Trieste — I met Slovenian-Italian author Boris Pahor Saturday morning. At 99, Pahor projects an intense intelligence and displays a level of energy that many 60-year-olds would envy. This passionate story-teller and educator has dedicated his professional life to preventing the repetition of some of the terrible episodes of European history he has lived through and, in a couple of cases, barely survived.
Pahor is perhaps best known for his widely-translated book Necropoli. Necropoli is a fictionalized version of his experience as a World War II political prisoner condemned to the Nazi death camps. He was saved from the ovens by his knowledge of languages.
He has also been a powerful voice for Slovenian culture. My favorite book of his, Qui E’ Proibito Parlare, or Here It Is Forbidden to Speak, published in 2009 (when he was just 96…) portrays in fiction the struggle he personally lived and observed of a minority language and culture suppressed for political reasons. The story revolves around a young Slovenian couple, Ema and Danilo, and I was simply entranced by Pahor’s lyrical descriptions of both their romance and their political awakening. The book also provided me with terrific details of place and time for my novel.
The context for Qui E’ Proibito Parlare was the nationalism and fascism that swept through Italy in the 1920s and 30s, leading to policies such as banning spoken Slovenian. Other policies were a ban on Catholic sermons in Slovenian, a policy the Vatican condoned; the forced Italianization of place names and surnames, a policy that affected more than 50,000 families and, in some cases, led local authorities to require the replacement of tombstones; the dismantling or outright destruction of bi-lingual Italian-Slovenian schools, libraries and cultural institutions; the imprisonment or forced resettlement of thousands of Slovenian professionals such as teachers, lawyers and government officials to other parts of Italy; and constraints on business that led thousands of Slovenians to move to other parts of Europe or to the US.
It’s no small irony that Pahor’s university training in Padova led to an initial career as a professor of Italian literature. He quotes Dante at will. But that career provided him with underground access to sources and texts that allowed him to master Slovenian and its literary history as well.
In talking with Pahor, I found many places where his family’s history crosses paths with mine. For example, when he was born, he lived on Via del Monte, at the time part of one of Trieste’s worst slums, when my grandfather Umberto and his family lived there. Umberto, his brother Amedeo and sister Anna were the same age as Pahor’s parents and doubtless knew them. They may even have greeted baby Boris when he was born; the street is only a few hundred meters long.
When I told Pahor that much of the action in my historical novel, which is loosely based on the lives of Umberto, Amedeo and Anna, took place in the San Giacomo neighborhood, Pahor regaled me with great stories of San Giacomo’s history as a culturally diverse neighborhood, including a substantial Slovenian population, as well as a rough’n’ready labor-union and communist stronghold that first Fascists and later the Nazis were wise to avoid at night. His intimate knowledge of Trieste’s history provided some great insights that helped me clarify my theories about how two brothers, Umberto and Amedeo, could have grown into such completely different lives, setting up a conflict that mirrored the political and cultural conflicts going on around them.
It was truly an honor to be able to spend a couple of hours over coffee with such a worldly wise and literate man. May he continue to write and teach for another 100 years.