“Aleš Debeljak was a well-known and award-winning Slovenian poet, essayist, translator, and sociologist of culture, who also held a Professorship at the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. He was born on December 25, 1961 in Ljubljana, Slovenia (then Yugoslavia) and studied literature at the University of Ljubljana before going on to gain his PhD in Social Thought at the University of Syracuse, NY. His work was translated widely and brought him also international acclaim. Debeljak was an engaged intellectual, a true European, brilliant and eloquent in his writing and speeches. His fourteen books of essays and eight books of poetry attest to his curiosity and wide range of interests, from music to refugees, from Slovenian politics to world politics, from cultural topics to wars in the Balkans. His main focus in recent years was on ethnic conflicts, national identity and religious fundamentalism.
Aleš as a person and as a writer was articulate and intense, rational, passionate, engaging – even if sometimes a rather overpowering partner in discussion. He was also a loyal friend and a warm, open person. When I think about him, I remember his blue eyes and his smile, warmth and easygoing way of being. I met him in the late eighties in Ljubljana, when Slovenia was still part of Yugoslavia and he was struggling with local communist party bureaucrats to save the little freedom of speech there was, in a student newspaper Tribuna of which he was editor. Later, we often met abroad at round-table discussions during the 1991-1995 wars whilst Yugoslavia was falling apart. We tried to explain what these wars were about and how they descended on people there – though I do not know how successful we were in our efforts… Then there was nationalism, the future of EU, refugees; we never lacked issues or ideas to discuss.
Aleš died in a car accident on January 28, a month after his 54th birthday. Apart from this fact itself, one particular thing about his death bothers me. It is the way he died. The sudden and unexpected nature of his death took my breath away. There was no long illness in which one could try to come to terms with future loss, say what one always meant to say, and perhaps even be glad when death arrives to end suffering and pain. Aleš’s death came as he was at the top of his career and creativity, full of plans and energy. Therefore I, and many others of his friends, first reacted with disbelief followed by outrage: how could this be?, You think it is simply unjust that such a person is gone just like that, in a stupid car accident – as if there were fairness and order in matters of life or death. In the amazement and outrage at his sudden departure, we thus also reveal our own fear. Not fear of death alone, but more of a life left unfinished, of much left undone. Aleš had so many more books, articles, and lectures to write, three children to bring up, friends to visit… His sudden death awakens in us the sense of our own fragility we often are not aware of.
If there is one lesson to be learnt from his death – and I hate this cruel way of learning – it is perhaps that given the unpredictability of death, we should try much harder to spend time with the people we like and appreciate.
His death is a great loss first and foremost for his family, his wife Erika and his children, but it is also a loss for Slovenia. It is a small country, and people like Aleš are rare and precious. Slovenia seems no fertile soil for special people to grow in abundance. It takes time for a poet and intellectual to grow and to make his place in both national culture and in the world.
Aleš had a spark in his eyes, in his writing and in his personality, and this is how I’ll remember him.”