Book Reviews · 01/04/2016

My Father's Dreams by Evald Flisar

Translated by the author and Alan McConnell-Duff


Istros Books, 2015

Joseph, the titular father in Evald Flisar’s hallucinatory coming-of-age novel, is a country doctor with a penchant for young female patients and mysterious experiments conducted in his basement laboratory. As inspiration for exploring the unconscious desires and anxieties of human existence, rural medicine has proven a generous muse. In Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” the protagonist makes a house call, only to discover that he is the patient. The escalation from stark realism to grotesque surrealism is disturbingly seamless, a nightmare that never offers the prospect of waking up. Like Kafka’s story, My Father’s Dreams merges realism with fantasy, never quite revealing where the protagonist — or the reader — stands.

Adam, Joseph’s son, is the novel’s retrospective narrator. An avid reader — his literary diet includes Dostoevsky, De Sade, Nabokov, and, of course, Kafka — Adam suffers from vivid, unsettling dreams. His detachment from reality is marked by:

an alarming feeling that I was somehow hovering above my life, rather than living it. Almost invariably I was nudged into daydreaming by something I had read. The intensity of the events that would unfold in my turbulent imagination caused a restlessness which would drive me on aimless wanderings across the village meadows and through the nearby woods.

Joseph blames his son’s condition on youthful distraction and perhaps reading too much. He instructs Adam to record his dreams. Adam’s prescription becomes increasingly difficult to put in practice as he loses track of when his imaginings begin and end. An encounter on a hot summer day with Eve — Flisar can’t seem to resist the occasional allegorical touch — takes a suggestive and ominous turn when Adam reveals that he wishes to become a doctor like his father:

“Good,” she said, “then you’ll be allowed to examine me, like your father.”
I could not hide my surprise. “My Father examined you?”
She nodded.
“Where?” I asked in a broken voice.
“Here,” she said, putting her hand between her legs.

When Joseph discovers them together, he strikes Adam, who faints and believes he dreams seeing his father and Eve having sex.

Adam subsequently has graphic and “curiously repetitive dreams” of observing his father and Eve coupling. Distanced from his narrow-minded mother, Mary, Adam no longer feels comfortable confiding in his father. He chooses instead to trust Abortus, a fetus preserved in the basement of his father’s medical practice which Adam believes to be his stillborn brother. With the introduction of Abortus, the novel takes a turn from the eccentric into the uncanny, as Adam imbues his brother with powers that mirror in reverse Adam’s sense of powerlessness: “Because part of my life was his I always felt that whatever happened, happened to both of us.” Abortus is a key piece of Adam’s compartmentalized personality, which threatens to collapse as his obsession with Eve, his hostility toward his mother, and his ambivalence toward his father begin to affect his waking life.

Dreams tend to lose their magic and mystery as literary devices. All too often, they tend to betray the author’s handiwork, contriving characters with rich interior lives, generating formulaic symbols on which to pin narrative progress. But dreams are rarely so amenable to story structure. They confuse teller and told; their revelations must be excised without the benefit of surgical instruments. We might not know what we’re looking at, but we know we’ve seen too much. As Adam watches Eve on top of his father, “she now deliberately aimed her look directly at me, as if deriving pleasure from this. At one stage she even winked at me, as if letting me know that we were partners in a conspiracy.”

At the same time, there is the disturbing possibility that, in fact, Adam is just in denial about the reality that surrounds him. The tension between Joseph and Mary makes more sense in the context of the doctor’s serial infidelity with young patients. And while Joseph seems intent on helping his son, he could just as easily be exploiting his parental and professional authority to discredit a witness to his cheating. Later in the novel, with his father’s tacit approval, Adam is lured out to a mountain retreat, which is actually a sanatorium where the boy’s inner and outer life is dissected by the staff. Muses the narrator, “I was not convinced by their assurances that they merely wanted to help me. I felt they were burrowing into me for their own amusement, or because they were obliged to by the rules of their work.” The question of Adam’s reliability, however, is less important than what it reveals about the object of his disoriented — and disorienting — perspective. In Adam’s world, dysfunction is an inevitable part of any true intimacy. Yet the opposite is also true, as when Adam begins to see his mother as a person rather than a parent, “[that] she had a life of her own. That she was more than a mere shape in my thoughts.” But before long, she resumes the role of antagonist that Adam assigns to her: “Whichever way I had perceived her, she had never been as real as Father.”

The intimacy cultivated between Adam and the reader is no less ambivalent. Drawn in by his naïveté and precocious intelligence, the reader feels uncomfortably close as Adam’s condition deteriorates into obsession and violence. The dreams that structure the novel, far from serving as mere escape, become the only reliable clues for deciphering the mysteries of family, sexuality, and identity explored in Flisar’s haunting, uncompromising novel.

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Evald Flisar is a novelist, playwright, essayist, author of short stories and radio plays for the BBC, president (1995 – 2002) of the Slovene Writers’ Association, and, since 1998, editor of the oldest Slovenian literary journal Sodobnost (Contemporary Review). Author of eleven novels (eight nominated for the Kresnik Award, the Slovenian “Booker”). Winner of the Prešeren Foundation Prize, the highest state award for prose and drama, and the prestigious Župančič Award for lifetime achievement. Various works have been translated into 33 languages. He lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Pedro Ponce is currently working on Dreamland, a novel, excerpts of which have been published in the online journal Transmission. His short fiction has appeared recently in Witness, Ecotone, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He lives in Canton, NY.