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.

A tragic-comic turn: Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić

Croatian writer Daša Drndić, who died of cancer just this past June, was a formidable and singular literary voice. Her novels challenge expectations, blending fiction with historical fact and archival material, often in ways that break up and defy narrative conventions. Her central concerns circle around the impact of the Second World War on the former Yugoslavia and on European Jewish populations. Hers is a literary act of remembering. One which she approaches explicitly, implicitly and sometimes head-on and unadorned, as in the list of  names of 9000 Jews deported from or killed in Italy and Italian occupied regions between 1943 and 1945 that stretches over more than forty pages midway through her novel Trieste. Her work is bold and uncompromising—she does not shirk from horrific detail, and sees no need to comfort her reader, but that does not mean her work is devoid of humour and beauty. And, if she had high expectations of her readers, she was equally demanding of her translators. A recent article in Granta reports:

She gave clear indications that the translation of her works into other languages should not stray from her intention, form or style. Dialogue is in italics, always. Inverted commas are reserved for irony, ridicule. Word order is carefully chosen, for stress, and should not be transposed. There should be few commas and even fewer semi-colons. ‘I evade semi-colons when I want my protagonists to speak in a breath – so, comma, comma, comma.’ She often talked about dialogue this way, as a breath. Sentences should not be broken up; she was not in the business of making things easier for the reader: ‘The rhythm and repetition are meant to irritate.’ She abhorred qualifiers which might ‘sweeten’ the text. Her language was not to be sweet, nor soft, nor ornamental, because her subjects were not sweet, and she rarely used ellipses, let alone exclamation marks. Everything should be said, not evaded, and the simpler, the more concise, the better: ‘I weigh words, I respect them, I work with them. Where there are repetitions, they are there for a purpose (rhythm and context).’

If her novels are necessarily complex and formidable, what then, might one expect form a shorter work? A “simpler”, more accessible experience? Well, yes and no.

Doppelgänger, a shorter work from 2002, newly released from Istros Books, is likely to surprise readers familiar with Drndić and possibly leave newcomers completely uncertain what to think. And that’s where the quote above is useful. Stylistically, this two-part novella is simpler, and, on the surface, a more absurd and tragic-comic work, but it is equally unapologetic, incorporates lists and digressions, and is firmly rooted to her common themes—the impact of World War Two and its aftermath on the former Yugoslavia. It is almost an exercise in miniature. Her stories are at once deeply distressing and deviously playful.

Composed of two very loosely connected, yet contrasting, long stories, Doppelgänger opens with “Artur and Isabella”, translated by SD Curtis. We meet the two main characters, an elderly man and woman, separately. Artur, watching life from the window of his apartment, thinks about his aged body, incontinence, adult diapers, and the warm shit in which he is sitting. He is unsentimental, cynical, and yet judgemental in his thoughts and observations of others:

Nappies. Incontinence, incompetence, incompatibility. He watches grey-haired ladies weeing in their nappies and smiling. They smile tiny smiles and they smile broad smiles. When they give off big smiles, old ladies quiver. Old ladies in aspic. In buses they piss and smile to themselves. In coffee shops, in cake shops, in threes, in fives, sitting at small marble tables nattering, some are toothless, nattering over cakes, secretly pissing and smiling. Great, happy invention. Nappies. Each one of them is warm between the legs. Just like once upon a time. In their youth. In joyful times. Long ago.

Isabella we meet in the bath. She thinks about her body too. And herself. She also thinks about art and photography. It is New Year’s Eve, 2000, and these two lonely people, both in their late seventies, are preparing to go out to take in the spirit of the occasion. Later in the evening, they will meet.

The account of their encounter and subsequent sexual interaction is interspersed with excerpts from police surveillance files that detail their pasts (and unfortunate ends), facts collected with cold, clinical precision. Artur is a former captain in the Yugoslav Navy, and a dedicated collector of hats. Born in Germany, Isabella is the daughter of a Jewish shoe factory co-owner, who manages to escape the fate of the rest of her family members by obtaining false documents and making her way to the Croatian island of Korčula. After the war she marries a chocolatier and moves to Salzberg where she lives until her husband’s death in 1978, when she returns to Croatia and opens a photography studio.

Isabella and Artur happen to cross paths, two strangers out alone on the deserted town streets at four o’clock in the morning. There is an instant attraction; geriatric flirtation ensues. Isabella smiles widely, showing off her real teeth which is immediately noted by the other. Their conversation is awkwardly endearing:

 Those are your teeth? Artur asks anyway. Are those your teeth? he asks nervously, and without waiting for an answer he decides: I’ll tell her everything about myself. Almost everything.

