Category Archives: Istros Books

Review: Marina Šur Puhlovski, Wild Woman

Translated from Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorič (Istros Books, 2019).

Wild Woman is set in 1970s Yugoslavia, and we meet the narrator on the third day after the end of her marriage. She is holed up in her apartment, mess and disorder turning to filth and despair around her as she contemplates the three days that have passed since this cataclysmic event, and ponders her ability to leave the apartment and begin living again. Two stories unfold at once: the real-time story of a woman “falling apart at the age of twenty-six” and the story of her past self, the one who brought her to this place of abjection and whose life clings to her “like an amputated limb that still hurts.” The narrator is brittle, defensive and angry – and this makes for an explosive narrative that pulls no punches either in its exploration of human grief or in its indictment of a social system that leaves women without agency or autonomy. She falls in love and marries young – against her mother’s advice – but soon finds that the charming, attentive and soulful man she fell in love with was something of a con. Before long he is disappearing for long stretches of time with no explanation, and she is imprisoned in a marital role of acceptance and silence. When he falls ill, she discovers that a secret has been hidden from her, but by now she is shackled to a him, “a prisoner of this relationship,” forced to care for him and provide for him – she writes articles under his name – even though their relationship was built on deception.

Our wild woman is introspective enough to be self-deprecating: she wanted to make a man fall in love with her by the sweep of her skirt and the intensity of her expression – but simultaneously wanted this to be a true meeting of minds, a relationship that (as any self-respecting young existentialist in the 1970s would wish) emulates Sartre and de Beauvoir. Lofty ambitions, and she is not above poking fun at herself for having had them: “But like all stupid twenty-year-olds I had decided to get my way, because you’re indescribably stupid when you’re barely twenty and haven’t yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours…” With the perspective of her newly single state, she is able to see every point at which she was naïve, oblivious or overly forgiving – but this is not a story of self-flagellation, for her greatest disdain is rightly reserved for her “beloved”, her “one and only” – a man never named, but only called by various terms of endearment which, with the benefit of hindsight, are dripping with irony and contempt.

The first thing that struck me about both the story and the translation was the length of the sentences: there is a breathlessness here – not a vapid one, but rather one that conveys the narrator’s need to vent her anger after a lifetime of censorship, an outpouring which mostly happens in multiple clauses that crash urgently towards a conclusion. This must have been quite a challenge to translate: the information structure as well as the syntax may shift between languages, and content-wise there was a lot to keep on top of within each sentence. Christina Pribichevich-Zorič has pulled it off superbly, though, keeping the narrative voice consistent in both cadence and tone and revelling in a variety and depth of vocabulary that was a joy to read.

Another strength of this novel is the cast of unremittingly loathsome supporting characters. From the widowed mother – beleaguered by poverty under communism and the loss of her deceased husband’s meagre pension – who can summon up compassion for almost anyone but her own daughter (“Poor man, my mother whispers in my ear, my mother for whom everybody is always poor except me”) to the excruciatingly awkward best friend hopelessly in love with the narrator and the feckless, self-absorbed man she chooses to marry, there is a humanity to every character (though mostly showcasing the less pleasant side of humanity, it must be said). Even the memory of the narrator’s dead father is no comfort: he beat her throughout her life, and after his death she promptly moved her husband into the family home “as if I couldn’t live without being hit.” But don’t feel exasperated with her if a negative cycle is perpetuated, for in her world “women don’t choose.” Trapped into silence by an older generation that thinks she must simply keep quiet and endure, she maintains the façade of a happy marriage and a fulfilled life even though her internal monologue reminds us that this is far from a truthful representation. She even goes as far as to call herself a madwoman – though to any discerning reader, it is clear where the real madness lies. Šur Puhlovski is not afraid to point this out, and has a penchant for doing it in a flash of lucidity at the end of a lengthy tirade: “My sense of direction is so bad that I wouldn’t know where I was even if somebody dropped me down in the middle of Republic Square, I’ve been known to say. People answer by saying that most women are like that, they have no sense of space. Interesting, because that means something, except, I wonder, why don’t women have a sense of space, or of time, because time is space, so maybe it’s because they have a sense of eternity.”

I was expecting the narrative to unfold in a slightly different way than it ultimately did: the hints at “going wild” had made me anticipate some sort of feral twist or return to nature via a rejection of “civilisation”, but in fact this is not what the “wildness” represents (and the story is better for that). The narrator is constrained in the society of her time, but must “shed the self-image they slipped on me like an invisible dress,” and  Wild Woman is the start of that transformation: it is a whirlwind ride inside the mind of a woman let down by society and by her own role within it – a ride with an uncertain destination, for she does not know if she will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her past life, or simply turn to dust and disappear – but it’s well worth accompanying her for the stage of the journey she invites us to share.

