I want to be ordinary: Special Needs by Lada Vukić

On the surface, Special Needs by Croatian writer, Lada Vukić, appears to be a simple and straightforward story, told by a boy who does not engage with the world the way others do. He knows he is different. Special. And he does not like it. His classmates taunt him, his teacher barely tolerates him, and his aunt suffers him without affection. His single mother struggles to support the two of them by working as a seamstress for a manipulative, abusive boss, their nosy neighbour is alert to any sign of possible dysfunction, and a small-time drug dealer turns him into an unlikely accomplice. Lots of room for misunderstandings, the wisdom of the innocent, and maybe, if we’re lucky, a happy ending. Except that luck is in short supply for our hero and his mother, intimations of tragedy lie beneath the surface in an intriguing novel that succeeds on the uncommon strength of the perspective through which it unfolds.

I tend to be skeptical about child narrators who can veer too far toward the irritating or be exceptionally precocious. I am equally wary about narrators with some obvious emotional/cognitive impairment which often is imagined somewhere on the autism spectrum—which, in reality, is a very wide range. Put both together and the results can be a voice that is overly naive or unrealistically charmed. As the parent of two children with learning disabilities, one of whom also has mental health concerns, and as someone who has worked extensively with disabled populations from extreme physical and developmental disabilities to mental illness to a great variety of adult acquired brain injuries, I opened Special Needs with curious caution. And was immediately drawn to the narrative voice.

Born with an unspecified disability that others allude to but never name in his presence, ten year-old Emil is a selectively mute child with some deformation or inflexibility in his hands and feet. His reasoning is highly logical but on his own unique scale of understanding, to the point that he appears to others far less intelligent and intuitive than he is. The fact that words so often freeze in his mouth, adds to this perception. He believes he has problems with abstract thinking but rather he seems to lack a certain flexibility in some areas and an idiosyncratic frame of reference in others, often linked to his love of nature programing on television and an almost magical level of auditory acuity only his mother understands. He engages in some ritualistic behaviours and has an aversion to being touched. This cluster of qualities may or may not conform to any typical diagnosis but, if you work or live with disability, you know that there is no such thing as “typical,” or rather typically atypical. From Emil’s point of view, he is used to people failing to understand him, it’s a frustration he is quite capable of articulating if not verbally expressing. But what he really longs to do more than anything is shed the heavy corrective shoes he is forced to wear, get a pair of trainers, and run. That is the dream he holds to.

You can’t buy my shoes in a shop. They’re not displayed in the shop window like other shoes. And they don’t have the logo of a famous brand. I get them from Uncle Mario. So, no Nikes, no Adidas, just – Uncle Mario. Who wants shoes called Uncle Mario? I mean, nobody normal. And I’m normal, though sometimes they say I’m not. First, he makes an imprint of my feet, which are then used to make the shoes. I’ve seen that he does the same with others, so I’m not the only one. There are others like me, with special feet. But that doesn’t mean anything to me because I don’t like being special. I want to be ordinary.

Life is difficult for Emil and his mother. He is teased at school and unable to perform as expected by his teacher. The only subject he really enjoys and in which he demonstrates an uncanny, if pragmatic, understanding is religious studies—a class he is only allowed to attend as a viewer. His mother is a woman whose faith, if she ever had any, has been tried and found wanting. She colourfully expresses her anger at the school’s lack of patience and appreciation of her son, but she is unable to afford any supports for him, has lost the natural social network she once enjoyed, and gets no empathy from her bitter, intolerant sister:

Auntie Zrinka told mum that she had only herself to blame for the situation she found herself in. No, nobody else was to blame, just her! What was happening to her now was the consequences of past mistakes. What mistakes? Clearly, those when she should have gotten rid of me in time. (?!) Alright, she saw that the words “get rid of” were too strong, what she meant was some sort of institution for children like me. (?!) And yes, how many times did she have to tell her that she was stupid because she wasn’t even asking the boy’s father for child support. (!?)

Emil’s super hearing allows him to eavesdrop on conversations he is not meant to hear, nor fully equipped to understand. He tries to connect the nonsensical facts as best he can. The larger implications are apparent to us as readers, but many details are left out. An incompleteness is allowed. Emil draws his conclusions, we draw ours. He is also granted, by virtue of his hypersensitive ears, an ability to hear the hearts of others crashing around in their chests in times of fear or excitement, and when he confesses that he has detected a second faint heartbeat in both his mother and his teacher, he inadvertently tosses a wrench into several lives at once. Emil’s extra-special special needs add an important quality that enhances the appeal of the story without reducing the reality of challenging circumstances and disadvantages that he and his mother face. Nor will it help avert tragedy.

