Early in the wonderfully original Singer in the Night, the narrator asks:
And what’s left for death if you forget everything before it? Is there anything left to die? When things turn the wrong way round and oblivion precedes death instead of death oblivion?
Although the protagonist is under forty, such oblivion is a serious concern, one that plagues her daily. But it fails to dampen her spirit or her resolve to complete the mission she has set for herself as her brain becomes increasingly clouded.
And what a story she has to share while she still can!
If Olja Savičević’s debut novel, Farewell Cowboy combined an effervescent protagonist, spaghetti Westerns, and an unresolved adolescent suicide to create a powerful portrait of a contemporary reality in her native Split not featured in tourist brochures, her most recent effort, newly released from Istros Books, is even more eccentric—with a wider, more devastating aim. Born in 1974, Savičević is seen to be part of what is often called, in the region, a “lost generation.” Growing up in Yugoslavia, she was part of a cohort taught to believe they belonged to one united country that was theirs to live in and love, that war was something consigned to history lessons. The notion they would ever see such conditions in their own lifetimes was unimaginable. But by the time these children of the 1970s reached early adulthood they had witnessed the brutal destruction of their nation through years of bloody conflict. Many had fought, willingly or otherwise, lost friends, deserted, or ended up migrating in search of better fortunes abroad. As they waited for life to return to some kind of fabled normalcy, they would live and love and try to build lives in the newly defined, divided and demoralized reality unfolding around them.
Singer in the Night opens with a letter from a certain Nightingale, an open missive addressed to all of his neighbours. It is a passionate evocation of the wonders of the street, city and country they share—Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, Croatia—and in it he indicates that he will be leaving. The narrative that follows begins in a rather disoriented fashion, it will take a little while to get your bearings, but what is even more evident from the outset, is that the narrator herself is having difficulty keeping track of events, of past and present, and of the passage of time. She is given to more than a little dramatic recapitulation and ever seems to be backtracking to catch up with her own story. But it’s best to just sit back and see where the ride takes you. As reader you are in the hands of—or rather in the passenger seat of a gold Mazda convertible with—the gloriously eccentric Clementine, who is, she will tell you, an orange blonde, all glamour on the outside, but, “a black orange, inside. Full of hell.” And the letter writer named Nightingale, commonly known as Gale, is the object of her pursuit.
Clementine’s search for this man—her former husband—begins properly on Šimunović, a street located in district 3, a borough of high rises raised and designed under socialism, as yet untouched in a city that presents itself to the world as a commercial seaside holiday resort. She herself had been lured away from that place and her first marriage years earlier by the promise of a more exciting life in Zagreb. She was already becoming known as a soap opera scriptwriter and, although her reputation grew in the capital, a comradely second marriage failed to kindle the sparks of romance of the unrivaled youthful passion she had once experienced with Gale. They had kept in touch, but over time, their contact had been reduced to the occasional text message and then, finally, silence. Returning now after experiencing a serious physical trauma, with an urgent desire to try to track him down, she finds that he has been gone for over a year. Apparently he had attempted to address a period of loud lovemaking that was disturbing his nighttime work on a commissioned cartoon strip with a comic campaign of letters. His neighbours, however, were not amused. They gathered the offending materials and called the police. There was no charge that could be laid, but it seems that a defeated Gale had decided to retreat. But to where?
While Clementine had achieved fame and fortune in the unlikely career of soap opera scriptwriter, providing distraction for the masses if you like, Gale had chosen a more political and far less lucrative artistic avenue for personal expression. He was in his ex-wife’s view, a “street poet,” a lyricist who started in a fairly conventional manner but craved a broader canvas for his verse:
They were interesting poems, authentic, but he felt that he needed a new means of expression, for him paper was slow, dull and uncommunicative, while the Internet is garrulous, polluted and cacophonous, those are places that don’t offer space for development, that’s what he thought. He wrote poems with a felt-tip on walls, by night, on peeling façades, in lifts, toilets, on rubbish skips, in subways. He drew. He discovered spray paint. An excellent concept, always fashionable, he liked spray.
Her Nightingale had become a graffiti artist.
Still moored at the marina in Split, Clementine finds the boat they had shared when they were together, and inside, a box containing copies of Gale’s letters. Each penned under a different, sometimes outrageous, identity, these missives will form the skeletal structure of the narrative that follows. They provide a series of cues to keep a narrator who is losing her memory on track. More or less. What is allowed to unfold is an unusual account of love, friendship and adventure that speaks volumes to the complicated dynamics of life in the former Yugoslavia. Savičević knows exactly what she is doing.
