An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: The Black Animal and Slovene Poetic Stubbornness

Posted on August 17, 2014


France Preseren wasn’t the only influential Slovene poet to die young. As the second World War engulfed Slovenia, two other lyricists would meet their end at an age too small in number. They were two poets of completely opposite political ideology, fighting on completely opposite sides, yet their lives and poems took similar paths and met similar ends. Their names were Karel Destovnik (Kajuh) and France Balantic. They died at 22 and 21 respectively.

 ‘oh, mother, there are countless reasons to live for, but for what I died I would die once more’

Karel Destovnik was born on the 19th of February, 1922. He entered the world in the town of Sostanj, in Styria, and was the eldest of god knows how many siblings. I certainly don’t know, as I’m sure you can see by my lack of clarity with regards to the number of siblings. He went to high school in Celje, but was kicked out because of his commie political leanings. The official reason was that he was gone because of his ‘participation in the dissemination of communist ideas’. I adore how wordy everything commie was. A simple ‘too damn commie’ would have sufficed.

At the end of January 1941, Destovnik was arrested by the Yugoslav authorities, and sent to prison in Ivanjica (Serbia). He was released, and on the first day of the Nazi obliteration of Yugoslavia he volunteered for the army. A mere four weeks later however he was arrested once more by the Gestapo, in Maribor. Again he was released, and he managed to make his way to Ljubljana where he joined the resistance movement that was growing in the city. He would then join the Partisans, where he became the leader of the cultural section of his troupe. He was given the codename ‘Kajuh’, which came from the place that his Grandfather was vomited into the earth. His unit would come under attack in February 1944, and he died in the face of a German offensive in the town of Zlebnik at the tender age of 22 years old.

‘there are only a million of us
a million, with our deaths close by among the corpses
a million, with the gendarmes drinking our own blood
just one single million
hard-pressed by tribulation
but never exterminated
Never, no chance of that!’

It was stanzas like the above that made Destovnik’s poetry so popular among the Slovene partisans. A tiny nation, Slovenia has always faced up to bigger countries hoping to squash them, and has constantly shown throughout their history that they aren’t as fragile as their small numbers would presume. Destovnik’s poetry was unashamedly nationalist in it’s tilt, committed to ideas of resistance and independence. He had been writing poetry since long before World War Two, and his early work painted sympathetic but star scenes of suffering in Slovenia. Now check out that alliteration. His main themes pre-war were alcoholism and mental illness in the Slovene countryside, a subject rarely touched by the more prominent poets. It was this unique human and national sensibility that led to Destovnik’s popularity amongst his fellow soldiers.

Kajuh was an immensely prolific poet, and his work varied thematically. His most frequent form was the sonnet, but even then he would use irregular rhyme and varied meters. A constant underlying theme was the hope for a better, more just society. He was the embodiment of the 1930s and 1940s communist optimism, a hope that socialism would bring about social equality and improved quality of life for those at the bottom. On July 21st 1953 he was declared a national hero of Yugoslavia, and many streets and squares throughout Slovenia take his name today. One of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country also takes his name, the Kajuh Literary Prize. An entire district of the town of Celje is also named after him. There aren’t many more Slovene heroes of the nation more Slovene than young Karel Destovnik, the commie-poet who died aged 22.

 ‘Don’t veil the light with my eyelids, let me see tender death rippling far and wide, let me feel the night falling ‘tween the graves as their bride’

On the other side of the ideological coin and rifle butt, France Balantic’s life followed a similar path and met a similarly pointless and bloody end. Born on the 29th of November 1921 in Kamnik, Balantic studied Slavic Literature in Ljubljana. His studies were interrupted by the damn Italians, who sent him to one of their many concentration camps in the area. Bugger. He was leftist leaning at the time, sympathetic to Christian Socialism and trade unionism the same. He was, however, massively Roman Catholic, and therefore quite obviously a little unsure of Communism. By unsure, I mean against, of course. By 1941, he had turned away from politics completely, feeling that the only salvation for humanity would come from the gospel.

At the start of the war Balantic joined the Liberation Front of the Slovenian People, but he soon left because of their commie leanings. He was arrested in 1942, released after the pleas of a Bishop, and thus spent a year as a recluse concentrating on writing and not much else. As 1943 rolled around he would join various Italian-ran anti-commie units, concluding with his enlisting with the Nazi-collaborating Slovene Home Guard. He would eventually snuff it in the midst of a Partisan attack in Grahovo. Bugger.

Balantic was as contemplative and metaphysical as poets could be. He was wildly expressionist, his work pushing together the personal troubles and worries with imaginative renderings of the end of days. His poems had messianic views of the end of the world, interspersed with premonitions of his own death. He didn’t foresee his death coming via communist led, but his spoke of it often nonetheless. His work was a seemingly never-ending search for personal divinity.

His work was also considered politically dangerous during the Tito years because of its openly-Catholic bent. All of his work was banned from schools and libraries. So dangerous he was considered, that when historian Anton Slodnjak mentioned him in an anthology of Slovene literature in the 1950s, he was sacked. Balantic wasn’t recognised as the great poet that he was until recent years, as Slovenia slowly moved into more democratic waters. Better later than never however, as his intimate yet passionate poems are a thing of frequent joy. His mastery of classical poetic form is too good to be left to dust because of petty ideology.

Despite their opposing ideologies, both Destovnik and Balantic identified themselves and the Slovene nation with the term ‘Crna Zivina’, which translates as ‘black animal’. The connotation was that the Slovenia throughout history had been bullied, by larger and more powerful neighbours, yet had always managed to survive through sheer stubbornness. Poetry has always been very important to the Slovene nation, and these two youthful martyrs are almost the embodiment of that.