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from the January 2020 issue

A Balkan Road Trip Leads to a Reckoning with the Past in Olja Savičević‘s “Singer in the Night”

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.

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