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Reviewed by Hannah Weber

A successful soap-opera writer struggling with memory loss sets off on a quest to find her vanished first husband in this new book by the Croatian novelist, poet, and playwright.

Singer in the Night, by Croatian novelist, poet, and playwright Olja Savičević, may look like a conventional road-trip novel, but it is far from it. To start with, our protagonist is no existential young man but a middle-aged woman, the soap-opera writer Clementine. After an accident leaves her struggling with memory loss, she jumps into her golden Mazda convertible to look for her vanished first husband—ostensibly not for sentimental reasons but to retrieve the keys to her boat, on which he’s occasionally lived since their split. And rather than taking to the clichéd highways through the American West, she traverses back roads to remote farms and over borders from Croatia into Bosnia, where, she laments, “the road swallowed me sullenly.” 

Clementine’s estranged ex-husband, Nightingale—known to his friends as simply “Gale”—is an artist whose commitment to provocative art and desertion of the war effort in the 1990s is at odds with the hostile, nationalist world around him. The novel opens with letters from Gale to the residents of his beloved Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, in a neighborhood of dense concrete Communist-era apartment buildings, a far cry from the medieval old town that graces tourist brochures. By delivering the letters to all the street’s residents, he hopes to reach the unknown couple whose loud nighttime copulation is keeping the entire block awake and ask them—politely—to keep it down. The real purpose of the letters, however, appears to be to inform the neighborhood that he is leaving and to write an elegy for his life there. Rather than seeing the beauty in his latest artistic endeavor, the recipients collect and present the letters to the police, prompting Gale to disappear.

When Clementine finds the boat in question still in its mooring in Split but with no keys in sight, her one-woman search party for her former husband merges with an internal journey reflecting on their shared past and piecing together the parts that prove most difficult to recollect. Along the way, she meets Gale’s curmudgeonly mother, a bald woman raising her twins, Billy Goat and Arrow, on a Bosnian homestead, and a cow named Lily Allen. Savičević has a knack for talking about the solemn and serious with a laugh in her throat, evident in the details—unusual names, eccentric art, and garish automobiles.

Translator Celia Hawkesworth’s contribution to Clementine’s unique voice and endearing personality cannot be overstated. Hawkesworth demonstrates the remarkable ability to translate dialect convincingly—including a jittery, clipped local tongue (“Stone ve crows. I mus’ be dreamin’”). Clementine’s own speech and internal dialogues with herself, in a city dweller's dialect punctuated by plenty of darlings and my dears, naturally differentiates her from the others. She speaks directly to the reader in chapters packed with detours and backstories but infused with the kind of warmth one feels in the company of an old friend. The oscillation between the different voices in Gale’s artistic letters and in Clementine's story can be disorienting at first, but this effect might be seen as a consequence of Clementine’s memory loss—she, too, struggles to keep up with her own narrative. It may take some time to find your footing in this novel, but it is worth persevering to go along for the ride. 

Part of what makes Clementine so appealing is her perceptiveness on feminist issues and women’s lives. This is made apparent through subtle, sometimes painfully revealing passages:

Ma was left utterly alone. [. . .] The fact that two children sat there with her made her, if it was possible, still more alone.

She also recalls that as a young woman, she watched Gale fall in love with her and, instead of falling for him, fell in love with herself—and her creativity. Her unabashed justification for making “low art” in the form of soap operas also speaks against the dismissal of women’s writing as “chick lit.” While she found fame and fortune writing soap operas in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, Gale berated her for selling out:

Gale, my by-then already former husband, called and said:

"Aren’t you a little ashamed? [. . .]"

"You know what they say: you can’t dream, or think, or write without dinner," I replied.

"Who said that? Jackie Collins?"

"No." (Virginia Woolf, in heaven’s name, you clown.)

Her advocacy for the role of popular art boils down to biting criticism of governments, tourism boards, investors, artists, and other “cultural gatekeepers.” Speaking of her soaps, she says, tongue-in-cheek:

Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years.

In stark contrast to this are Gale’s letters. While some of his experimental writing drags on (“Why, from my finger sprang the mango, the peacock’s tail, Sophie Loren.”)—almost ostentatious in comparison to Clementine’s witty, enigmatic, and entertaining narration—it is in his overt political manifestos that the letters read most beautifully and true:

. . . 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. . .

Though she is said to be part of the “lost generation”—those who grew up in Yugoslavia, lived through a war, and found that the country of their birth no longer existed on the other side—Savičević mentions war only to the extent that it affects human relationships and human experience. Gale’s role as a deserter affects his relationships forever. Clementine’s postwar fortunes are marred by a sense of contributing to nationalism with her soap writing. As Clementine clings to her disappearing memories, she gradually draws closer to understanding, as the publisher, Istros Books, so aptly states, the “consequences of choosing banality—whether it be nationalism, vanity, or fame—over true human connection.” 

