For whom do we hold our memories? Singer in the Night by Olja Savičević

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.

Revisiting a past review: A little radiance: Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević

The following is a re-post of a review originally published on April 28, 2015. WH Smith Travel have selected this title as part of their Fresh Talent 2018 campaign, so readers in the UK—or visitors passing through airports and railway stations—have a special opportunity to discover this lively, affecting contemporary Croatian novel. Keep your eye out! It would make an ideal traveling companion.

Everything’s the opposite of what it seems: hell is a comfort to the living, while heaven is ordinary blackmail.

A deeply personal piece of unfinished business draws Dada, the spirited heroine of Farewell, Cowboy, from the towers of Zagreb, back to the grimy streets of her hometown on the shores of the Adriatic in this debut novel from Croatian poet and writer Olja Savičević. Once she arrives, her first task is to relieve her older sister of the responsibility of keeping track of their mother who seems to be surviving on a routine of pharmaceuticals, soap operas and bi-weekly treks to the cemetery to visit the graves of her son and husband. But at the heart of Dada’s return to the Old Settlement is a need to lay to rest her questions surrounding the suicide of her beloved younger brother Daniel several years earlier.

Dada is feisty, in keeping with her fiery hair, an attribute she shared with Daniel and their late father who succumbed to at an early age to asbestos poisoning. An aficionado of the western film, spaghetti and American classics alike, her father spent his final years working at the local movie theatre and then, after the war, in a video store. He bequeathed to his son his love of western heroes and a jammed Colt pistol.

Upon her return to the Old Settlement, Dada settles in to her room under her brother’s fading movie posters, gets an old scooter running and cruises through town on her mission to piece together the past. She recalls the eccentric playmates with whom she roamed the streets and encounters a most beautiful young man who appears and reappears, usually playing a harmonica. Meanwhile it seems that a movie crew has moved in to shoot a film on a drab grassed expanse that will double as the prairie for a project spearheaded by no less than a legend of the bygone era of the spaghetti western.

The primary focus of Dada’s pursuit however, lies closer to home. The family’s neighbour, known to most as Herr Professor, a veterinarian who had befriended Daniel, has resurfaced. After a violent attack triggered by rumours about his sexual proclivities, he had disappeared. Months later, seemingly without warning, 18 year-old Daniel threw himself beneath a speeding express train. Now the old vet has returned. And Dada is certain he holds the key to her brother’s death; in fact she is bitterly obsessed with a desire to confront him, to confirm that he is the author of a cryptic typewritten letter that arrived a few weeks after the funeral, a letter that seemed to indicate that Daniel had been trying to contact the sender. Face to face over cake and brandy she cannot quite say what she wants. She grinds her teeth over his melancholy insistence that “I don’t ask anything of life other than a little radiance.” What on earth is that radiance he asks for, she wonders.

This postwar Balkan world is one of decaying architecture, graffiti scarred walls and woodworm rotted buildings. Tourists are moving in or passing through. Modern technology and old customs exist side by side. Dada is a most engaging heroine, her voice rings through the grime and dust of her environs with a cool crystalline clarity and youthful spirit. For example, after tracking down her former room-mate she recalls that her friend had considered herself the last emo-girl:

‘You’re certainly the oldest emo-girl, and probably the last’, I said.
I imagined her as a little old Gothic lady, but little old ladies, at least the ones here in the Settlement, are generally Gothic in any case, it’s in their dress code.
My room-mate and my Ma would get on well, I reflected. They could go to the graveyard together and shave their heads in keeping with the Weltschmerz.
I’m thinking as though she had settled in my head, I reflected, immediately after, anxiously. I really am my sister’s sister.
Sar-cas-ti-cal-ly, I reflected, in syllables.

Savačević continually surprises with the originality and energy of her prose, translated skillfully by Celia Hawkesworth. Images are revisited, lines repeated, like refrains, throughout the novel, creating a very dynamic and original flow. Tragedy lurks in these pages, but what could be a dismal heartbreaking tale is lifted with humour and thoughtful asides. And that is the sense that lingers.

