Dubravka Ugrešić

I am sad to learn the news of Dubravka Ugrešić’s death. Her fiction is always surprising and often moving. I wrote about her brilliant novel, The Ministry of Pain, which explores the power of memory along with the mercy of forgetting.

Ugrešić lived in exile both in the US and Europe after her home country, Yugoslavia, fell apart and became Croatia. Uncompromising and insightful, she criticized not only Croatia’s nationalism but also the US’s consumerism and superficiality. She consistently examined the seemingly well-meaning individual to reveal how political and social circumstances affect the spirit and mind.

For a 2018 article in The New Yorker, Christopher Byrd spoke with Ugrešić, who was in the US to promote her collection of essays, American Fictionary. Ugrešić’ compared the then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, to the leadership in her broken home country in the wake of war. Invoking an immense world at the mercy of bad leaders, Ugrešić’ said of Trump: “He’s showing vividly that something is wrong with all of us, if we are able to have such leaders.” She went on to say of her “poor Yugoslavia”: “It had the most stupid leaders you can imagine.” Such leaders, she told Byrd, “just eat these countries like chocolate.”

Update April 10: Lit Hub has published wonderful remembrances of Ugrešić’ by five translators of her work, Celia Hawkesworth, Mark Thompson, David Williams, Vlad Beronja, and Ellen Elias-Bursać, who offers an introduction to this “expatriate citizen of the Republic of World Letters.”

Inger Frimansson’s Good Night, My Darling

I first heard of Good Night, My Darling by Swedish author Inger Frimansson through Small Press Distribution. At the S.P.D. site, a listing for the recently translated novel says that Frimansson “is considered by many to be Sweden’s premier author of the psychological thriller.” As a longtime fan of one of the masters of this genre, Patricia Highsmith, I couldn’t resist getting the book, and, as it turns out, the novel evokes Highsmith when it comes to the consciousness of its killer.

Highsmith famously created murderers who seem normal rather than overtly troubled. The violence always makes good sense from the killer’s point of view. One can understand, for instance, why Vic Van Allen — small-press publisher and snail-enthusiast from Highsmith’s novel Deep Water — drowns the man who has been sleeping with his wife. The two men are in a pool so the water is handy. Vic has been watching his wife cheat on him for a long time, and his method of coping — looking at the situation with a sense of irony that creeps like a snail — only aggravates his disgust.

In Good Night, My Darling, Frimansson gives us a protagonist as oddly passive as Vic. An heiress to a candy fortune, Justine Dalvig has an air of desperate sweetness that doesn’t serve her well as a child. When girls at school bully her, she plies them with candy, which only encourages them in their vicious behavior. While trying to escape their cruelty one afternoon, she ends up breaking an ankle and yet still isn’t angry. Frimansson describes Justine’s reaction to the cast on her leg in the stark style found throughout the novel: “Her leg was put in a cast that reached up to her knee. She felt heavy and happy.”

Justine’s ankle continues to cause her problems as an adult. In the opening of the novel, she is struggling with this old injury and other hidden psychological ones. The narrative is layered with several points of view, including that of Flora, the stepmother who abused Justine as a child. Slowly, as the various characters sift through their memories, Justine’s difficult past comes into view. Frimansson portrays all of these characters, including Flora, with insightful sympathy. As a young bride, Flora tries to win over her new stepdaughter with a present — “a very nice doll, one that she herself would have wanted when she was a girl.” When Justine rejects the offering, the vain, pretty Flora, who often is described in doll-like terms — her eyes are “porcelain”; her husband calls her “my little doll” — takes the rejection so personally that she begins to beat the child.

By the time the first murder takes place, moral lines have been blurred so much that killing seems perfectly normal. The conditions are just right, the weapon on hand and easy to use. The motive is as solid from a psychological point of view as frustrated Vic Van Allen’s is when he holds his rival’s head under the pool. With her layered approach, Frimansson achieves one of the hardest goals of fiction: to make the plot seem like the inevitable result of both events and numerous choices shaped, in part, by character.

Where the book falters has to do with gender. Women tend to reach for poison when they kill, not just because, as a group, they spend more time in the kitchen than homicidal men. They also don’t have as much upper-body strength. Not many women, even if pumped up on a heavy dose of adrenaline and malice, would attempt some of the feats that Frimansson ascribes to a female character. Some of the violence in the last third of the book is improbably athletic. In fact, in a couple of places, the killing would come off as ridiculous were it not so tastefully described.