Review copy of Wild Woman provided by Istros Books

A road trip to remember: Olja Savičević, Singer in the Night

Translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (Istros Books, 2019)

Singer in the Night is the second novel by Croatian author Olja Savičević; the narrator tells us that it is “a story about life”, and encompassed within this is a story about love and memory, and their attendant joys and losses. Both hilarious and profound, this book is a reflection on the ways we love, the paths we choose, the exhilaration and peril of being open to new experiences and the stagnation and dessication of choosing safety and banality over desire and dreams.

Singer in the Night is mostly narrated by Clementine, an eccentric soap opera scriptwriter. Clementine is a “blonde orange” with silicon lips and whitened teeth who gave up on art and followed money and popularity, for “people needed a lot of cheap, quick emotion, they needed it in greater quantities than it was possible to produce … Let’s face it, gunk has moved the vast majority of people and filled their thoughts probably more than the best work of art ever could.” Clementine hasn’t seen her ex-husband – the elusive poet Nightingale – in some time, but she is jolted into going in search of him when he disappears after leaving a series of letters for his neighbours in Split. The letters have been written in response to a bout of loud lovemaking in one of the buildings on the street; in this hot summer with all the windows open, the sounds of passion have carried, and inspired Nightingale to write from a variety of perspectives about love. There is no trace of Nightingale in Split; he has not been in contact with his friends and family, and even the yacht that he still co-owns with Clementine has been abandoned. Cue Clementine climbing into her golden convertible car and embarking on an unforgettable journey from Slovenia through Croatia to Bosnia in search of her lost love. Along the way she recounts her memories, which she sees “as though through polished glass”, and which are interspersed with the letters from Nightingale.

Nightingale’s letters delight in the possibilities of language; he is “a ruler over words and colours” who explores the breadth of lyric expression with his shrewd observations about society and human nature. Though they are ostensibly about the lovers keeping the street awake on the hot summer nights, this is really just a pretext to talk about love (“where the heart is not free there cannot be love”), resistance (“Why would a child write if it was well?”), politics (“People constantly sing about freedom, but at the same time with all their limbs, including their tongue, they stay on the border”), and a range of other musings on war, (anti)heroism, contingency, and life in all its chaos.

While Nightingale’s missives are poetically crafted, there are occasionally some unexpected turns of phrase in Clementine’s monologue. Given how distinctive the writing style is and how renowned Celia Hawkesworth is, I rather suspect they may have been there in the original too; I found the extended use of the imperative mood quite marked, but I can’t imagine that “Let mother come home soon” was chosen over, say, “I wish mother would come home soon” or “if only mother would come home soon” without a lot of thought, or that “starkers people” was chosen as a childlike colloquialism for naturists without deliberation over its unusualness. Clementine is a unique character, and so I suppose it follows that she has a unique way of speaking, which Hawkesworth conveys ably in the translation. The repeated use of “my dear” creates intimacy and hints at Clementine’s raconteur personality; it is an affected way of speaking that indicates the milieu in which she operates but also a form of self-address, as she is recording her voice for herself. For Clementine, we discover, is suffering from a progressive memory loss, and does not want to forget the detail of her life –particularly not its joys and its passions – and for this she needs to evoke Nightingale, the lost love of her life.

The final section of the novel is the one in which Nightingale finally speaks as a character, rather than through his letters. We find out why he left and how he perceives Clementine, as well as more detail on his life philosophies. But Clementine’s own story is also full of thought-provoking pathos: Savičević is a socially engaged writer, aware that “it’s the duty of anyone living in a dystopia to create a utopia.” Her narrative calls into question the world that she and her contemporaries inherited, Clementine’s personal tragedy mirroring the historical amnesia that post-war societies slip into, both encompassed in a phrase which could sum up the entire book: “what keeps us going is memory.”

If the narrative is disorientating at times, this is indicative of Clementine’s own confusion, her road trip an apt metaphor for the narrative ride she takes us on. Her outpourings fill the silences of a relationship and a youth that have faded away, and are populated by a cast of eccentric supporting characters, from the fearless, hairless Helanka and her twin daughters Billy Goat and Arrow to Clementine’s platonic “comrade” second husband Bert and her failed movie-mogul-turned producer Kalemengo. Part road trip, part social comment, part metaphor and part love story, above all this is an exploration of memory, with some fittingly memorable twists along the way. It is not Nightingale that Clementine is moving towards on this turbulent journey, but her past, her memories, and herself. This reflection on the fragility of memory – both personal and historical – is a poignant, innovative and politically engaged book that deserves attention.

Olja Savičević will be at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on Sunday 18 August.

Review copy of Singer in the Night provided by Istros Books.