kosmina’s rambling thoughts. The prose is often intentionally as non-committal as Kosmina, but it ends up unwieldy and difficult to parse:
“Of course, people had always been mistrustful of him, had always been wary, always looking at him askance, with a kind of dismissive yet menacing glint in their eyes, but recently he had noticed, generally speaking, that not only his wife but also the few others he knew in his building had begun to act differently toward him, as if, inadvertently and unwittingly, he now made them openly uneasy.”
When Kosmina begins to have chest pains, he refuses to tell even his wife because “his look of noble, long-suffering self-confidence . . . this guise of his would be exposed as nothing but common duplicity and dissemblance.” He seems motivated exclusively by a desire to appear above his station, to put on airs, and to avoid embarrassment. While this pretension is initially what lands Kosmina in his bit of trouble, Zabot absorbs us so deeply in the old man’s second-guessing and fretting, that he is no longer an active agent in his own story. He does not face his tormentor, nor does he flee from it. He sits and waits for it to get him, and worries about how it all looks.
The Succubus is one of the first books released in a new series of translated Slovenian literature from Dalkey Archive Press, and was originally published in Slovenia in 2003. This 2010 English edition was translated by Rawley Grau and Nikolai Jeffs, and one wonders if something has been lost in the process. In the hands of a Russian master, this kind of plot-slow psychological study can be an engrossing read. The reclusive madness of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground comes to mind. However, The Succubus lacks the strong thematic underpinnings, compelling characters, and human insight needed to accomplish that particular feat.
Russian literature, when translated, loses a great deal of its finesse and power because subtleties of the Russian language that simply cannot be recreated in English. Perhaps such an incompatibility exists with Slovenian literature as well. In retrospect, I can’t shake the feeling that I am missing some sort of shared cultural knowledge, a mythological understanding of the succubus, maybe, that would make this book make more thematic sense.
Even then, Kosmina would still be inactive on the page, an observer who does not really engage with the world. His chief desire is only to remain undetected. Nothing seems to be at stake for him. Because he remains so resistant to action, the reader is at best ambivalent about his fate. In the end, regardless of translation difficulties or cultural gaps, the reader feels detached and rudderless and can never really grasp Kosmina and engage in the story. We are left to wander unguided through the story as he does through the streets of Brezine.
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