A SIGNIFICANT SWITCH TO PRIVATE LIFE
translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster
The last decade of the 20th and the first of the 21st century, or so it seems to me from my very likely at least a little subjective viewpoint, somehow were fonder of novels than of short stories or novellas. Irrespective of everything that the history of literature has long since taught us, concerning the fact that all literary kinds have their phases and changes and fit into the general social and poetic trends and fashions, and thus go through their flowerings and their crises, in the last ten years or so a kind of novel trend has prevailed, fairly inflated by external, non-literary aids. The novel, that is, is still the one that the media, in their universal aim of reducing topics from the arts and writing to as few lines as possible, have somehow nevertheless been accepted and reviewed, novels on the whole getting the more important literary prizes, young writers make their debuts with novels, and figures about how individual prose titles are sold and read (at least in Croatia, but I would think it is the same in the context of the whole wider region) clearly show that the reading public, if anything, is reading just this ‘major’ prose genre.
But since in literature it is seldom that anything can be reduced to statistics and the laws of large numbers, clearly, all that has been said has its own big and weighty but. Irrespective of the real or apparent, above all, numerical, dominance of the novel, the short prose form, the story, has not in the last few years, in any segment or in any of the national literatures of the region shown any sign of surrender. Indeed, a mere cursory glance, which can be made with a very simple Web search, shows and proves the existence of many competitions for short stories, with larger or smaller prizes, works by several hands are published, festivals of a regional or larger international character are held, and many distinguished and well-reputed writers, even those who are just aspiring to be so, publish collections of tales that, I would say, constitute a section of prose literature that is even more interesting and more creative. The tale, by definition, is less apt to ingratiate itself with current fashions and trends, and because of its character does not even pretend to represent any totality or cover a more complex image of the world; rather, it addresses the detail that tells of the whole, is in a sense less inclined to enrol ideological and other admixtures in its ranks. The tale is, which is not unimportant and ought not to be forgotten when it is facilely placed on the margins of prose writing, that which shows, more directly, fewer figures and just fragments of events, and so leaves the reader the creative opportunity to fill in gaps, and leaves empty spaces in which the reader can, and indeed has to, take part, which at the time of the prevalence of writing for fun and leisure, has become a neglected and almost forgotten readerly characteristic and task. In a shorter prose form the use of experimental narrative techniques is almost a must, more frequent than in the novel, and hence it is understood that as such it will have fewer readers and less media attention; but it is the greatest literary love of authors for whom experiment, creativity and literariness are more important than the numbers of copies borrowed in libraries or places on the best-sellers list. In today’s day, the writing of the short story has become a kind of writer’s extravagance, which, luckily, many important, fine and competent literary names are still willing to go in for, without keeping their thumbs crossed behind their backs. Looking to confirm this proposition is this representative selection from the currently large and variegated production of this short prose genre in the region.
Today the tale is lively, vivacious and, in terms of its formal and thematic features, important. A year or so ago in this kind of text I would have certainly mentioned the dominance of the model of critical mimesis or, put colloquially, realistic prose, which is characterised by the interest of the writers in the reality that surrounds them, and the very unambiguous attitude adopted to this same reality. The literary treatment of everyday motifs and topics, often those that fall within the domain of the crime pages, and the recognisable attitude of the narrator to them, from humour to really polemical disputation, dominated the prose literature of the region until very recent times. Literature has, with greater or lesser success, settled the problems of the wars, the transition and post-transition in the area, and has often been interested in characterising ordinary people and those on the fringes, typical representatives of recent reality, which was so strong that it appeared to be the most used inspiration for literature. The literature of the region, particularly in the tale, clearly, in some sense wrote at great length about and accordingly depleted these thematic preoccupations, but, and which is particularly interesting, did not go back to the conceptualism or escapism that marked post-modern writing, rather it soon turned to private life or intimism. The figures in stories are still ordinary people, but their life’s preoccupations shaped into literary stories are on the whole not based on survival in extreme (war and post-war) conditions or facing up to the new rules of the game brought about by the new social and political system. Ordinary people in recent stories have turned away from the TV news, local politicians, corruption and the Mob, car-bombs and the disappearance of the middle class and have come face to face with themselves, their partners, families and neighbours, the intimate turbulence and the universal human problems of functioning in interpersonal relations, many of which are not the way they should be or even seem to be. When we speak of the shift to intimism, of course we are talking about emotions, love relationships of all colours and signs, which in a strange way have become once again the dominant topic of most of the authors and their tales presented here. Clearly, and it has already been spoken and written of, the literature of the region, after the great and understandable infection by reality, has recovered, and is slowly being infected by individuals and their intimate worlds, thus becoming more universal and less immersed within its local borders.