They are walking. Along streets empty and littered from the New Year celebrations. Artur says: I’ll tell you everything about myself. We’re not children. The night is ethereal.

You don’t need to tell me everything, says Isabella.

Artur says: I used to work for the Yugoslav Navy. I was stationed on Vis. That’s where I met my wife.

Isabella asks: Were you a spy?

Artur thinks: That’s a stupid question. He says nothing.

I adore spy stories, says Isabella, and skips like a young girl.

They talk about hats, chocolates, Isabella’s garden gnomes and Artur’s epilepsy. They make out in the park, fumbling beneath one another’s (thankfully dry) nappies. And as the narrative progresses we are offered insights into their lives as flashbacks and documentary evidence is worked in. What unfolds is a simple, heartbreaking tale about two lonely old people who chance to meet on the eve of a new century. Separately they go home to make similar choices, their desire spent.

The second, longer story, “Pupi”, is translated by Celia Hawkesworth. The protagonist is Printz, a 50 year old man who lives in Belgrade with his father, Rikard, a chemist and former spy. Born in 1946, Printz (Pupi is a nickname he doesn’t like) had wanted to become a sculptor, but ended up following his father’s dual career path, presumably without great success. Now he no longer works; he has been pensioned off after a breakdown while on assignment in Bali. When we meet him he is watching rhinos in the zoo—a common refuge at times of stress. His mother has just died after a lengthy illness. It is never made clear exactly what sets Printz apart, but he does report that his birth was difficult, and although he has access to boundless amounts of knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his thoughts tend to race at times and he is aware that bits and pieces of his past are getting mixed up in  his head. A lengthy discussion about bipolar disorder (echoing Artur and Isabella’s discussion about well-known people thought to have had epilepsy) suggests that or a similar condition might play a part, which would not be out of step with some of the thinking and behaviour he demonstrates. But, for the most part, the fates he and his father face are representative of those of the Yugoslav middle-classes as their Socialist dreams, served by property taken from the Jews, is  crumbling under the materialistic pressures of a new generation. Any promise he may have once had has ebbed away.

The third person narrative shifts back and forth through Printz’s life. As a child he falls in love with a neighbour who will leave for a successful career as an artist; he marries twice and walks away from both marriages. Moving back in with his aging parents, he helps care for his mother, a one-time opera singer, as she is dying of cancer. And then there is his nemesis, his younger brother Herzog, a self-serving modern man who buys their father’s house, and, once their mother has died, begins restricting Printz and Rikard’s room as his own family expands, renovates and consumes the space. After the old man’s death, Printz soon finds himself with no home at all.

Although lists and historical and scientific details are woven into “Pupi”, this story is, for Drndić, a relatively conventional narrative, albeit one that employs her idiosyncratic rhythms, repetition, and italics. Printz is an engaging anti-hero—a damaged man with a good heart. War is in the background, colouring his dreams and imagination, even if joining the battle in reality is not practical or possible:

Pupi also often goes to war. That gives him inner satisfaction, that going off to battle sometimes across soft borders, sometimes impenetrable ones. Pupi no longer knows whether he is going to help the people from Vukovar or the ones from Sarajevo, he does not know. But in this war he becomes a hero and is proud of himself. He saves people, takes them out of their hiding places, bandages their wounds, tells the children stories. Sometimes he sees fields of unscythed wheat, sometimes streets flooded with plastic bags in which frozen faeces are thawing, human. He listens to people saying This is a terrible war, it is a small war and it will soon be over so Pupi is calm, he knows that he will survive. But still, in this war there are dead people, too many dead people.

Intelligent but easily disoriented, he is a lost soul and yet a strangely resilient one. However, in the end, even poor Printz has his limits.

Reading Doppelgänger is not unlike exploring the short works of one of Drndić’s heroes, Thomas Bernhard. The flow, mechanics and dynamics of his characteristic novels are all evident on a small scale in his short stories. Likewise, this novella stands in a similar relation to the Croatian novelist’s masterworks. There is humour here, and great humanity. Further, this unusual little piece was apparently a personal favourite. Her characters—Artur, Isabella, and Printz—are all eccentric, with peculiar obsessions that give their rather dismal lives meaning. They have all experienced trauma and hardship, and yet harbour little bitterness or anger. They seem resigned to their fates. Which makes their lonely ends that much more tragic.

