Jasmin B. Frelih
In a somewhat dystopian near future, Evan is an avant-garde theatre director and drug addict living in Japan who loses contact with his dealer just as he is about to launch his latest play. Kras is a retired Slovenian war minister celebrating his 50th birthday in his home country with three generations of his conniving and dysfunctional family. Zoja is an anarchist poet coming out of retirement to perform to a crowd of her passionate fans as part of a giant art-happening block party in Brooklyn.
In/Half is the debut novel of Slovenian author Jasmin B. Frelih, originally published in 2013 and a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016, now translated into English by Jason Blake. It is written in a loquacious style, sometimes bordering on stream of consciousness. Evan, Kras and Zoja’s perspectives, memories and dialogue are interwoven with the observations of supporting characters and those of a cynical omniscient narrator with a poetic turn of phrase.
While Frelih is certainly capable of wry contemporary social observation, and while his translated prose is well phrased, demonstrating intellect and insight – even if it is at times a little dense – the novel’s structure is less convincing.
The three protagonists’ stories are interleaved throughout, picking up where things were left off after the other two have had their turn. By the time the novel’s final sequence has concluded, however, each of their personal journeys remains unfinished and unconnected. Although their stories do start to merge towards the end of the book, they are far from satisfyingly drawn together by the time the abrupt conclusion arrives, pushing the novel out of the somewhat-psychedelic-but-still-realistic territory it has thus far occupied into full-blown surrealism.
It may well be that this jarring and inconclusive finale is deliberate. It is perhaps intended to evoke the chaos and confusion of contemporary society, or to challenge preconceptions about structure in fiction. It might also be seen as a logical and ambitious amplification of the challenging and chaotic nature of the novel’s prose style.
That said, chaos, mimetic or otherwise, is, for many people, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. If signal is overshadowed by noise, the final reception is likely to be one of either great pleasure or great displeasure, depending on the ratio a reader finds most rewarding.
Oneworld, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Jasmin B. Frelih, In/Half". Subscribe here.