Boris Pahor (born 26 August 1913) is a writer from the community of Slovene minority in Italy (1920-1947), considered to be one of the most influential living authors in the Slovene language and has been nominated for the Nobel prize for literature by the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. A concentration camp survivor, he is most famous for his literary descriptions of the life in the Nazi concentration camps and of the life in his native city, Trieste.
Pahor was born into a Slovene minority community in Trieste, then the main port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the capital of the Austrian Littoral. His father moved to the city from the nearby Kras region and was employed as a civil servant in the Austro-Hungarian administration until he became, as member of Slovene minority in Italy (1920-1947), target of the Fascist Italianization and state repression and lost his office job. To support his family he had to work as a costermonger, instead. Witnessing the Italianization becoming more and more violent during Fascism, Pahor was destined to become a lifelong intellectual fighter against totalitarianism in the name of Christian humanist and communitarian values. In July 1920, he witnessed the Fascist squads burning down the Slovene Community Hall (the Narodni dom) in Trieste. The event had a profound impact on him. He would later frequently recall this childhood memory in his essays, as well as in one of his late novels, Trg Oberdan ("Oberdan Square", from the name of the square on which the Narodni dom stood, named after Guglielmo Oberdan, a 19th century Italian radical nationalist terrorist from the Austrian Littoral). From 1919 to 1923 Pahor attended a Slovene-language school in Trieste, which was closed down by the Fascist Gentile regime and he had no other choice but to go to Italian school. He enrolled in a Roman Catholic seminary in Capodistria, then also part of Italy, and graduated in 1935. He continued to study theology in Gorizia, but quit in 1938. During his studies in Gorizia, he was shocked by the brutal assassination of the Slovene choirmaster Lojze Bratuž, who was assaulted, kidnapped, tortured and killed by Fascist squads on Christmas Eve of 1936. He later referred to the event as a turning point in his personal growth, confirming his dedication to anti-Fascism and the Slovene national cause. During his stay in Capodistria and Gorizia, he began to study standard Slovene. At the time, all public and private use of Slovene in the Julian March was prohibited and the relations between Slovenes living in Fascist Italy and those from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were forcibly cut off. Pahor nevertheless managed to publish his first short stories in several magazines in Ljubljana (then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) under the pseudonym Jožko Ambrožič. In 1939, he established contact with the Slovenian personalist poet and thinker Edvard Kocbek. Kocbek introduced him to contemporary literary trends and helped him to improve his use of standard Slovene. Pahor returned to Trieste in 1938, where he established close contacts with the few Slovene intellectuals that still worked underground in Trieste, including the poet Stanko Vuk and some members of the Slovene militant anti-fascist organization TIGR.
In 1940, Pahor was drafted into the Italian army and sent to fight in Libya. In 1941, he was transferred to Lombardy, where he worked as a military translator. At the same time, he enrolled at the University of Padua, where he studied Italian literature. After the Italian armistice in September 1943, he returned to Trieste, which had already fallen under Nazi occupation. After a few weeks in the German-occupied city, he decided to join the Slovene Partisans active in the Slovenian Littoral. In 1955, he would describe these crucial weeks of his life in the novel Mesto v zalivu ("The City in the Bay"), a story about a young Slovene intellectual from Trieste, wondering about what action to take confronted with the highly complex personal and political context of World War II on the border between Italy and Slovenia. On 21 January 1944, he was captured by the Slovene Home Guard that handed him over to the Nazis who first imprisoned him in the Coroneo jail in Trieste and then (on 28 February 1944) sent him to Dachau. From there he was transported to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines (Markirch) and Natzweiler-Struthof in Alsace, then again to Dachau, Mittelbau-Dora, Harzungen and finally to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated on 15 April 1945. The concentration camp experience became the major inspiration of Pahor's work, frequently compared to that of Primo Levi, Imre Kertesz, or Jorge Semprún. Outside Slovenia, his best-known work is probably Nekropola (Pilgrim Among the Shadows), a novel in which he remembers the internment while walking through Natzweiler-Struthof as a visitor, analysing with intensive scrutiny the human relations in the camps. Between April 1945 and December 1946, he recovered at the French sanatorium at Villers-sur-Marne (Île-de-France).