Doppelgänger by Daša Drndić is translated by SD Curtis and Celia Hawkesworth, and published by Istros Books.

Once in motion, an avalanche can’t be stopped: Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský

Here’s the thing: the avalanche has begun to roll. It can’t yet be seen, it is still a long way off, but I can hear the first mass of snow pushing its way down the slope, rumbling quietly.

It is fair to say that Fleeting Snow, by Pavel Vilikovský, the first Slovak translation to be released by Istros Books, begins on an unusual note. The narrator promptly informs us that his original name has lost meaning for him, rather he prefers his self-declared name, Čimborazka. However, it is clear that he also seems to have affected some alienation from his own identity. His appearance in the mirror is vaguely familiar, but he questions whether he is really himself or his own step-twin. Mail arrives addressed to a name he no longer chooses to recognize and yet he has informed no one of his selected appellation. And he refuses to have a character—or a reliable, consistent way of being—and that, in itself should be our first clue. He has adopted some kind of metaphorical armour. But why? And against what?

What follows, or rather plays out,  is an orchestrated discourse that meanders down assorted pathways, broken into in a series of short, fragmented chapters, each conveniently denoted with a number and letter according to theme or motive, echoing a musical score. Čimborazka, we quickly learn, is given to wide ranging philosophical musings about the relationship between the body and the soul, the nature of God, the meaning of love and the limitations of the Slovak language. His digressions are, at least initially, light-hearted and good humoured. His friend Štefan Kováč, who may or may not be a separate person or an alternate self, plays the logical, scientifically grounded foil to Čimborazka’s esoteric ramblings. He is a linguist, a specialist in an extinct native American language, who challenges his friend’s flights of fancy.

And then, there is the avalanche, a recurring image rolling through the narrative.

If the unconventional ordering of the chapters or fragments is disorienting, one soon falls into the flow. The various themes which, at the outset appear quite disparate, increasingly echo one another. Key to the narrative central to Fleeting Snow is Čimborazka’s notion of the soul and its relation to the body. Although he spends much time wondering about the nature of God, his is not a specifically religious inquiry. He seems curiously agnostic. The soul is a useful concept—it can mean anything one wants it to mean—and for our narrator, it is that essence, produced by the body, that makes a person or a being, who they are. The soul, gives the body meaning.

The soul can’t be seen because it is hidden inside the body. Strangely enough, we can’t see even our own soul, we just know it’s in there somewhere. What’s even more strange is that all of it fits into our body even though we sense that it’s somehow much bigger. That it transcends the body in every way.

Likewise, another prominent theme, that revolving around language—the demise of indigenous languages, the corruption and loss of traditional dialects in Central European languages—represents an analogous relationship. Language is the soul of a culture. In both cases, when the soul starts to change, when critical features begin to disappear, what happens to the person or the peoples left behind?

Playing the various motives in a fluctuating manner moving back and forth between themes, allows Čimborazka to work his way into the tale at the heart of the novel—the one that is most difficult for him to tell—with caution, in a roundabout way. He reflects on ID cards, asking: What do they, and the name thereon, signify, the soul or the body? The next segment opens with an explanation of the names he used to call his wife whose formal name, Magdalena, seemed too awkward. He opted for Duška as a pet name, and more commonly Lienka. But now he admits, he is at a loss as to what to call her. They had been, at one time, so intuitively suited to one another, or so he thought. He had loved her wholly, and yet, suddenly, he began to notice a curious change:

But at some point, not long ago, her face suddenly seemed to become more beautiful. The lines around her mouth and eyes vanished, the skin on her forehead and cheeks became tauter, had I not known her I would have thought she’d had a facelift. It happened gradually, not from one day to the next, and I also became aware of it only little by little – one day I felt that her smile lost its sarcastic edge and suddenly started to spill over like a puddle because there was nothing to hold it back; on another occasion I missed the contemplative furrows on her brow, but thought it was just a one-off rather than an ongoing process.

Soon he realized that the change was permanent, as if she was showing another face or, as he would begin to see in time, another soul. Strange behavioural shifts that signaled a loss of cognitive function, forgetfulness, disorientation, and anxiety became more frequent. But Čimborazka is reluctant to acknowledge the significance. He describes himself as self-focused person  and confesses that in the past there had been so much about her that he had not cared to appreciate. As she starts to slip away, he feels shame. And shame is a complicated emotion, eliciting a mix of guilt and defiance.