Special Needs’ true strength is the tightly controlled narrative, preserved beautifully in Christina Pribichevich-Zorić’s confident translation. Vukić never loses the voice of her young protagonist, maintaining the authenticity and appeal of Emil and his uniquely matter-of-fact worldview, while letting his self-awareness to begin to slowly evolve as the story turns in an unexpected direction. This work, her first, which won the V.B.Z. award as the best unpublished novel of 2016, is steady, strong, and a subtly different take on the exceptional child narrator, one that may be of particular interest to those who have spent time with the extraordinary ordinary people who see the world in a way that exposes truths we so often pretend to ignore.

Special Needs by Lada Vukić is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.

Love is blind, sometimes stubbornly so: Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski

Right from the very first passages of Marina Šur Puhlovski’s Wild Woman, her unnamed narrator offers no niceties and lays out no illusions—she is a perfect mess, housebound, disheveled, surviving on breadcrumbs and red wine, and slipping out only at the beginning and end of the day for the sake of the dog’ business. Her husband, we soon learn, has been gone for three days, the marriage finally over. At first she was delighted, now she’s delirious. The apartment around her, the same one she grew up in and has always lived in, has been prepared for renovations that never started, fleas have infested most of the rooms, yet she is miserably philosophical about her state of affairs:

I usually prefer the south, warmth and lots of light, but not now. Now I could do with the other side of the world, with the north and its perpetual cold and dusk, its connection to Hades where I landed when I collapsed on the floor and clearly died. Died as the wife of my husband, as his partner, died along with love, faithfulness, loyalty and everything that goes with it, all shattered by the broken vow of “forever”, now nothing but an empty word. Because nothing is “forever”, not the dog, not me, not the damned insects or this apartment or this building or this tree or this town or this planet or the Milky Way and the Universe with it, everything changes, and so do words, which are basically always a matter of politics, in other words, a bitch…. We belong only in our thoughts – me now and me once upon a time – and in photos, and these photos keep us together like Siamese twins attached at the head, making it impossible to separate the two. Except with a knife. When one of us will drop away.

Ah yes, she is resentful, defensive, and defiant—angry at herself and the world. But she is also the indefatigable force behind one of the most honest, human and sarcastically humorous narratives I’ve encountered in a long time.

Newly released from Istros Books, in a translation by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić, Wild Woman is Puhlovski’s sixth novel. Enthusiastically received in her native Croatia, her introspective narrator practically bristles with attitude—think Knausgaard on speed—and yet beneath the surface of her non-stop monologue is a painfully recognizable portrait of the perils of falling in love with love, against the backdrop of life in Communist Yugoslavia.

To explain just how it is that she has found herself in such a pathetic state, the story moves back seven years. At the age of nineteen, with the excitement and promise of university ahead, our protagonist has, along with her desire to study literature, the determination to score romantically. It’s the 1970s and, as far as she is concerned, the two go hand in hand. It is, she will realize too late, a misplaced goal. But for now, the arrival of the maxi-skirt on a fashion scene long dominated by the mini-skirt is going to be her saviour. With her heavy legs hidden she believes she will finally be on an even playing field. She finds a pattern, the idealBe careful what you wish for: fabric and corrals a tired relative to construct the dress of her dreams. Perfect! She will be magnificent, divine! “And what I want to happen happens,” she reports, “the skirt does its job, it sweeps, it collects, it drags some thoughts underneath it, adopts them, imprisons them. I have no idea that from then on I will be imprisoned myself, that the game is over.”

When she arrives at uni in her custom-made maxi skirt ensemble, designed to flatter, she has a particular target in mind. He and his friend stand at the back of the hall. He doesn’t sound like much—fair-skinned, hair thin, but dark—while his companion is healthier-looking with thick blonde hair. However, her sights are already set on the, objectively speaking, less promising specimen. The fact that they are studying literature as opposed to some boring practical subject is a big part of the romantic appeal. She is imagining a meeting of the minds, à la Sarte and de Beauvoir, the seedlings of a great intellectual and artistic love affair. When the two men hurry off after class she is not so sure; when they return in the evening her faith is restored: “Amazingly, they kept coming regularly, in the morning and in the evening, with the other one taking notes, like me; but my guy didn’t, he didn’t even carry a notebook with him, ignoramus, I thought, but I didn’t hold it against him.” She’s resolved to forgive any hint of a shortcoming, dismiss any reservation, before Mr. Right even knows she exists. Not exactly a good start.

In the early days of distant admiration, she analyzes his physical features in detail. He comes up short. She vacillates, she reconsiders. What draws her in should, and would, in hindsight be a warning sign, ones that no one so desperate to secure her chosen mate would want to acknowledge:

Inwardly, I was attracted by the very things that put me off, the look that needed softening, the smile that needed coercing, and then the weariness, especially the weariness, with its hint of something tragic, of the predetermined downfall of the novel’s hero, he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing, a pain that needed easing, a wound that needed healing, it was all written there in his eyes and on his brow, especially on his pale, high brow … Suddenly he became gorgeous.

