Boris Pintar’s Family Parables is not light reading. Don’t take it with you to the beach or on the airplane. The stories, most of them dark and sinister, need your full, undivided attention. And even then, you may find yourself asking: what just happened?
It’s not that Pintar’s prose is difficult to read. Translated from the Slovene, Pintar’s writing flows easily. Occasional allusions to Slovenian figures and legends are glossed in the back of the book by the translator. Yet Pintar seems to enjoy being mysterious, keeping the reader wondering (does he really mean what I think he means?). He also makes use of sudden, shocking statements that jolt the reader awake. For instance, here’s a passage from the story, “An Open Society,” in which the narrator describes the memorial service for his deceased mother:
At least she’s no longer suffering. She’s in a better place. To everything there is a season. . . Thus the survivors cheer up those who have come to cheer them up, and try to create the feeling of a birth taking place. The heavenly birth of our mother. We sold her brain to science; in this way Mother lives on.
“We sold her brain to science” is like a slap in the face, especially in the context of the story (his mother is described as a woman entirely subservient to her husband, without any opinions or life of her own – not someone who had any interest in science, or whose brain would merit great scrutiny).
Most of the stories feature homosexuality; often characters view homosexuality as something that can be “corrected” or “cured.” One odd recurrent theme is that of women scientists trying to manipulate the sexuality of homosexual men through scientific methods. In the novella “Family Parables,” Magda falls for Adam, a homosexual man “who was later heterosexualized through a demanding course of therapy” by her psychologist sister Ana. Magda and Adam marry and have children, though Adam continues to have homosexual affairs. The cold and manipulative Ana (who is extremely similar to the main character in an earlier story, “The Symposium”) persuades Magda to let her “take charge of the children’s sexual development.”
Ana somehow directs Adam’s sex life as well, monitoring and manipulating his every move. Pintar is vague as to how she accomplishes this, and what exactly she is doing; there are also references to “operations” performed on Madga’s son Sebastijan, after his leg is broken in an accident, but we get the feeling these operations have little to do with correcting his leg. Ana is concerned that Sebastijan may become homosexual as well, which of course, must be “corrected.” Pintar gives us Ana’s philosophy: “In children, the treatment must start before the disease develops if one is to avoid any seasonal outbreaks later.”
As you can probably surmise from these descriptions, Pintar’s tales are about as far from heartwarming as you can get. They’re chilling, perverse, and sometimes downright unpleasant (don’t read the story “Blossoms of Autumn” too soon after a meal). But they’re also fascinating, unpredictable, and thought provoking. When you get through reading Family Parables, you won’t say, “That reminded me of . . .” Pintar is definitely one of a kind.