At times, the novel is unapologetically sentimental and brazenly riotous, a pure delight in the vein of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Clementine is a memorable protagonist: chatty and beguiling, insightful and shrewd, even if sometimes it seems she loses the thread of her own narrative. Like all road-trip stories, Clementine’s quest to find Gale is not about the destination. Its strength lies in its many digressions and loose ends, which come together in an imaginative novel on love, art, nationhood, and memory.

from the January 2020 issue

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from the January 2020 issue

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[Bitenê dînê bajar li bajar dimîne,]

Bitenê dînê bajar li bajar dimîne,
xwas, di şevên sar, xurxura gulleyan…

Wê li ser çi bitirse?!
Ne zarokek li pey wî,
ne kişwerek ji pêvî bajar,
kêferata ku dike!!

Qîr dike kesên ku bajar bi tenê dihêlin,
weke ku aqilê wî
yê mayî bi xwe re biribin, bêçixare mabe!!

Qîr dike li bin baranan,
li valahiya derdora xwe dinihêre,
li rêyan,
li bajar,
sîwana herî nêzîk dibijêre,
û radize weke ku tiştek nebûyî!!

Read more from the January 2020 issue
from the January 2020 issue

[Divê saet 3.00 yê ber destê sibê şiyar bibim û biçim kar jî.]

Divê saet 3.00 yê ber destê sibê şiyar bibim û biçim kar jî.
min ji xwe re got ma çê nabe tu ranezê û here kar
an razê û yekcar nere kar
an jî ne razê û ne jî here kar
ev a dawî kete serê min
wek xarekê berû xêzê de bigindire.
min çavên xwe vekirin.
çip çipa baranê bû.
hinekan bi çakûçan di hundirê disteke mezin de di orta serê min de lêdixistin.
sirûda kar a nûjen şayik dikirin.
destên bavê min î zivrî henûn lihêfa min bû.
nameyek ji min re hatibû tê de danînî bû ku ez zarok im .
nizanim ev pesin e an serhavde ye?
xweska zarok bama
û li ber dengê çirçirkan
di çermê ku mihemed bi destê xwe carekê jê kiribû
bi ser livînê xwe de min bimîztana, û bela çerçefa ku min bi ser de bimîztana
ala welatê min bana.

 

[Serê min nêzîkî derî bû.]

Serê min nêzîkî derî bû.
dibe ji derî jî nêzîktir bû.
ew û depoya mazotê wek hev vala bûn.
200 hezar kirêya malê ji min dihate xwestin, û ji pêvî 12 libên reşreşkên ku ji ber penêrê taştê
ma bûn tiştek li ba min tune bû.
xwedîyê malê sênîk dişuştin.
camên derî şikestî bûn.
nigên ku berû derî ve biçin şikestî bûn .
û devên ku diva bû spasdarî û lêborînê jî bixwazin şikestî bûn.
ji pêvî 12 libên reşreşkên ku ji ber penêrê taştê ma bûn tiştek li ba min tune bû.

Read more from the January 2020 issue
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[Bi termê helbesteke mirî re]

Bi termê helbesteke mirî re
diaxivim
Bi çermê laşê şevê re
diaxivim
Bi neynokên zuha yên destên xwe yên sist re diaxivim
Bi neyinka şikestî ya odeya xwe ya tarî û vala re dixavim
Bi pirtûkên te yên danehevkirî re
diaxivim
Bi tenêtiyê re diaxivim
Bi tenêtiya bejna siya xwe û te re
diaxivim
Lê huşbûna hîsa bêdengiya narvîna rûtirş tê guhê min
Ez jî di agirê bêdengiyê de bêdeng dibim

Read more from the January 2020 issue
from the January 2020 issue

Reviewed by Yael Halevi-Wise

The trauma of a terrorist attack and the disillusion of unrequited love haunt the protagonist of a new novel by the Israeli author, in whose work the past usually returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair.

In a 2007 interview with journalist Rochelle Furstenberg, Zeruya Shalev said that her writing seeks “the opposite of the public domain. I want to capture the nuances of the inner life.” This assertion notwithstanding, her sixth novel, Pain, wades into contemporary Middle Eastern politics to establish a rather problematic comparison between the pain caused by a terrorist act and the trauma caused when naïve illusions of perfect love are destroyed. Shalev brings these two domains—public and private traumas with their respective complications—together through the figure of a “pain doctor,” whom the heroine, Iris, consults about the aftereffects of an injury that she has sustained in a terrorist act. 