The former soap opera script writer records—and she is literally recording for fear of forgetting—her experiences and recollections in an idiosyncratic retrospective style, with frequent parenthetical asides and clarifications. The tone is quirky, conversational, and entertaining. After a brief stop at Gale’s mother’s home, Clementine’s journey into her uncertain future (and fading past) takes her to rural Bosnia, toward the home of Helanka, the striking completely hairless woman who was, for a time in youth, a close friend. They had met toward the end of the war when young people would gather, as young people do even in uneasy times, seeking fun and possible romance (or at least sex):
Today (twenty years ago) everyone is on the Quay and the Quay is everything. This is the first sun after the winter and every one avoids staying inside the town walls – the best cafés inside the walls are run by dykes, they hang together and get each other jobs – that’s the theory. They’ve found some way of coping with the half-people involved in protection rackets round the cafés. They are the only ones who can do that, survive, and they are probably used to everything in order to subsist, so thought Helanka, my friend who knew everything. (Everyone was a bit crazy for her and her freedom, and she also had an appearance that opened the doors of the marginalised and marginal groups to her.)
It through Helanka that she first meets Gale and, these two decades later, it is her hope that he may have passed by on his way to wherever he has gone.
When she arrives, it turns out that Helanka is away. Her daughters, nicknamed Billy Goat and Arrow, and the odd elderly couple keeping an eye on them, welcome her into their weird world while she waits for her friend’s return. As time goes on, it becomes unclear if our poor narrator has dropped the threads of her own story altogether.
The strength of this inventive novel lies its extraordinary characters and the opportunities they and their stories offer to speak to greater realities in the former Yugoslavia, sharply, but with wit and humour. Clementine sees her professional success against the issues of ethnic and cultural diversity. She notes the surprising benefit of soap operas to Croatian language preservation and promotion:
Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years. [Her producer] was truly triumphant. I was awarded a medal, the president presented it to me, there’s a photo. A critic in one of the daily newspapers, the same one who had coined ‘orangeade’, compared me to the great Croatian writer, Marija Jurić Zagorka, – he called me the serial Zagorka of our times. My saccharine passages became sentimental journeys, and pathos became the new emotionality.
Speaking through the characters—including a dog, God, and a ghost—to whom his letters are attributed, Gale is given the freedom to talk directly and bluntly. The lovers keeping the street awake at night are never his real target. They are his excuse. As a young man he fought in the war for a time and then, after a break to complete his schooling, deserted. Through the voice of a veteran who remembers the ignominy of the war experience and vows to desert if another battle comes while he is still young enough to serve, he poetically sets forth a hope for the future:
At some stage, when school text books will contain the words There is nothing heroic about war, when newspapers publish headlines saying There is nothing heroic about war, when television announcers say There is nothing heroic about war, when generals come out in public with the military secret There is nothing heroic about war, when people proclaim from pulpits and minarets There is nothing heroic about war, when a war veteran whispers to his beloved as they lie naked as children There is nothing heroic, or romantic, about war, when directors produce a Hollywood film entitled There is nothing heroic about war (because a troop of fools in a real war come off better than a troop of wise men), then it really will be, after such a long time, important news.
And the soldiers will, willy-nilly, take off their boots and emerge from war, to carry on constructing a civilian life. Wherever they are.
The unusual occurrences that mark this journey toward oblivion, whether drawn from Clementine’s past or her slowly dissolving present, play out very different kind of drama on the page, one with echoes, often disturbing and surreal, of a past that can’t be buried or neatly laid to rest. By turns strange and exhilarating, tender and ultimately very sad, Singer in the Night is much more than an absurd adventure with a larger-than-life heroine desperately seeking her first husband as her memory is slipping into the distance behind her; it is a sharp, multi-faceted commentary on the world Olja Savičević and her contemporaries inherited. While the tale becomes increasingly distorted on one level, in Clementine’s account of the war, its immediate aftermath, and the confusions and divisions that persisted, a much deeper, darker reality sits. And the fact that she is losing her memory is more than a personal tragedy, it is symptomatic of a larger national and regional tragedy. For, in the words of George Santayana, so frequently paraphrased, Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević is translated by Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.