At first he is in denial. He tests her, more for his own comfort than her benefit, but it make her annoyed and proves nothing more than a steady decline. The avalanche is already burying her. As her illness progresses he is forced into a caregiving role. He tends to her body, washing her now as if she was a small child, but her soul is increasingly hidden as she retreats into a present and a past in which he no longer has a place. He struggles to redefine love against the pain of loss, trying to love what remains of her, but it is not easy:

The word love is so popular because anyone is free to make it mean whatever they like – some might see it as a fusion of bodies, others as a fusion of souls. It is the latter who usually end up disappointed… But there are moments when two souls, even if travelling in opposite directions, pass each other and exchange a friendly wave, like tram drivers who work the same route. Now I realise that all one can expect of love are these precious, fleeting moments of intimacy.

But what if one of the drivers is suddenly assigned a different route?

The avalanche, that unstoppable force of nature that he fears throughout is, of course, a metaphor for the loss of memory—individual or collective. In concert with the account of his wife’s illness, it becomes the metaphorical windmill against which our hero tilts. As he starts to fear the avalanche’s inevitable approach  he seeks a spiritual answers, wants to understand the nature of being, even tries yoga. His friend Štefan, of course, tries to provide the practical, scientific angle, yet he remains determined to find a way to buffer his own soul against the vagaries of time. Spiritual exercise, he hopes, will help him build resistance against “the disease called life.”

Pavel Vilikovský is recognized as one of the most prominent authors of post-Communist Central Europe. In this creatively structured short novel, he presents, in Čimborazka, a digressive, eccentric narrator, reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal’s loquacious protagonists. The lighthearted tone at the opening belies the depth. The humour, the philosophical questing, the digressions about love and language, the pragmatic counterpoint offered by Štefan, and the metaphorical avalanche nest a complex of painful and difficult emotions that the loss of memory engenders. The result is a multi-layered story that raises many questions—the kinds without easy answers.

Fleeting Snow by Pavel Vilikovský is translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood, and published by Istros Books. An excerpt can be found at B O D Y.

In praise of independent publishing and a link to my interview with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books

It is no secret to regular readers of my blog that I am a great admirer of Seagull Books and that earlier this year I travelled to India, a visit in part motivated by a desire to visit the offices of one of my favourite independent publishers. Admittedly some of my non-bookish friends wondered at my choice of destination, the city as much as the country. Because there is a publisher you want to meet? But if Seagull’s presence in Calcutta offered me an excuse to spend a couple of weeks in a place I had only idly imagined I’d ever be able to visit, it was a trip I undertook on my own, at my own expense. And along the way, another independent publisher that I strongly believe was also part of my journey.

Passing through London on route to Delhi, I selected a flight schedule that would allow me to make a detour into the city for a short visit. (As much as I’d love to spend more time in London it is beyond my means.) There I had lunch with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, the tireless publisher (editor, chief cook and bottle-washer) of Istros Books. Specializing in literature from the Balkans and South-East Europe, Istros is dedicated to discovering and promoting exciting, challenging new works from the region. Their philosophy is that “quality knows no borders.” Over the past few years, Susan has become a friend and inspiration. This year, because I wisely decided not to try to navigate London on my own as I did a few years back, we had time for more than a rushed coffee.  We managed to fit in lunch at the British Museum, a stroll through the Assyrian exhibit, tea with poet and translator Stephen Watts (whose partner has translated work for Seagull because, of course, it is a small world), and even a quick stop at the LRB Bookshop! Both of these  publishing ventures have several important things in common. They are willing to engage with their readers, booksellers and reviewers. They submit their books for awards. They are supportive of other independent publishers and understand the importance of facilitating connections, not building walls. They are not unique in this, but surprisingly there are some independent publishers who do not seem inclined to make the effort. And it shows. Translated and non-mainstream literary circles are very small and many of us who read and write about these literatures are relatively isolated from like-minded souls. The conversation is critical and it does help promote and sell books. And it helps make life just a little bit richer too.

This connection between reader and publisher (or rather the vision or philosophy that a publisher inspires) is one of the subjects I wanted to pursue in  the conversation I had with Naveen Kishore of Seagull Books, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine. He is, naturally, looking at the big picture against my individual perspective, and yet responds with the grace and wisdom he is widely respected for and that has served him well, against all odds, for over thirty-five years. You can find my piece here.

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As an added note, Seagull has recently learned they have to relocate and are looking to find a new home in South Calcutta. I hope they are able to secure a suitable space soon. When they do, perhaps I’ll have to go back to check it out…

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.

