Tentacles of Sin: A Review of Absolution by Aleš Šteger

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Absolution by Aleš Šteger. Image from the cover. Fair use for review.

aribor’s moniker ‘European Capital of Culture’ is about as sticky as any other ideological rot. One thinks of Hull given the title ‘UK City of Culture’ in 2017 a decision that was as one resident said, “a chance to show the place doesn’t smell of fish and doesn’t deserve its reputation.” (1) Others were less kind and jokes flew suggesting Hull must have changed its name to FC Barcelona or that the city pictures sent were actually of Venice. (2) Jokes aside, I suspect if one goes to Hull they’ll find a Tesco. So it’s got that going for it. So Maribor, a city populated by fewer than 100k people, has been given the title ‘European Capital of Culture.’ And why not? According to the city’s mayor, it’s “the tidiest city in Slovenia,” and it is due to host the upcoming World Championship in ju-jitsu. It boasts of a new stadium, (what city doesn’t burn through tax dollars for a new stadium to put more money into the hands of a few?) and Maribor gleams with the Slovene National Theatre of Maribor that’s right up there with the Maribor Funeral Parlour. Maribor’s twin city is Pueblo, Colorado. So it’s go that going for it. Oh yes, famous food of Maribor: buckwheat mush, tripe, Kranj sausage, and sour soup. Maribor is also a city with a history extending most clearly to World War II. One cannot dig without finding bones or hardly move without grinding against geopolitics. As for the city’s residents, Šteger writes, “if they’re from Maribor, and they manage to remove to remove a stick from the pile without anyone noticing, they’ll immediately stab the guy next to them in the back with it.”

The point is small cities are what they are. They exist and people are born where they are born or they move somewhere for a job, but let’s not let average places get carried away by hyperbolic braggadocio. Maribor for Šteger is the contradiction found in many cities, with the local government catering to the local power elite via side deals, funding money-pit cultural initiatives designed, in someone’s mind, to supposedly bring international recognition (how many people can find Maribor on a map?), and flushing money down drains and into nepotistic pockets by way of capital projects. In this instance, Maribor is underway with a new waste management underground network that really will put the city on the map, or so some think. Meanwhile, the local theater presents a version of War and Peace, a play one character deems too long suggesting instead, one hour for war and one hour for peace, humor along the lines of Woody Allen’s quip about how he took a speed reading course, read War and Peace in an hour, and said, “It’s about Russia.”

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Maribor, on the Drava River. Photo by Bernd Gehrmann. 1997. Wikimedia Commons.

Absolution, Maribor’s network of city power mongers is called The Great Orc and dismantling it is the monomania of Adam Bely and Rosa Portero (who may be part cyborg or who may simply have a mechanical arm). The Slovenian title Odpusti (using translate programs since I don’t speak Slovenian) means forgive, with an apparent meaning closer to ’release’ or ‘dismiss’ which in my view somehow captures the more nuanced theme of the novel than I think the word ‘absolution’ does.

Adam and Rosa’s cover is they are reporting on the Maribor culture for Austrian radio, yet their true mission is to seek out and destroy all members of the Orc. Once identified, each member is interrogated with a Scientology e-meter to verify truthfulness of answers. (3) Finally, Adam hypnotizes the person with a wobble of his pen, and administers sacramental bread in the form of an oyster cracker. Absolution allows all the souls to leave the person’s body. Who are the souls? Well, for an answer, we have to turn to L. Ron Hubbard’s sci fi stuff that is a basis for Scientology. They were people murdered when Xenu, Dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, kidnapped and brought billions of his people to Earth, populated them around volcanoes, and then killed them with hydrogen bombs. Those souls then sought out shells of people to inhabit. Freeing the souls renders the human vessel a blabbering, floor licking idiot.

