In the tiny Republic of Slovenia (pop. 2 million), the sun shines 2000 hours a year. Perhaps this influences the grim vision of Miha Mazzini, the country’s best-selling novelist and screenwriter. In his new book, Guarding Hanna, his first to be translated into English, he’s created a bestial protagonist striving toward a dubiously enlightened humanity. A gargoyle of a man, he struggles heroically with his own nature only to find that life has played him one horrific joke.
This bleakly comic work opens with its epilogue: “How hard I tried! And fucked everything up.” Fucking up’s nearly universal in his world, but the unnamed storyteller starts out with overwhelming odds against him. Born with a deformed face covered with hair and sporting canine teeth, he grows up in a Berlin orphanage ridiculed by all—until he chews off an attacker’s limb. After a term in a lunatic asylum, he begs the protection of a powerful mafia boss, Maestro, who takes him on as hired muscle. Driven by hatred, he loves only Maestro, and loathes himself. Whenever situations veer out of control, he mutilates his body: “My head wrenches to the left and my teeth bite into my shoulder. I bite, gnaw, rip.”
Maestro assigns the creature, who makes his lair in a concrete public-housing flat, the duty of guarding a witness, Hanna, an introspective hairdresser who’s a sap for predatory lovers. After a taut opening, the novel settles into an almost minute-by-minute account of life in Hanna’s apartment. The first not to treat him as a freak, she hammers down barriers between them. But Mazzini upsets any expectations of some sentimental odd-coupling redeeming the fellow. Obsessed with his bodily functions, tortured by conjunctivitis, bronchitis, and Hannah’s endless talking, he battles the hands that itch to strangle her. The book’s last 50 pages race along in one huge chase scene, with bones crunched and blood everywhere, until a shocking reversal loaded with bitter, lancing ironies.