All is riddle: The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth by Dana Todorović

At the heart of Puccini’s final opera, Turandot, is a series of riddles which the ice princess presents to Prince Calaf, her eager suitor. Any wrong answer would mean death. When his successful solutions fail to win her affection, he counters with a riddle of his own. And his is a wager with an equally high risk. He tells her that if she can correctly discover his name by the following day, he will die at daybreak. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that The Tragic Fate of Moritz Tóth, a novel in which Turandot plays a pivotal role, seems to unfold as a number of riddles—or situations that are difficult to explain—that serve to lead and mislead the characters, and the reader, along the way. 

This short but ambitious novel by Serbian writer Dana Todorović, is one of the new titles in the third round of the Peter Owen World Series, published in collaboration with Istros Books. By employing two stylistically different, but interconnected storylines, Todorović crafts an accessible, inventive exploration of a number of classic literary themes: the nature of good and evil, predestination versus freewill, the redemptive power of art, and the soullessness of modern bureaucratic society. The result is an entertaining, thoughtful read, with a twist that few are likely to see coming.

The titular Moritz Tóth narrates his own story. He is a former punk rocker with a tendency to moody melodrama, at a loss following the death of a woman he had loved. He has been though some rough stretches and his past will leak out in erratic confessions over time, but at the outset he is simply in need of a job. When the employment agency calls, he has little option but to answer. And so this most unlikely candidate ends up as a prompter for a forgetful Calaf in a run of Turandot at the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. However, Moritz’s first exposure to opera reawakens in him a long forgotten passion for the violin. As a child he had fiddled Gypsy tunes with his musician grandfather until, in the throes of adolescent rebellion, he had traded his violin for an electric guitar and turned his attention to punk.

The second storyline, narrated in third person, has a more directly fantastical and allegorical quality. Tobias Keller, Adviser for Moral Issues with the Office of the Great Overseer has been summoned to appear before a Disciplinary Committee. Against the codified regulations of this bureaucratic version of heaven, Tobias has been charged with engaging his own freewill in an attempt to influence the circumstances of an individual whose activities he was monitoring. To have acted without following protocol and obtaining permission from above, may well cost him his job. He is accused of triggering a sequence of events designed to involve an intermediary to exert an influence on his subject—one Moritz Tóth. But Tobias has no regrets. He is proud of the outcome, even if, in the end, it actually meant following his own beliefs and defying the norms of the celestial bureaucracy in which he was expected to function. He tells the committee:

‘In my youth, while on a perpetual search for new knowledge and insight, I would often wonder if there was a straw we humans could grasp at to give meaning to our lives, considering that we are deprived of the ability to penetrate the truths of our existence.

‘Then I realized that it all comes down to conviction, or faith, if you will, with which methods of reason share no common ground. And my convictions tell me that if we exclude factors over which humans clearly have no influence, such as the laws of nature, if we exclude situations in which the human being is physically prevented from acting upon their will, then it would be far more beneficial for the human race if each of its members carried within themselves the awareness of the freedom to choose as a birthright, or if they prefer, an inherited burden on their shoulders.’

The two narratives alternate, chapter by chapter Tobias faces repeated challenges against his impulsive action in a system in which honourable intentions appear to have no value, while Moritz becomes aware of a strange character who seems to be following him. This creature’s presence and the appearance of a number of signs that seem to hold prophetic significance, deepen his paranoia and anxiety. As he attempts to solve the chain of riddles confronting him, he begins to suspect he’s the victim of a diabolical plot of Biblical proportions. His wild imagination gets the better of him, threatening his rational judgement altogether. But, what is the true connection, if any, between Tobias’ action and the increasingly strange circumstances in which our hapless former punk has found himself?

The exact nature of the connection remains unclear until the closing pages. Todorović manages to build a complex plot that raises some very profound questions, and present them in an original context. This is, however, a first novel and translated by the author herself. It is impossible to know how much the language might be, in such a circumstance, altered for an English speaking audience. It is worth noting that the narrative can, at times, get weighed down by awkward transitions and clichéd metaphors and similes. It is not enough to detract from what is a highly engaging tale, but it can occasionally strike a sour note.

Ultimately, the real charm of The Tragic Fate of Mortiz Tóth lies in the riddles posed, reminding us, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously advised: “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. All is riddle, and the key to a riddle is another riddle.”

The Tragic Fate of Mortiz Tóth by Dana Todorović is translated by the author and published as part of the Peter Owen World Series: Serbia, a collaboration between Peter Owen Publishers and Istros Books.