 

“I’ve been left all alone”: Hair Everywhere by Tea Tulić

On the day Grandma did not die, Mum had an unusual headache. Her eye began to run away to the left. My brother took her to Emergency. He came back without her.

The terminal illness of a loved one has centred many moving novels and memoirs, but there is something about Hair Everywhere, the debut novel of Croatian writer  Tea Tulić, that sets it apart. The construction is deceptively simple. Almost too simple at first blush. But what unfolds in a flow of very short chapters—some only a few lines, most less than a page—is a sad, gently surreal, fragmentary novel that follows the narrator’s awkward transition from adolescence to womanhood as her mother slowly dies of cancer. Reading like a series of micro fictions, each chapter tells a complete story or, rather, captures a complete memory and, although there is an overall arc to the narrative that evolves, the progression is not entirely linear. It is, in fact, at times rather scattered, mirroring the conflicted emotions of the narrator, and the uncanny suspension of reality that surrounds her family during this time of prolonged stress.

Mum
(Wants to Come Home Again)

When Mum is lying in bed with no make-up on, then she becomes fractious. When she talks to me, I stare at the tip of her tongue. It’s white. I tell her to write everything down on paper. Then she writes how she needs painkillers, which nurses are rude, or what she has eaten that day. When she asks me, writing on the paper, if she will be going home for the weekend, I am both happy and unhappy. But that decision is not mine to make, it is up to the white coats of Olympus who shake the neck of my faith.

They are still saving money on the lighting in the corridors.

The narrative voice is naked, spare, and unflinching. Deaths—accidental, random, and natural—are regularly recounted. Strangers, relatives, and an assortment of pets meet unfortunate ends. The dispassionate accounting feels like an attempt to diffuse the narrator’s anxiety about her mother’s health. There is also a matter-of-fact recording of bodily functions that speaks to the messiness of both adolescence and illness. Having found herself thrust into a caregiving role when she is still in need of support and guidance herself, the narrator seems to be trying to strike a balance between her childhood memories and the mature responsibilities she has been forced to take on. She visits her mother at the hospital daily and supports her when she is occasionally allowed to leave, comforts her through the chemotherapy and resulting hair loss. But back at home she has a younger sister and an ailing grandmother to look after. And although the male characters, her father and brother, tend to appear as peripheral presences, they are not absent. Rather, their silent pain weighs heavily on the household. Her father in particular, is out of work, and crushed with grief and financial fatigue. His daughter is well aware of this.

If this sounds like a dreary and morose read, fear not. There is a melancholy beauty to the prose, allusions echo throughout the course of the fragmented narrative and a measure of controlled sarcasm or mild black humour lightens the tone. This is an essential quality of the narrator’s effort to cope. However, nothing can hide the very real emotional and physical toll of the balancing act she is forced to play between her mother, grandmother, and younger sister. On the cusp of womanhood, she is almost suspended in a grey space where her past and future prospects, hopes and dreams, are bound by the obligations she has to the family members who depend on her. But she does not talk about that directly, what she alludes to is the snake in her stomach. Fear and anxiety are literally eating away at her.

While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.

Woven into the fabric of the story are continual appeals to the indifferent doctors and nurses, to the church, and to local superstitions, folk healers, and herbal medicines. The family fears that they cannot afford to fight the illness adequately, but the cancer is relentless and, as the narrator reminds her brother at one point, even rich celebrities have lost the battle. As her mother’s prognosis worsens, the grandmother, weakened and ill, but hanging on, grows increasingly bitter as she questions the God who refuses to take her after her husband and other children are all gone and now this last surviving daughter is dying. She seems destined to be “left alone” once more.

In the end, there are no miracle cures, no last minute reprieves. And for those left behind, life goes on, ever haunted by memories. What remains is this unusual and affecting novel of illness, loss and grief.

Tea Tulić was born in 1978 in Rijeka, Croatia. Hair Everywhere was originally published as Kosa posvuda in 2011 and has since been translated and published in Macedonia, Serbia and Italy. The English translation by Coral Petkovich was published by Istros Books in 2017. Further excerpts from the book can be found at B O D Y.