But here is just one suspicious stain on an otherwise wonderful thriller. I recommend the book to anyone as great reading for the holidays. This new English translation put out by Pleasure Boat Studio has a picture on the cover of a sweet young woman and a bird. (Justine has a large bird, rescued from the wild, as a pet.) With its innocent cover, the book provides a great place to hide for the holiday traveler. Instead of getting upset about delayed planes or family conflicts, just open the pages and watch the bodies pile up.

Originally posted on 12.25.2008

Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun

Wanting to learn more about Iran, I decided to read a novel by an Iranian author and had the good luck of choosing Savushun by Simin Daneshvar. Originally published in 1969, this historical novel takes place during the Second World War when the British and the Soviets were occupying Iran. The Allied forces were using the country as a passageway to get supplies into the Soviet Union. While the movement of goods over Iran’s eastern border helped the Soviets in their fight against the Germans, it devastated the economy in Iran. The occupying forces bought up much of the country’s grain, leaving many Iranians to starve. But as Daneshvar shows, not everyone in the country suffered from these shortages. She opens her novel with a wedding scene in which a large loaf of bread sits on display. The daughter of the governor is getting married, and the heroine of the novel, Zari, is in attendance with her husband Yusof. Zari thinks of the bread: “What a mound of dough! How much flour they must have used! And, besides, as Yusof said, ‘At a time like this!'”

Yusof is an outspoken critic of the government, while Zari remains silent out of fear. At first it’s not apparent how much of this fear is habitual and how much is actually warranted. What happens to those like Yusof who take a stand against the government? Daneshvar takes her time answering this question, letting the plot slowly unfold while keeping the narrative limited to Zari’s point of view. Many of the larger themes of the novel are political, but the scenes in the book are almost all domestic because of the nature of Zari’s existence. She spends most of her time in her beautiful home in Shiraz where she worries about her husband and three children. The narrative gains a dreamlike tension as the difficulties of the outside world start to seep into her confined, affluent life.

Also lending the novel a surreal quality is the volunteer work that Zari does at a mental hospital. She started going to the hospital soon after giving birth to her son Khosrow. She brings food to the patients as a part of a vow of charity that she made in the hopes of easing her labor pain: “For Khosrow’s delivery, the agonizing pain had led Zari to make a vow to take homemade bread and dates to the mental patients.” Zari has come into this hospital because she is a woman, and the sense of isolation that she feels within its walls soon becomes palpable. After one of her visits, she asks Yusof, “Why should there be so much misery?” She goes on to explain about how one of the patients, a midwife, mistook her for a woman who died in childbirth years ago. Zari always has viewed the patients with detachment and some measure of sympathy too, but as the novel progresses, the distance between her and the people whom she’s helping begins to break down.

Through the character of Zari, Daneshvar creates a dynamic narrative that starts to change as the heroine shifts from fear to bravery, from detachment to engagement. Zari’s point of view is complex and often poetic. “Time stood still, as if it had gone to sleep under the heavy quilt of the sky.” It is nighttime when this thought comes to Zari, and as usual, she is worried. She is thinking about her son, who has gone off somewhere. “She wished the wind would blow, or that, like the wind, she herself would stir up the people and the trees.” As usual, Zari is quiet and thinking in this moment. But she is such a strong presence, one feels this brilliant novel – the world of it – moving through her. “She wished the sky would clear up and become a garden with millions of eyes. She wished the trees would open their chattering lips and begin to talk.”

Originally posted on 5.11.2007

Paulette Poujol Oriol’s Vale of Tears

In her novel Vale of Tears, Haitian author Paulette Poujol Oriol brings us a day in the life of Coralie Santeuil, a destitute woman who, slowly and with a great deal of effort, is making her way on foot across the city of Port-au-Prince. Coralie is visiting old friends, family and acquaintances and asking them for money. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, and she will be evicted from the small room where she lives if she cannot come up with six month’s rent. She is around sixty years old and walks “with legs like a pair of wooden stilts, putting one foot forward, catching herself, finding her balance with difficulty, and bringing the other leg back again.” Near the end of this absorbing novel, we learn the reason behind Coralie’s pained gait. We also find out how she has come upon such hard times when she was born into privilege. Her father was a wealthy wholesale merchant, and in the opening pages, Oriol shows a seven-year-old Coralie playing with a doll “at the far end of an immense garden.” Her father gave her this beloved doll, which her stepmother, at the end of the first scene, breaks in an effort to punish Coralie.

