What lies beneath

In the months before Slovenia’s entry to the European Union, whenever a foreign journalist asked me what new dimension Slovenia would contribute to Europe, my answer was: nothing. Slovenes are obsessed with the notion that, although a small nation, we are a cultural superpower: we possess a hidden treasury of masterpieces that wait to be acknowledged by the wider world. Maybe this treasure is too fragile to survive intact the exposure to the fresh air of international competition – like the old Roman frescoes in a wonderful scene from Fellini’s Roma, which start to disappear the moment the daylight reaches them.

Such narcissism is not a Slovene speciality; there are versions of it all around eastern Europe: we value democracy more because we had to fight for it recently; we still know what true culture is, not being corrupted by cheap Americanisation, and so on. In reality, the most interesting Slovene artists and writers have either isolated themselves from the cultural mainstream, or left the country. Ivan Cankar, widely considered Slovenia’s greatest writer, spent his most productive years in Vienna, and Veno Pilon, arguably the most important modernist painter, left early for Paris and stayed there.

The Slovene attitude of cultural superiority finds its counterpart in the patronising cliché according to which the east European post-communist countries are poor cousins who will be admitted back into the family only if they behave properly. (Recall the reaction to December’s elections in Serbia, where nationalist gains were read as a sign that Serbia is “not yet ready for Europe”.) A similar process is going on in Slovenia: the fact that nationalists collected enough signatures to enforce a referendum about the building of a mosque in Ljubljana is sad; the fact that a majority thinks the mosque should not be allowed is sadder; and the arguments evoked (should we allow our beautiful countryside to be spoiled by a minaret that stands for fundamentalist barbarism, etc) make one ashamed to be a Slovene. In such cases, the occasional threats from Brussels cannot but appear welcome: show multiculturalist tolerance or else.

[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on May 1st 2004.]