Locating the members however is difficult because each member of Maribor cephelapodic network is a cutout, to use espionage-speak for a member who can convey information and yet does not know other members. Here Šteger aligns with other sci fi writers in imagining present/future rule but I’ll let Francis Fukuyama describe this. “So-called cyberpunk authors…saw a future dominated not by centralized dictatorships but by uncontrolled social fragmentation facilitated by the internet.” (4) And this octopus-like network called The Great Orc is similar as each member works alone on a need to know basis. The Orc’s members include the head of a sausage making plant, a theatre director, a photographer. They are, as we see, mostly egotistical fish in a small pond. They tend to make a lot of self-benefiting backroom deals along the lines of what Guy Stanley wrote in his recent book Rebuilding Liberalism: “neoliberalism has no use for civil society — to the point of denying its existence.” The cutouts collude to stuff their pockets in maverick manners, in Maribor as they do in cities everywhere. For some reason, Adam and Rosa are disgusted with it all.

Šteger presents an almost accelerated present. The declaration of the cultural capital convulses with the concentration and funneling of capital that aligns with Marx’s view. “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations….The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness….At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations or production…. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into the fetters. Thus begins an era of social revolution.” (5)

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1915 British map of German and Austrian octopuses. Wikimedia Commons.

But if the conflict doesn’t adequately reveal the fetters, then maybe intervention is required. Adam and Rosa appear to presuppose that accelerationsim alone will prompt a capitalist catharsis, because capitalism even at its most late stage form continues through a horizontalling. The unseen hand is no longer the industrial and modernist relations that tether the kites of growth but a late-stage capitalist octo-post-postmodern-pus who deliberately and purposefully manipulates with its many arms. Unseen doesn’t mean undetermined. Adam and Rosa instigate the destruction of the structure, or more accurately each networked human within the structure reduced to the point of a blathering idiot, as the machine itself doesn’t exist in the way the internet doesn’t exist. So one cancels the nodes.

Perhaps Adam (the first man) Bely is clean and pure, we’re unclear on this point. And it may be that the recluse Kirilov who understands the structure of The Great Orc and is also pre-absolved, again it’s unclear. He denies knowing all the members of The Great Orc, yet he carves a miniature nativity scene in which each character or item is a stand in for a member of The Great Orc.

Absolution is a fine, fine book when approached through any lens. At times it’s beautifully poetic. “Two pairs of legs, one of them staggering slightly. Trudging through the fresh snow, which comes down as if it were going to consume the city, the whole world, once and for all. The bells strike three times. Posters of red crosses on black backgrounds. A cat dashes across the empty street. Midnight is fast approaching.” It’s funny. The factory “produced aircraft-engine parts until the end of 1944. After the Second World War the same sight boasted the biggest Yugoslav factory for the manufacturing of truck and tank engines as well as light weaponry, mostly hunting rifles. But that’s all gone. We don’t manufacture rifles and aircraft any more, the way Hitler and Tito did. Today all we make are scrumptious local Kranj sausages.” All of the time the novel is compelling. This is the best of what can happen when a poet turns attention to the novel.

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Odpusti, Slovenian Cover. Fair use for review.

ne by one the members are surreptitiously annihilated. They all must be because any remaining member can regenerate the network. Thus, as Šteger writes, “The lesson of this story is not how to behave better when something happens again. The question is how to put an end to repetition itself.”revi

That’s the question haunting contemporary late stage capitalism isn’t it? The author continues, “Weren’t all changes, no matter how revolutionary, part of the means, the exterior shells, to perfect a much more far-sighted and advanced plan….and aren’t we, this thrusting, these tentacles, this firm handshake, these gasps for air, nothing but consumable products of the system?” Since most mainstream and even alternative media seem unable to envision contemporary society beyond an everything beholden to late stage capitalist commodification norms, we may have reached a point where possible answers are now the domain of only the best literary minds. Certainly Šteger is one of them and this is his offering. What a wonderful book.

References

(1) Richardson, N. (January 1, 2017). Why it’s time you gave Hull a second chance. Nigel Richardson. The Telegraph. Found online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/yorkshire/kingston-upon-hull/articles/uk-capital-of-culture-hull-what-to-see-and-do/

(2) (no author., n.d.). City of culture: Hull jokes and pun fun. Newsfox. http://www.newsfoxsatire.com/2013/11/23/city-culture-hull-jokes-pun-fun/

(3) A pretty wild rabbit hole about the e-meter is found here: http://mypage.uniserve.ca/~synergy/toc2.htm

(4) Fukyuama, F. (September/October 2018). Against Identity Politics: The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy. Foreign Affairs.

(5) A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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