Ljubica Arsić, a prize-winning and exceptionally widely-read Serbian prose writer (this exceptionally wide reading relating above all to her big hit, guess what, a novel - Mango) is, judging all in all, fond of effective and somewhat shocking stories, those that in their final stages produce a turnabout that surprises the reader. Her story “Salome” is narrated in a male voice, from the perspective of a theatre prompter, a man in his middle years, a bachelor, who is all at once called by a mysterious female voice on the phone. This initial situation, deprived of all local backdrops (except that the main character is reading Velikić’s Bremen Case, then in fashion), turns into an uncommon love relationship, amorous, sexual and in the end very mistaken, because of which the hero entirely loses all the solid props of his life. Love, or rather, adultery, is at the centre of the attention and story of Mihajlo Pantić, who on the outlines of Dostoyevsky (“after Dostoyevsky”) gives shape to the confession of a man who swaps his ordinary family life and masculine friendship (in which there is by definition always some rivalry) for the role of lover of the wife of his own friend. The account of the adultery, garnished with the trifle that the narrator’s name is Mihailo Mihailović and with the fluidity of the motif of an encounter with his namesake the angel on the wall of a church, can be read on the one hand as a page-turning and simply written story of extra-marital relations, given only additional connotations by the mentioned coincidence of the names and the motif of the uncommon fetish of the narrator. Pantić’s story about pain is a story of the mid-life crisis, marriage in which there is no longer any passion, habits that have eaten up life, shaken friendship and which is also universal and reduced to universally human motivations. Croatian representatives Zoran Ferić and Olja Savičević Ivančević, tellingly and almost as if by agreement, work out and continue similar if not quite the same motifs. In that master of the grotesque and the bizarre, the blackest of all Croatian writers, Ferić, the tale is focused once again on two, her and him, who are coming from a hospital after the failure of an attempt at in vitro fertilisation. Their outing to Sljeme, an attempt at getting away from what has happened to them, and the minimalist depiction of the extinction of their relationship, is emphasised with the typically Ferić motif of the burial of a pet, which they witness, a kind of specific fade-out to the story and to their relationship. Olja Savičević Ivančević, in the language, atmosphere and settings of her tale, conjures up the specific mentality and prejudices of the Dalmatian small town, and her heroine, Tereza, is one of these women whose movements everyone watches from behind their lace curtains and then dish dirt about. Tereza, pregnant, desperate and on the brink of a decision that at the end she betrays, is also directed towards another, to him, with whom she is linked by all except understanding. The sketch, a practically rain-drenched watercolour that the author gives us, is full of lacunae, but is eloquent enough as the adumbration of a woman’s fate and the given local mentality. The tale of Bosniak narrator Faruk Šehić is removed from themes of interpersonal, amorous, and other relations, but not from intimism. His story about the Una River, his mother’s house, starts and ends in the manner of a particular kind of poetic prose, with a mass of details, colours and sounds, offering in the first part an almost idyllic and certainly harmonious image of a certain locality. But in the next part this picture is contrasted to the image of the ruin, as the result of a very concrete (even precisely dated) act of wartime destruction, its historical repetition and the creation of the emblematic symbol of a “house on two rivers”. The uncommon blend of the poetic, the psychological and the realistic is entirely detached from the elements of the kind of tale that we read in the critical mimetic model, above all by the highlighting of this poetic dimension. Goran Samardžić in “Deeper thoughts” has a propensity above all to play with his own biography – a sketch for a kind of biography, which starts entirely in that manner, with a neutral and objective third person narrator, is transformed into a fragment, short, condensed and focused on several unimportant and bizarre (from the point of view of a serious biography) details, the title of the tale being in a sense a reflection of the narrator’s ironic and self-deprecating narrative position. Intimism, yes, but reduced to writing about the self as of someone else, with a focus on inessential and far from spectacular details. The two short tales of Lamija Begagić are indicators of the dialogical form and the dramatic potential as being important properties of short stories. The author records what seem to be ordinary and everyday situations, the trite talk of a couple before sleeping, a child and parent before devoting themselves to their daily activities, a director and an employee (both women) facing the sack and thus gives shape to the main topic of her tale – the possibility and impossibility of communication. In the second story, “My dear Ivana, you’ve no idea”, the evasions and in communication are manifested by the confrontation of two life worldviews, which does not give a pair of lovers from the beginning much chance of surviving. The story “Letter” of Slovene author Mojca Kumerdej is an outstanding slice of everyday urban life and a real little study of loneliness and the obsession that springs from it. The heroine, after an attractive female neighbour moves into her tower block, focuses her life on her, going through phases from voyeurism, delight, identification and complete obsession and finally slight and unobtrusive indications of homoerotic love. But the feeling of slight and betrayal that she experiences from her neighbour excites malice in the heroine, playing with serious and vitally important information that she suppresses, for which reason the neighbour Elena remains the lasting and never resolved obsession of her life. In a somewhat longer form, very skilfully, flirting with some very attractive motifs, the author has written a suggestive study of urban paranoias and the need for love and acceptance, even when it borders on the destructive and the pathological. The story of Dušan Čater, “Others”, a sketch from the life of immigrants, is created in the line of inspiration in Slovene literature from the theme of the čefur or incoming foreigner; based on dialogues and minimalism of stylistic procedures, it gives a moving and tragic story of a family. The celebration of a birthday, a family gathering of those members