The healer who might help Iris manage her physical injury turns out to be her long-lost lover, now a doctor, whom she paradoxically blames for having inflicted upon her the most intense suffering she has ever known. The plot thus remains firmly tethered to the inner world and domestic drama of a woman at the turn of the twenty-first century in Israel. Like her creator, Shalev’s heroine insists on her right to privilege private demands over broader societal concerns.

This comes as little surprise, as the novel’s origins are highly personal. In 2004, Shalev herself was wounded by a suicide bomber who killed eleven bus passengers and injured many others one busy morning in Jerusalem. She underwent complex surgery for her injuries, followed by four months of physical therapy during which she felt that she would never write fiction again. A decade and two novels later, however, Shalev has produced a work that inserts her personal experience into that of a middle-aged, middle-class woman struggling with a many-layered history of unhealed traumas. 

In the typical Shalev novel, the past returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair—Love Life (1997) and The Remains of Love (2011) come readily to mind. In Pain, translated into English by Sondra Silverston, Shalev reveals both the complications of revisiting the past and the tendency of doing so to liberate and heal her heroines. 

Throughout the novel, Iris acknowledges that her body and soul may be irrevocably damaged; yet she insists on fulfilling her responsibilities in both work and family life. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist bombing that drove nails, shrapnel, and rat poison into her limbs, she is seized by a debilitating pain that makes it almost impossible to juggle her responsibilities as a mother of two children, wife to a computer analyst, and principal of a school that prides itself on helping faltering students succeed. Her physical pain is further exacerbated by two older wounds of a psychological nature: her abandonment by the young man she loved in her youth—now her “pain doctor”—and a childhood spent in a fatherless home after hers died in one of Israel’s early wars. 

As fresh pain adds to older woes, Iris keeps going. She never allows herself to vent her anger on the man who maimed her body. Instead, she delves deep into her past. She analyzes her relationship with her father, her exorbitant attachment to her first boyfriend, and her lukewarm interest in her husband. Shalev's novel as a whole thus avoids engaging with the public domain in any meaningful way, except—indirectly and intertextually—through the protagonist’s work as an educator and school principal. However, the parallel that this novel creates between Iris’s youthful heartbreak and her wounds caused by a terrorist act, seem to suggest, simplistically, that the trauma in both cases can be transcended through the brave confrontation of both painful past and a painful present.

In a newsletter that Iris prepares for her pupils’ parents, she resolves to “breathe life” into a “tired time,” averring that,“if something can still change, that’s when it will, in the tension between memory and renewal.” When Iris rekindles the relationship that gave her so much joy and sorrow in her youth, she must choose between maintaining a steadfast commitment to the family that she has nurtured so carefully and satisfying a lifelong yearning that suddenly enables her to transcend her physical limitations. Either choice is heroic. 

One of the only ways in which Shalev endows her writing with a broader historical outlook is through allusions to key episodes from the Bible. At one point, Iris' monthly newletter to the parents of her pupils alludes to a painful moment of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers after he reveals himself to them in Egypt: “How can Joseph truly reconcile with those who have inflicted such a mortal blow on him?” This blunt question, which comes closest to enunciating what we keep wondering about the terrorist who inflicted such a blow on Iris herself, opens up an additional interpretative link between the novel’s disparate realms, highlighting that Iris lives “between miracles and disasters,” to quote Shalev’s description of her own life spent in a region where at any moment she might be called upon to pay a heavy price for her existence.*

Popular both in Israel and abroad, notably in Germany and Italy, Shalev’s novels portray a slice of contemporary Israeli life through passionate love affairs that encompass several generations mired in fraught relationships. This novel is in much the same vein and will have particular appeal to readers of the “sandwich” generation caught between caring for elderly parents and parenting young adults not quite ready to fly on their own. Here, as trauma builds upon trauma and Iris keeps searching for a way out of her troubles, it becomes clear that neither her emotional nor physical pain can ever abate. She concentrates nevertheless on enabling the next generation to carry on with the struggle for survival and normalcy and through this empowerment, she transcends her own limitations.

from the January 2020 issue

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from the December 2019 issue

Reviewed by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

A remarkable novel about the traces left by the Chilean dictatorship in the lives of children explores the tension between the unsaid and shreds of remembrance that acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.


