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Looking for the left

“W” by Igor Štiks, publishing house Fraktura, Zagreb, 2019.

By - 03.03.2020

The novel “W” by Igor Štiks is a political thriller with a simple story that could be boiled down to a history of the leftist movement in the 20th century. However, more precisely speaking, most of Štiks’s novel covers the period surrounding the tempestuous year of 1968, when leftist mass student protests were held around the globe, and what ensued after their demise.

History teaches us that the tempest of ‘68 was the high point of the leftist idea. It seems that it never fully recuperated afterwards.

Creating three interchanging and overlapping narrative circles, Štiks uses three generations of European revolutionaries and members of leftist and communist movements (both illegal and legal) to tell the story about the historical causes of the left’s malaise we see today.

This would most certainly constitute a simplified view of the novel, since it’s a text which, no matter the ideological context, attempts to examine the dynamics and relations among leftists, their upswings and defects with help from authentic heroes. 

Everything starts in Paris, as it was bound to happen.

Igor Štiks, the author’s alter ego, is a Paris-based left intellectual who visits the Adriatic after more than 25 years. He comes to his devastated former homeland to attend a reading of the will of Walter Stikler, a late leftist fighter who turned into a conservative opposing the leftist idea. For some reason, Walter chooses Igor in Paris. Igor is an activist and a vociferous theoretician of the left-wing idea, who Walter wants to tell his life story to.

Their binding point is their birth city — Sarajevo. Walter talks about himself being an orphan who grew up in the city’s orphanage. However, some years after their encounter, where Walter tells his story, news reaches Igor that Walter was murdered. Later, he would receive an unexpected call from his lawyer who invites Igor and the radical leftist activist Tessa Simon to the reading of the will, that includes their names.

Walter's life as a zealous leftist in his youth, and then that of a conservative, leads the reader into a dizzying journey through Europe.

The return to the homeland is perceived by Štiks as a moment that enlivens the past of the sunken Yugoslavian state, the memories of his childhood and parents who disappeared in the war. On the other side, his arrival on the Adriatic Island (Štiks doesn’t name it but just refers to it as the Island) and the reading of Walter’s will triggers a whole series of events that, as has been stated, are widely spread throughout the twentieth century.

The will turns into the prime mover of the novel’s plot. It leads the heroes into a sequence of exciting and dangerous travels, intertwining their lives in multiple historic periods.

With the first storyline, the hero Igor Štiks conveys Walter’s story to Tessa. Walter’s life as a zealous leftist in his youth, and then that of a conservative, leads the reader into a dizzying journey through Europe, marked by leftist actions, intrigues, passion, betrayed friendships and disappointments in the ideal. From early youth and friendship with the young man Wladimir, who would later turn into a mythical revolutionary story, to the ecstasy of 1968, to a full-blown overturning in the latter years abandoning the “delusions of the youth.”

However, for “W” not to turn into a prose merely commemorating an exciting period in time, Štiks introduces the current moment with help from two characters, Igor and Tessa.

Both are members of the left: Tessa parent’s who were revolutionaries and were part of Walter’s and Wladimir’s Paris group that conducted terrorist attacks throughout European cities. Igor is a university professor, a writer of left-wing themed books and polemics. Using this other storyline, the author depicts the dynamics of leftist movements and action during the period of neoliberal capitalism.

The novel helps us track all the well-known events from recent history: From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the last big economic crisis.

However, by connecting Igor and Tessa in Walter’s will, Štiks creates space for the development of a dynamic story of their relationship that leads them into actions that are simply bursting out of the novel. This relationship and the interconnectivity of the heroes reach their peak in the third storyline, dealing with the Partisan soldier Walter Stikler. The one who saved Walter, the leftist turned conservative, as an orphan, leaving him in Sarajevo’s orphanage. 

The second part of the will, which Walter used to impel Igor and Tessa, is about the trip to Sarajevo, in search of a man who saved Walter’s life. This is the peak of the intrigues presented in the novel “W,” where a whole range of dizzying changes arises; there is a shift to action, passion, and adventure novels, as well as a touch upon the genres of espionage and crime, detective stories and many other various episodes which make the rhythm of the “W” novel seem a stylistically impervious piece that is easy to read.

This novel may be understood as an illustrative adventure through dawn, noon and night of the leftist movement and communism in Europe.

Finally, after a string of obstacles, avoiding the French secret service search party that is trying to track down Tessa and Igor in the mountains and crags of Bosnia (since Tessa and her leftist group are deemed a threat), the duo arrives in Sarajevo. By finding an elderly Walter in a nursing home, their story is rounded off when Štiks, through the mouth of this old revolutionary who is counting his last days, gives away the missing pieces of this man’s life who used his will to bind them together and send them to Sarajevo.

In the “W” novel, old Walter introduces a left perspective that refers to the period ranging from the October Revolution to the Gulag period. With this line of thought, the author rounds off his romanesque setting into one clearly defined conceptual circle.

Igor Štiks. Photo: Jim Marshall.

Observed in this way, this novel may be understood as an illustrative adventure through the dawn, noon and night of the leftist movement and communism in Europe. Alongside a significant dose of action, intrigue, and adrenaline laced excitement that Štiks provides to the reader but also an abundance of information from the history of the leftist ideology and movement.

In this sense, “W” in many respects reminds us of the novel “School for Delicate Lovers” by  Svetlana Slapšak due to its compositional text organization and the dynamics of presenting events and developing basic storylines.

