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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