Pahor returned to Trieste at the end of 1946, when the area was under Allied military administration. In 1947, he graduated from the University of Padua with a thesis on the poetry of Edvard Kocbek. The same year, he met Kocbek for the first time. The two men were united in their criticism of the communist regime in Yugoslavia and established a close friendship that lasted until Kocbek's death in 1981. In 1951 and 1952, Pahor defended Kocbek's literary work against the organized attacks launched by the Slovenian Communist establishment and its allies in the Free Territory of Trieste. This resulted in a break with the local leftist circles, with whom Pahor had been engaged since 1946. He grew closer to Liberal Democratic positions and in 1966 he founded, together with fellow writer from Trieste Alojz Rebula, the magazine Zaliv ("The Bay"), in which he wanted to defend the "traditional democratic pluralism" against the totalitarian cultural policies of Communist Yugoslavia. The magazine Zaliv was published in the Slovene language in Trieste in Italy outside of reach of Communist Yugoslavian authorities. This enabled Zaliv to become an important platform for democratic debate, in which many dissidents from Communist Slovenia could publish their opinions. Pahor dissolved the magazine in 1990, after the victory of the Democratic Opposition of Slovenia in the first free elections in Slovenia after World War II. Between 1953 and 1975, Pahor worked as a professor of Italian literature in a Slovene-language high school in Trieste. During this time, he was an active member of the international organization AIDLCM (Association internationale des langues et cultures minoritaires) which aims at promoting minority languages and cultures. In this function, he traveled around Europe discovering the cultural plurality of the continent. This experience strengthened his communitarian and anti-centralist views. Pahor also publicly supported the political party Slovene Union and has run on its lists for general and local elections.
In 1975, Pahor and Alojz Rebula published a book in Trieste, entitled Edvard Kocbek: pričevalec našega časa ("Edvard Kocbek - the Witness of Our Epoch"). The book contained an interview with the Slovene poet and thinker Edvard Kocbek, in which Kocbek publicly condemned the summary killing of 12,000 Slovene Home Guard war prisoners by the Yugoslav Communist regime in May and June 1945. The book caused a great scandal in Yugoslavia and served as a pretext to launch a massive denigration campaign against Kocbek by the state-controlled Yugoslav media. Kocbek, who lived in Yugoslavia, was put under constant communist secret service surveillance until his death in 1981. The journal Zaliv, which published the book in Italy, was banned in Yugoslavia. Pahor, who lived in Italy and was an Italian citizen, was banned from entering Yugoslavia for several years. He was able to enter Yugoslavia only in 1981, when he was allowed to attend Kocbek's funeral. In 1989, Pahor published his memories on Kocbek in the book Ta ocean strašnó odprt ("This Ocean, So Terribly Opened"). The book was published in Slovenia by the prestigious Slovenska matica publishing house, with the preface by the renowned historian Bogo Grafenauer. As such, it marked one of the first steps towards the final rehabilitation of Kocbek's public image in post-Communist Slovenia.
After 1990, Pahor gained widespread recognition in Slovenia. He was awarded the Prešeren Award, the highest recognition for cultural achievements on Slovenia, in 1992. In May 2009, Pahor became a full member of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. In March 2010, the Slovenian National Television Broadcast produced a documentary film on Pahor's life, entitled "The Stubborn Memory" (Trmasti spomin). The documentary features several famous public figures who talk about Pahor, including two Slovene historians from Trieste, Marta Verginella and Jože Pirjevec, the Italian writer from Trieste Claudio Magris, the French literary critic Antoine Spire, the Italian journalist Paolo Rumiz, and the Slovene literary historian from Trieste Miran Košuta. In March 2010, Boris Pahor was also proposed by several civil associations as an honorary citizen of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. However, the proposal stalled at the commission for awards of the City Municipality of Ljubljana who decided not to forward the proposal to the Ljubljana city council for a vote. Pahor himself has stated he does not want to become the Ljubljana's honorary citizen as through the history after World War I the Slovenia's capital city has never supported the Slovenian Littoral as it should.
In the last decade, his works have attracted an international attention and have been translated into the major European languages. In 2007, his novel Necropolis was published by the Italian publishing house Fazi editori, which opened him the way to the Italian reading public.
In May 2007, he received the French order of Legion of Honour.
In January 2008, the Italian journal La Repubblica published an influential article entitled Il caso Pahor ("The Pahor Case"), deploring the fact that the author had remained unknown in Italy for so long and blaming the Italian nationalist milieu of Trieste for it:
Forty years were needed for such an important author to gain recognition in his own country. (...) For too long, it was in someone's interest to hide that in the "absolutely Italian" city of Trieste there was somebody able to write great things in a language different from Italian.