As I write this review, Chileans are on the streets, dealing once again with the limits and injustices of the neoliberal model, first imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and currently advanced by the government of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera. As people hit the streets, fed up with decades of policies that have intensified class inequalities across the country, the fiction of Chile as a model of free-market success and democratic neoliberalism is crumbling, and the legacies of the dictatorial period are once again palpable in the streets, from the carabineros arresting middle schoolers participating in demonstrations, to Piñera’s declaration that his government is at war with its own citizens. Looking at the wounds of the neoliberal process in Chile, visible in such a stark way in the past few weeks, it is not surprising that a new generation of writers in the country has developed around narrating and making sense of both the unresolved traumas of the dictatorship and the contradictions of a country that continued to enact the policies of the military regime well into its democratic transition.

Chilean literature is booming, built by new generations of writers born right before, during, and after the Pinochet regime, who deal with the heavy history that haunts them. Some of them deal with it indirectly, as if addressing it by evasion, while others prefer frontal engagement, but in both cases the roster of writers is truly exceptional: Álvaro Bisama, Alejandra Costamagna, Claudia Ulloa Donoso, Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane are but a few of them. Translation is finally doing justice to this generation. Readers can find the works of Zambra and Meruane readily available, and the novel The Remainder, a postdictatorial work by Alia Trabucco Zerán, one of the youngest of the bunch, recently made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist.

Nona Fernández is one of the most fascinating writers in this group and an artist of many talents. Besides her career as a fiction author, she is a well-regarded television writer and a theater actor. Her literary success in Spanish, particularly beyond Chile, came from the wide acclaim for her novel La dimensión desconocida (The Twilight Zone, 2016), winner of the prestigious Sor Juana International Award, granted to the best book in Spanish written by a woman. In the book, a nonfiction narrative—an interview with a military officer published in 1984, in which the interviewee confesses to being a torturer and killer for the regime—intersects with an autofictional arc constructed on the memories triggered by the interview. This novel, which is both her most famous work and, arguably, her best one, turned Fernández into a household name in Latin American letters, and I hope an English translation will come soon.

English-language readers now have the opportunity to enjoy Fernández’s brilliant fiction thanks to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of her short novel Space Invaders. Published in Spanish in 2013, Space Invaders is a polyphonic novel about the traces that the dictatorship left in the lives and memories of children growing up in the seventies and eighties. As with The Twilight Zone, the title of Space Invaders is a temporal marker, in reference to the Atari game that was popular during the protagonists’ childhood. The novel is centered on a group of young adults who, as primary school classmates, experienced the silences and terrors of everyday life under Pinochet. The group’s collective remembrance of their classmate, Estrella González Jepsen, the daughter of a major official in the dictatorship who ultimately leaves for Germany, gives structure to the book. The novel functions as an (incomplete) reconstruction by the characters' older selves of traumatic events, oftentimes remembered in dreamlike ways, with traces of everyday terror: a teacher who freezes when a child asks what it means to be involved in politics, two young men killed by the police in a slum, the games that internalize military culture and patriotism in the children’s minds. The story is told in very short episodes, traversing the memories of various characters as well as the innocent letters they write to each other as a symbol of their childhood friendship.

The perspective of children of Southern Cone military dictatorships has become a significant theme both in literature and in cinema of the past two decades. Iconic films from Chile and Argentina—like Andrés Wood’s Machuca and Paula Markovitch’s El Premio—have become leading works on the dictatorial experience. Novels like Zerán’s The Remainder and Fernández’s The Twilight Zone and Space Invaders have consecrated what Zambra calls “literatura de hijos,” the literary reckoning of the generation after the one that perpetrated and suffered the dictatorship itself. Space Invaders is both iconic and unique in this group due to its literary economy. All the themes of literatura de hijos are present: the inability to grasp the present, the trauma of recognizing events post-factum, the unexpected ways in which the past catches up with the characters. At the same time, the contrast between the book’s minimalist tone and its complex structure creates a distinctive reading experience based on the slippages between memory and experience. It is a book fully built on the tension between the unsaid and the shreds of narrative that are casually dropped on the reader’s lap and acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.

Wimmer is as ideal a translator as Fernández’s work could hope for. Known primarily for her exceptional translations of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, Wimmer performs a masterful work in conveying a style that, at times, is the polar opposite of Bolaño’s proliferating prose. Reading the Spanish and English versions side by side, one can see how Wimmer balances her translation, giving the book discursive flow while keeping both the distinction between voices and Fernández’s uncanny ability to weave key elements of the narrative into casual statements.

Space Invaders is a compelling and insightful work of literature from a truly talented fiction writer. It is my hope that this is only the first of her works to appear in English and that The Twilight Zone or Mapocho, Fernández’s deep historical and environmental novel, will follow suit.

from the December 2019 issue

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