Posts Tagged ‘Short Stories’

Grand Tour #20 – Slovakia. That Alluring Land / Timrava

September 16, 2017

To Slovakia, and to Timrava, the enigmatic pen name of Božena Slančíková (1867-1951), a handful of whose stories I read in an anthology called That Alluring Land, translated by Norma L. Rudinsky. It’s a collection of six stories written from 1894 to 1918, the last of which, ‘Great War Heroes’, might be better classified as a novella, being around 100 pages long.

It took me a disproportionately long time to read this book, and part of the fault is Timrava’s. I don’t mind writers reusing names across their stories, which she does incessantly (was there a pool of only ten Slovak names to choose from? everyone’s a Pal’o or a Ďuro or a Jano), but I do draw the line at having more than one character with the same name in a single story, which is asking for trouble. ‘Great War Heroes’ has an Anča, an Anka (called Anička as a diminutive), and another Anička. Am I just being racialist? The failing is doubtless mine too. I struggle to remember who’s who in Russian novels (for instance) much more than I do in English, French or German ones. Let’s move on.

Chronicles of Slav peasantry are always a thrill, I’m with you on that one, but what makes Timrava’s writing of particular interest is that she’s a woman, and moreover a feminist. Two stories seem to anticipate Virginia Woolf’s assertion that a woman needs a room of her own. The first story, ‘The Assistant Teacher’, turns on its protagonist’s bedroom being given over to the eponymous teacher, arriving from out of town. ‘This room will no longer be mine,’ she says to herself, though her thoughts quickly turn to fantasies of falling in love with the new man. A humorous story, ‘The Ťapák Clan’, has a stand-off between the indolent Ťapák family, who live fourteen to a house, and the enterprising and intellectually stifled Il’a, who has married into the family and is irritated beyond belief by their inertia, miraculously resolved by her moving back into her old house where she has her own space to live.

Il’a is a magnificent heroine, strong-willed but fallible. She walks out on her apathetic husband Pal’o, convinced that it won’t take more than a few days’ absence to make him realise her value, and is horrified to find him apparently having learned self-sufficiency, and wearing a dazzling white shirt. The job she has taken as a school cleaner (which brings shame on the Ťapák family) is a letdown in its own way.

They didn’t let her sit for a single hour but ordered her to do a hundred things at once. She would never have thought educated people could behave like this. She had imagined that at least once a day they would invite her to sit down on a nice chair, or on the sofa, and converse with them about the intellectual matters her mind thirsted for. They used to do that when she would visit the schoolhouse. But now they didn’t – not once since St. George’s Day! They didn’t treat her as an enlightened woman but just as an ordinary hired girl.

This dashing of hopes is common to all Timrava’s stories, and often relates to romance or matrimony. ‘The Assistant Teacher’ has elements of the Austenesque comedy of manners, acutely observed and witty, its conclusion a bittersweet capitulation. ‘Battle’ is the acrimonious story of a wrangle for a ring (to borrow Larkin’s words), Marta and Mária a pair of marriageable sisters at war with a number of other young women for the affections of a small number of men. Mária’s reputation as a vamp breeds suspicion among the others. Emotions are repressed, expectations variously scuppered or deflatedly submitted to. The sins of the parents are visited on the children, and the chance for redemption arrives far too late. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this is simply what life is like for Timrava’s people: a struggle and a disappointment. The story ‘No Joy at All’ is aptly named.

Not that they don’t try to fight it. In the 1907 title story, ‘That Alluring Land’, America seems to offer an escape. Jano is inspired by the plans of other men from his town to go to America, a common dream among Slovaks at the time, to earn capital that he can use on his return home in a couple of years. When he gets there, the reality, told through a letter home, is even more brutal than that of the life he has left behind.

The final story in the collection, ‘Great War Heroes’, is the most ambitious and the most impressive. It’s a darkly satirical portrait of how the inhabitants of a town react to the outbreak of the First World War, and was written as the war came to its end. It’s a striking companion piece to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains, though less absurdly humorous. For some, the war is an opportunity: one woman sees the calling up of her abusive husband as a blessing, and the hypocritical notary Baláň is delighted to have an excuse to do some browbeating; but most simply fear the death of the town’s young men. The heroes of the title are thin on the ground, but the assistant notary Širický, the one voice of reason, is the closest thing to a traditional hero in any of the stories. Although at times he toes the party line, he is at heart a pacifist, world-weary, and disillusioned with violence. The final chapter is bitter and resolutely unsentimental. Timrava’s stories are sometimes compared to Chekhov’s, and this is perhaps where she comes closest to the master.