Had he flown red flags that would have been visible from the moon, she would have looked the other way. And there are plenty of pieces that fail to add up from the very outset, but she keeps recalculating to achieve the number she desires, and tucks any remainders left from the equation away like unused furniture “building my room for the unspoken, undiscussed comments I kept to myself, afraid that talking about them would force me to draw conclusions.” Later, she would be compelled to confront her commitment to the cause—to him—but by then, she would be in too deep, caught up in a complex and complicated mess of doubt and devotion, exasperation and obligation.

As the narrative unspools, the narrator casts an unsparing eye at her own naiveté, mocking her own blissful blindness, casting gossipy aspersions at an entire cast of supplementary characters whose own lives have tumbled sideways, even long after she has begun to suspect her own bed of roses is in fact lined with nails:

There’s something wrong with that boy, my mother said, worried, two months after I had brought him home to introduce him to my parents so that he could come to the house and visit me. He isn’t just my boyfriend, he’s a colleague from uni, we have the same interests, books, the same plans for life, I explained to my mother, my feet weren’t on the ground, I was on cloud nine, thrilled to have found a soulmate, with whom I was in love, because there were plenty of guys around for the physical part, but to find a kindred soul, mused the virgin who had yet to be penetrated and whose sexual life was therefore a matter of fantasy.

A premonition of the possible fate awaiting her could be found  close to home, in that of her own family and in that of her “one and only’s” but her response as a daughter is to question her mother’s concerns even as they secretly eat away at her.

And on it goes, each chapter adding another cause for concern or attempt to wash it away. Pieces of his apparent history fail to add up, like two years spent in Italy that no one can confirm and a troubling tendency to disappear that begins early in their relationship. He puts little effort into his studies and she soon ends up spoon feeding him the answers he needs, effectively doing his degree and hers at the same time. Even his friends seem at odds to defend him, but they have their own demons and obsessions too. And behind it all, is the very real sense that for these young adults, family background, class, political affiliation and ghosts lingering from the war have already composed their future prospects. The narrator’s fantasy of an intellectual life inspired by her philosophical and literary heroes is as unrealistic as the personal romantic ideal she clings to. Plenty of illusions can be shattered between nineteen and twenty-six.

However, even though we know we are heading for what seems—at least from the vivid descriptions of her present state of utter dis-repair—to be a tale of loss and destruction, the narrative account of how she gets there never sinks into self-pity. Almost a rant, her monologue is spiked with a healthy measure of dark humour, seasoned with the hard-won wisdom of hindsight. One can’t help but root for her. And one can’t help but suspect she will, in the end, not allow herself to be defeated.

Tellingly, she never names her beloved, and every time she refers to “my darling” or “my one and only,” you can almost hear her sneering—at him and at herself for being so willfully blind for so long. But, of course, it’s not so simple. In real time it never is. She has made her bed and for a long time seems resigned to lie in it. She has, it turns out, fallen for a replica of her own father—lazy, capable of cruelty, and prone to illness. With her father, alcohol is the cause whereas her beloved suffers from an acquired condition with a less certain prognosis.

I never hit back, he’s sick, I might hurt him, so I just twist away, try to fend him off with my hand as I used to with my father who also hit me, when he was drunk, not on the head, my mother would cry out, but it was no use because, if I protected my face, his hand would automatically go for my head. And it stopped when I told him that the next time he hit me I would kill him, I was already of age. And then I brought my husband into the house only to have it continue, as if I couldn’t live without being hit.

The extent to which his illness, a small cerebral angioma, is an actual contributing factor in his odd behaviour, and how much it is a convenient excuse to avoid ever making an effort at anything, it is hard to say. Either way, her complicated sympathies to both her dying father and her needy partner hinder her ability insist on the boundaries and respect a healthy relationship requires.

And this is the true beauty and power of this book. It speaks volumes about the decisions we make when we let love cloud our judgement, or allow societal, cultural or other personal pressures to push us into relationships. I married young myself and defended my ex against all criticism for a long time, I’ve seen others similarly make ill-advised or hasty commitments—and it’s not simply a hold-over from earlier generations. It still happens today, although perhaps not quite so young. And it’s not only women who feel the pressure, nor is it a feature unique to heterosexual unions.

However, in Wild Woman, as in real life, it is the women who do, more often than not, end up short-changed. Their men tend to be lazy, selfish and unfaithful, for varying reasons and to varying degrees. But in the narrator’s mother’s generation the inclination is to endure a losing situation, stick it out for better or worse, is greater. That shift is occurring. The narrator finally has to accept that she has married a man who is inclined to treat her as her father treated her and her mother. The cycle repeats itself.  Unless  she can break it—no, smash it to smithereens—it will continue. In 1970s Croatia, that might just entail entertaining a little wildness, but if anyone has it, Puhlovski’s insanely wonderful, wise and witty narrator has it in spades. She just has to find it first!

Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski is translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books.  An excerpt can be found at 3:AM Magazine.