who have survived and ended up in the same place is an occasion for yet more proof of disintegration and the painful confrontation of what is left of their lives. The Bosnian family, scattered and broken up by the war, is most powerfully manifested in the figure of a sister caught in the wrong marriage, confused and zonked on Prozac, who has nothing to do but pick up the remains of the crumbled cake on the floor, a symbol of her and their life. Language games (switching between Slovene and Bosnian) and comical translations of a Bosnian phrase into Slovene, represent a sorry, but the only possible, way out of this world that after a worked-on past and an insane present cannot even dream of the future. The story “Fog” by Albanian writer Eqrem Basha is the only one in this representative selection that makes use of fantasy motifs and locates the story in a Kafkan atmosphere of fog in which clocks no longer go as they should, the papers don’t come out, and SWAT teams under the cover of fog carry out purges, the individual suddenly falling into some other dimension, one which surpasses terrorisation and repression. The story, based on the oneiric and the fantastic, is in fact an allegory of a repressive system, and the only one of the stories that with a transparent deviation from reality towards the surreal in fact speaks out powerfully about that reality. Andrej Niklaidis, in his story written the manner of his exceptionally and very successful novels, deals with the complex relations of mother and son. The mother in her hospital bed and the son, a priest, faced with the decision of whether or not to spend money meant for the church on his mother’s expensive operation, represent just the epilogue of a bad relationship that is now culminating. Mutual accusations, a dysfunctional family, the son’s decision with which the mother has never been reconciled, all this has escalated in a moment in which there is no longer much time for decision making. To be a good son and bad priest, or vice versa, this is the dilemma faced by the hero, and when the decision is finally made, time has run out, a powerful reminder that it actually happened much earlier. Two Macedonian representatives in this selection, Gabriela Stojanovska and Dimitrije Duracovski, have opted for a contemporary and intimate theme. Stojanovska wittily, via a description of how the heroine eats a banana, writes a laid-back tale of a girl caught between the conventions and pleasure and the problems of an individual approach and guilt. The way the little girl and later the young woman eats a banana, with clear allusions to the blowjob, which is read in this way by all except the girl herself, who simply gives herself up to pleasure and her own choice, is something that differentiates her from others and because of which she has to hide her little and insignificant habit from the authority figures (father, boyfriend, public). In a sense, without any big words or motifs, her story is also a story of being different and individual, which can be symbolised by very little things and habits. Duracovski too in his tale, by telling of a long-past event, a youthful infatuation, opens up one more family theme – the absence of the father, gone when he was most needed. The evocation of an event in the sense of utterance is also turned into an address to the father whose absence casts him into despair; the story grows out of a need for communication that never was.
So a fairly cursory glance at the IDs of the stories presented here clearly shows a few very clear and exceptionally telling circumstances. The short story of the region in recent times has made a powerful about turn in terms of subject, from the taking up the issues of strong reality (marked by real persons and events, as well as their consequences on the lives of ordinary people) and from the proposition that life is anyway more fantastic than literature and in any event sufficiently flexible for motifs to be drawn from it, as well as a turn away from critical mimesis in which reality is imitated, a clear and identifiable critical stance being adopted towards it. The authors of the stories at the present time have no need or desire to solve the big problems of history, ideology and local societal, social and political anomalies in their tales. This shift has resulted in telling and in fact shared poetical departures in the direction of minimalism and a kind of emotional realism. It is significant that a genre that is actually by definition inclined to experiment actually very seldom makes use of this possibility – playing with the text, experimentation, play of language, conceptualism or inter-discursiveness just as, in only rare cases, it opts for the form of the short or the short short story. Short story writers of the region are currently in point of theme turning to intimate tales of the everyday life of the individual, the turmoils in their loves and friendships and families. In terms of formal development, they on the whole opt for linear and neo-realistic narration. The individual, after the years in which history played with her or him, can finally address himself and his loved ones, and when this individual becomes a literary figure, his fundamental function has become one in which he tests himself out in the world of interpersonal relations, communication and emotions that often go in a completely opposite direction to what he wants. Intimism, family themes, the new male sensitivity, contemporary versions of women’s writing, all these are attributes that literary reviewing has in the last few years assigned to recent prose production. After reading this selection, something else becomes clear – the sketching out of a common literary context for the region, collaboration between and melding of individual national literatures from what was once a common literary space and in general the phenomenon of a regional literature does not derive from external factors (markets, joint publishing projects and so on); rather its necessity and logic is covered by what is most important, in the actual literary texts of the individual authors, in which today we can find similar poetic advances, thematic shifts and formal approaches. The selection before you is also more than a good negation of one other faulty proposition that, unfortunately, can often be heard from apparently relevant places, i.e., writing a story is not just a preparation for the big work, an exercise before the novel. The story in the region today is an entirely independent, creative and extremely ambitious literary kind that is not at all in any kind of crisis and is coming into being and developing in parallel to, and without any complexes with respect to, the somewhat artificially created novel trend.