Mr. Santeuil also gives his daughter his passive nature. He does nothing to stop his wife’s psychological abuse of Coralie, who, as an adult, surrenders to life’s onslaughts without first putting up a fight. “Everything glided over her,” writes Oriol about the older Coralie; “she gave in to fate without any sort of struggle other than that of the most rudimentary survival.” Coralie’s story is illuminating and tense rather than merely depressing thanks to Oriol’s direct but lyrical prose, her deep insights into character and the novel’s dramatic structure. In every chapter, a scene from Coralie’s earlier life is juxtaposed with an account of the next stop on her walk through Port-au-Prince. This structure makes the reader focus on the connections between Coralie’s past, including the many mistakes she has made, and her current condition. As the book progresses, we begin to wonder about what other missteps have brought Coralie to this point on her journey through poverty and pain.

Oriol, who is one of the most celebrated novelists in Haiti, ultimately renders the character of Coralie not only with honesty but with sympathy too. Vale of Tears is Oriol’s first novel to be published in English, and I hope translations of her other books will follow soon because I want to meet more characters as complex as Coralie Santeuil. Every step in her journey seems both like an extreme exertion of will and a matter of tragic fate. While for Coralie, this walk is a painful balancing act, it reads like the effortless creation of a master storyteller.

Originally posted on 4.30.2006

Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene

Alia Mamdouh’s novel Naphtalene is a coming-of-age story set in 1950s Iraq. Huda is a nine-year-old girl who runs through the streets with boys, jumping “over the gutters and the children.” She is “anarchy, insolence, and violence.” Her actions disrupt order on many levels, including those involving language and narrative structure. Sometimes Huda’s perspective comes to us in the first person – “My rage mounted and fell on me, making my head hurt, so I pinched my aunt’s hand” – and sometimes it comes to us in the more immediate second person: “When you saw yourself in the street, your fire was stoked….You greeted the cheese seller, Abu Mahmoud: ‘Hello, dear Abu Mahmoud,’ and stole a fresh cucumber and a date whose sweetness burned your mouth. You did not look up.” Through these second-person descriptions, Mamdouh allows us to experience Huda’s detailed perception of the Baghdad streets: “The alleys of your neighborhood were filthy, littered with onion and aubergine peels, okra tops and fragments of rotten bread, remnants of black tea.”

Huda is honest, and her integrity permeates this novel like the chemical in its title, naphthalene, which is used in both mothballs and explosives. Only a girl as fierce as Huda could form and preserve for her future such vivid, uncompromised memories. The facts of her life as she enters adolescence are hard; the women in her family face extreme difficulty every day. The opening chapters show Huda’s mother Iqbal suffering with tuberculosis but receiving no mercy from her husband, a prison officer. He berates her in his home. “The air in the room boiled with his shouts.” He is angry about Huda, “that daughter of yours,” and about how illness prevents Iqbal from bearing more children. “I want a real woman,” he shouts. “I’ve given you my best years and my heart’s blood, but all in vain. Go back to your own family. Go back to where you came from.”

Nowhere in the novel does the narration refer to Huda’s adult self; the “I’s” and “you’s” (and on rare occasions, the “she’s”) are thoroughly immersed in the world of Iraq in the 1950s, but the naphthalene in the title does lead the reader to speculate about Huda’s life in the present, about the adult she has become and is becoming as she unpacks these memories – but “unpacking” is too mild a word. When, in 1996, an English translation of the novel appeared in the UK, the book was entitled Mothballs; now, for its first publication in the U.S., it bears the title Naphtalene. I think the change, which connects Huda’s intense memories not only to mothballs but explosives, is appropriate. This book destroys the patronizing concepts of Iraqi women that widely circulate in this country.

It is the first novel by an Iraqi woman to be published in the U.S.

Originally posted on 8.18.2005