A little radiance: Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savičević

“Everything’s the opposite of what it seems: hell is a comfort to the living, while heaven is ordinary blackmail.”

A deeply personal piece of unfinished business draws Dada, the spirited heroine of Farewell, Cowboy, from the towers of Zagreb, back to the grimy streets of her hometown on the shores of the Adriatic in this debut novel from Croatian poet and writer Olja Savičević. Once she arrives her first task is to relieve her older sister of the responsibility of keeping track of their mother who seems to be surviving on a routine of pharmaceuticals, soap operas and bi-weekly treks to the cemetery to visit the graves of her son and husband. But at the heart of Dada’s return to the Old Settlement is a need to lay to rest her questions surrounding the suicide of her beloved younger brother Daniel several years earlier.

2015-04-27 23.09.41Dada is feisty, in keeping with her fiery hair, an attribute she shared with Daniel and their late father who succumbed to at an early age to asbestos poisoning. An aficionado of the western film, spaghetti and American classics alike, her father spent his final years working at the local movie theatre and then, after the war, in a video store. He bequeathed to his son his love of western heroes and a jammed Colt pistol.

Upon her return to the Old Settlement, Dada settles in to her room under her brother’s fading movie posters, gets an old scooter running and cruises through town on her mission to piece together the past. She recalls the eccentric playmates with whom she roamed the streets and encounters a most beautiful young man who appears and reappears, usually playing a harmonica. Meanwhile it seems that a movie crew has moved in to shoot a film on a drab grassed expanse that will double as a prairie for a project spearheaded by no less than a legend of the bygone era of the spaghetti western.

The primary focus of Dada’s pursuit however, lies closer to home. The family’s neighbour, known to most as Herr Professor, a veterinarian who had befriended Daniel, has resurfaced. After a violent attack triggered by rumours about his sexual proclivities, he had disappeared. Months later, seemingly without warning, 18 year-old Daniel threw himself beneath a speeding express train. Now the old vet has returned. And Dada is certain he holds the key to her brother’s death; in fact she is bitterly obsessed with a desire to confront him, to confirm that he is the author of a cryptic typewritten letter that arrived a few weeks after the funeral, a letter that seemed to indicate that Daniel had been trying to contact the sender. Face to face over cake and barndy she cannot quite say what she wants. She grinds her teeth over his melancholy insistence that “I don’t ask anything of life other than a little radiance.” What on earth is that radiance he asks for, she wonders.

This postwar Balkan world is one of decaying architecture, graffiti scarred walls and woodworm rotted buildings. Tourists are moving in or passing through. Modern technology and old customs exist side by side. Dada is a most engaging heroine, her voice rings through the grime and dust of her environs with a cool crystalline clarity and youthful spirit. For example, after tracking down her former room-mate she recalls that her friend had considered herself the last emo-girl:

     “ ‘You’re certainly the oldest emo-girl, and probably the last’, I said.
I imagined her as a little old Gothic lady, but little old ladies, at least the ones here in the Settlement, are generally Gothic in any case, it’s in their dress code.
My room-mate and my Ma would get on well, I reflected. They could go to the graveyard together and shave their heads in keeping with the Weltschmerz.
I’m thinking as though she had settled in my head, I reflected, immediately after, anxiously. I really am my sister’s sister.
Sar-cas-ti-cal-ly, I reflected, in syllables.”

Savačević continually surprises with the originality and energy of her prose, translated skillfully by Celia Hawkesworth. Images are revisited, lines repeated, like refrains, throughout the novel, creating a very dynamic and original flow. Tragedy lurks in these pages, but what could be a dismal heartbreaking tale is lifted with humour and thoughtful asides. And that is the sense that lingers.

Farewell, Cowboy is another terrific offering from Istros Books, one of the wonderful independent publishers that can be harder, but not impossible, to source on this side of the Atlantic. And well worth the effort.