My rating: 3 stars
When I started reading Seeing People Off by the Slovak author Jana Benová, I didn’t immediately try to determine a correlation between the title and the story being told. In fact, it is only more or less halfway through this short novel that the significance of the title becomes quite obvious and that the fragmented plot seems to genuinely serve a purpose. Nevertheless, after finishing the book, I was left wondering about what was “real” and what was fictional in the context of the story.
Elza and Ian live with one another at Petrzalka in Bratislava. The walls of their apartment play music and talk. Together with Rebeka, Elza’s best friend, and Elfman, they established a Quartet – a group of artists who follows a system according to which one of them works to earn money for a time while the others create. Rebeka is the only one who hasn’t worked yet. Away from her group of friends, Elza maintains an affair with Kalisto Tanzi, an artist who is always travelling. It appears that she is looking for something more in life, some novelty.
The first chapter feels somewhat all over the place and confusing. What it conveys only makes more sense after we’re told, in the second one, that Elza has read aloud at Café Hyena the first ten pages of the book she is working on, “Seeing People Off”. This information made me occasionally wonder whether some of the events really happened to the characters or if they were just stories within a story.
The book is structured in an interesting way. Within the same chapter, some parts are narrated in the third person, while others are told from the perspective of a specific character in the first person. When the later happens, the name of the character is mentioned in bold at the beginning of the paragraph. In this way, we’re taken back and forward in time as we’re introduced to both the characters’ way of life and their pasts.
However, Seeing People Off doesn’t have a very defined plot. The novel feels like a compilation of snippets from someone’s life, making it difficult to establish a connection with the characters. Although these scraps of events and memories are not always attention-grabbing, they are described in quite a visual way and through the use of plenty of metaphors.
The life moments depicted are interspersed with various social and political reflections. The ones I found more noteworthy, considering my limited knowledge regarding such topics, focus on the differences between communist Slovakia and the West. For example, there is a mention of the Bravo magazine, aimed at teenagers, being forbidden in Slovakia under communist rule.
Near the end of the novel some really emotional moments are depicted. They could have been even more impactful, though, if the story hadn’t been presented in such a fragmented way. Seeing People Off was the first book I read by a Slovak author. And, although it was a satisfactory introduction to what is being published there, I can’t help but feel that its potential wasn’t entirely fulfilled.