In February 2008, Pahor was invited as a guest on Italian national television for the first time, where he was interviewed in the popular Sunday talk show Che tempo che fa. In December 2009, the mayor of Trieste Roberto Dipiazza offered Pahor an award, highlighting his role in the field of culture, his sufferings during Nazi occupation and his opposition to the Yugoslav Communist regime. Pahor however refused the award, criticizing the mayor for not having mentioned his opposition to Italian Fascism. The case created a controversy on the local level in Friuli-Venezia Giulia and resonated in the Italian press. Many renowned Italian left wing intellectuals, like the astrophysicist and popular science writer Margherita Hack, voiced their support of Pahor's decision. The Trieste-based Association of Free and Equal Citizens (Associazione cittadini liberi ed uguali) supported Pahor's refusal of the award, and offered him an alternative award, highlighting Pahor's anti-Fascist "during and after World War II".
On 26 April 2010, the Austrian government bestowed the Cross of Honour for Science and Art, First Class on Boris Pahor. This is the highest award that may be bestowed on a foreigner in Austria. Pahor was conferred the award for raising awareness about the dangers of Fascism. As of April 2010, five of his books have been translated into German.
In December 2010, a theater adaptation of Pahor's novel Necropolis, directed by the Trieste Slovene director Boris Kobal, was staged in Trieste's Teatro Verdi, sponsored by the mayors of Trieste and Ljubljana, Roberto Dipiazza and Zoran Janković. The event was considered a "historical step" in the normalization of relations between Italians and Slovenes in Trieste, and was attended by numerous Slovenian and Italian dignitaries. After the performance, Pahor declared that he can finally feel a first-rate citizen of Trieste.
From the 1960s, Pahor's work started to become quite well known in Yugoslavia, but it did not gain a wide recognition due to the opposition from the Slovenian Communist Regime, which saw Pahor as a potential subversive figure. Nevertheless, he became one of the major moral referents for the new post-war generation of Slovene writers, among others Drago Jančar who has frequently pointed out his indebtedness to Pahor, especially in the essay "The Man Who Said No", published in 1993 as one of the first comprehensive assessments of Pahor's literary and moral role in the post-war era in Slovenia.
Pahor's major works include the Vila ob jezeru (A Villa by the Lake), Mesto v zalivu (The City in the Bay), Nekropola (Pilgrim among the Shadows), a trilogy about Trieste and the Slovene minority in Italy (1920-1947) (Spopad s pomladjo - A Difficult Spring, Zatemnitev - Obscuration, V labirintu - In the Labyrinth), and Zibelka sveta (The Cradle of the World).
Pahor defines himself as a "Social Democrat in the Scandinavian sense". However, in his life has supported different centrist positions, from Christian Democracy and Christian Socialism to more liberal positions. In the late 1980s, he was skeptical of the idea of independent Slovenia, but he later supported Jože Pučnik's vision of an independent, welfare Slovenian state.
In 2007, he publicly supported the candidacy of the Liberal politician Mitja Gaspari for president of Slovenia. In 2009, he ran on the list of the South Tyrolean People's Party as a representative of the Slovene Union for the European Parliament. In 2011, before the Slovenian early elections, he publicly supported the Slovenian People's Party.
In December 2010, Pahor criticized the election of Peter Bossman as the mayor of Piran on the basis of his ethnicity. He stated that it is a "bad sign if one elects a foreigner for mayor." The statement echoed in the Slovenian and Italian media, and Pahor was accused of racism by some. He rejected these accusations saying he has nothing against Bossman being black; he clarified his statement by saying that he would rather see a mayor from one of the autochthonous ethnic groups from the region, either a Slovene or Istrian Italian.
In March 2012, the Italian right wing newspaper Il Giornale published a book review of his autobiography titled "Nobody's Son", in which the book reviewer labels Pahor as "Slovene nationalist" and "negationist" for his agreeing with the historian Alessandra Kersevan's criticism of historical revisionism in Italy regarding foibe. The book review also reproached Pahor for making personal observations about the period of Yugoslav occupation of Trieste (between May and June 1945), implying he witnessed the events, although he did not reside in the city at the time.
Pahor was married to the deceased author Radoslava Premrl, sister of the Slovene anti-Fascist resistance hero Janko Premrl.
Besides Slovene and Italian, he is also fluent in French.
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