Both authors are using an abundance of data from their scientific and university work. Slapšak uses ancient Greek anthropology, while Štiks uses information from the domain of leftist ideas. In a certain sense, this is a sword with two blades, bearing in mind that, if the author is unattentive, the romanesque text can be misleading by its mere informative nature if its functional use in developing narratives is unclear.

However, both authors are succeeding in mostly functionalizing this abundant data and incorporating it effectively into their novels’ plots. Still, Štiks’ novel doesn’t constrict to this level of curiosity.

Namely, in the first part, a compelling story is created about youth and the initial moments of Walter’s life that refers to his friendship with the young man Wladimir. During a drunken night, they became blood brothers, while drawing a big W letter on a rock above the Island, as a sign of unity and a vow that they would fight for a better world. Walter first talks to Igor about this, and then he discusses it with Tessa, in the Island youth camp Walter and Wladimir were sent to from the orphanage as children. Hence their dizzying journey through the revolutionary actions of Paris in the whirlwind of 1968. In the following year, this exciting path continued up until the point when Walter and Wladimir become opposites and enemies, after the fracture of their idea.

Wladimir continues to advocate for a permanent revolution, while Walter withdraws and becomes a vociferous opponent of the ideas of the left. At this point in “W,” author Štiks introduces a turnover in the form of new information Igor and Tessa find out about; this changes the flow of the novel in many respects, while its concept is becoming more entangled. This new knowledge is that Wladimir never even existed. That, from the very beginning, he was part of Walter’s game, which he used to outsmart everybody.

This turnover, and the fact that Walter had split into two halves at some point, one that is still relentlessly leftist and the other that is conservative, have enabled a more genuine and serious rounding off of the whole novel.

Without any doubt, "W" is an exceptionally balanced novel in a stylistic sense, written with a very precise plan. Therefore, it isn't lagging behind the more recent European contemporary prose.

By accompanying Walter, Štiks actually creates an interesting allegory in the second half of the 20th century. Walter’s character in this novel, his antagonisms and the duplicate personality, the conflict between the ideas of an armed struggle and peaceful action, are all reflected as the neuralgic points of the leftist movement. All that wandering, gasification, the betrayal of ideas, moving to a completely different, right-wing extreme, coupled with the ecstasy that a better world is possible, and then the ensuing disappointments, all essentially constitute the heartbeat of the European left, which Štiks describes through the characters of his novel.

At a symbolic level, the splitting of Walter’s character also has a deeper background. The fact that Walter is becoming the simultaneous creator of the left and right scenery in a way provides us with a perverted image of the world where, as part of the market neoliberalism, the ideological and ideation differences represent only a cover for the capitalist sameness of both political ends.

Without any doubt, “W” is an exceptionally balanced novel in a stylistic sense, written with a very precise plan. Therefore, it isn’t lagging behind the more recent European contemporary prose.

At the ideation level, we could say that the author Štiks is brave to be persistent with writing literature that dares to look at the world from leftist or marxist ideation positions. This doesn’t mean that this writer is writing panegyrics to the idea as such, since that would constitute propaganda.

The novel “W” shows that Štiks approaches the issues related to the left while bearing in mind all its obscurities and mistakes. In Walter’s split character, this psychosis of leftist ideas is experiencing its peak.

However, the problem with this novel is related to its second storyline, which concerns Igor and Tessa.

It is completely clear that Štiks wanted to have three generations of protagonists present in his novel, who would carry the revolutionary torch. In this way, he could show their ups and downs on a timeline, and prove that this storyline was necessary for him to create the frame for his story. Therefore, it seems to be the least well-executed chapter. Above all, it is loaded with too many Hollywood-intoned action scenes, car chases, passions, espionage and similar genre details, which is a direct cause of naively set motivations in some passages of the novel.

It is clear that the author wanted to effectively keep up with the tempo of his writing. However, it seems that this resulted in something dysfunctional and excessive to a certain extent, and that more authentic solutions could have been found, that wouldn’t impair the uniformity of the “W” novel.

Another concern about the storyline is that Tessa and Igor often seem to be direct copies of Walter and his companion from the time of the Parisian revolutionary youth. Their conflicts, steps, decisions and the way passion is stirred up between them act as a non-inventive repetition of what has already been seen. Or, in other words, template construction of plastic characters without deeper characterization. 

By presenting these episodes, maybe the author Štiks sought to show the cyclical nature of revolutionary fervor through Tessa and Igor, but it also demonstrates the repetition of leftist wrongs and misconceptions of the past. If this is the case, then the author’s decision to build his characters in this manner is justified. However, if we disregard that, what is missing is a more convincing manifestation of the leftist idea today, particularly through the characters of the two heroes. This could have been further explained in the resolution segment of the novel, which has been repeatedly laid out in a spectacular manner; some sort of a generational deflection, an attempt to find some lessons in the past so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

I am not sure whether the author Igor Štiks managed to find adequate answers for the character Igor Štiks with regards to leftist mistakes that are known from Walter’s story, so that his hero could perhaps witness a clearer future. It’s understandable that this novel isn’t a theoretical discussion, hence it’s not necessary for it to offer precise answers of any kind.

However, now it seems that mistakes and delusions always stay the same, that the ecstatic romance of ideas remains identical, while only actors change. If this was the idea of the author behind “W,” then this point is successfully demonstrated in the novel’s ending.

Feature image: Fraktura.