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Grand Tour #13 – Slovenia. Games with Greta & Other Stories / Suzana Tratnik

June 17, 2017

I’m now done with the familiar countries until I get to Scandinavia. The Balkans and the Baltic beckon. Slovenia’s uncharted territory. I don’t know the first thing about it; even the football team’s a closed book. And the waters are only going to get murkier: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania…

Still, I thought I’d probably found a winner: a book of short stories by Suzana Tratnik, Games with Greta & Other Stories, translated by ‘Michael Biggins and others’ and published by the brilliant and enterprising Dalkey Archive Press. (The ‘others’ turn out to be the unpronounceables: Tamara Soban, Špela Bibič, Mojca Šoštarko and Elizabeta Žargi.) And Tratnik’s Wikipedia page was most encouraging: she’s translated Judith Butler into Slovene (!) and has been heavily involved in LGBT activism in Slovenia. Onward.

‘Games with Greta’ itself is a good place to start. It takes place at a family gathering, and is told by a girl who is forced together with Greta, the adopted child of relatives who have moved to England. The narrator snobbishly dislikes the parents, and decides to dislike Greta accordingly. Memories came flooding back of my own childhood, and of the handful of occasions when I was thrown together with distant cousins simply because we were roughly the same age. We had different temperaments and different ways of playing. They had a Scalextric (which I dare say I judged them for not being able to pronounce; they even called Tetris ‘Tertis’), and I had a dead tortoiseshell butterfly in a plastic box. (Actually I yearned for a Sega Master System II, but I assumed my parents would never buy it so I didn’t bother to ask.) We compromised on football.

The narrator (apologies for the unwieldiness of repeating this phrase, but Tratnik’s narrators are invariably unnamed; there is one story where she is referred to by her interlocutor as ‘Suzana’, which makes one wonder whether these stories are fictions after all, or rather thinly anonymised episodes from Tratnik’s own life) – where was I? – the narrator finds that Greta isn’t so bad after all, or at any rate that she isn’t an intolerable prospect as a playmate. This said, what evolves between them is a sort of power struggle with elements of the dangerous and the macabre. It can’t be a coincidence that Tratnik has translated Ian McEwan. This story is reminiscent of McEwan’s early writings, hinting at natural but somehow distasteful infantile sex play, and the pushing of boundaries, even the boundaries of some mystical netherworld. I thought it was really something.

More often the focus is adult relationships, particularly romantic relationships between women, and frequently relationships that are going through difficulties, either dying because of them or weathering them, and often because of geography and/or the passage of time. The elegiac ‘Trips Are Cheaper Now, Too’ sees two lovers, Jana and Vivi, reuniting for New Year, one of them still living in Slovenia, the other having moved to the Netherlands, and having problems adjusting to being around one another again. The excellent ‘Letters Without Envelopes’ has one character, living in Slovenia, acting as go-between for two lovers divided by war in Yugoslavia. One of my favourite stories, ‘The Subway’, is about a woman visiting a public model of Ljubljana’s proposed subway system, assembled by her former lover. The two women have contrasting personalities (hence the break-up), and it doesn’t take long for the old animosity to be rekindled.

‘Does this … subway of yours have burek stands?’ I asked Ines, since burek struck me as the only appropriate food for chewing your way through the street scene of Ljubljana.

‘No,’ she came to her project’s defense without batting an eye. There’d be no bureks. ‘No greasy food at all, don’t you see. We won’t be selling any bureks. And at all the larger stations – for instance Bavarian Court, Central Station, Clinical Center, Šiška Cineplex – there’ll only be stands with vegetarian fare. And fitness centers. I wouldn’t even sell Coca-Cola – and I’m not going to allow any Benetton shops or Müller products.’

‘Do you mean those German Müller puddings? Those are the only ones I buy anymore.’

‘Yes, but they support really awful right-wing politics.’

God knows what bureks support.

If a lot of these stories blur into a lesbian miasma (which is hardly a criticism), that has the effect of making the exceptions really stand out. The pick of those, I thought, was ‘Sewing the Princess’, a fable in which a child beaten by bullies enacts a kind of poetical revenge through the creation of a ‘princess dress’. Perhaps the sewing/suturing symbolism is overdone, but I loved the magic of the ending.

The raised roses on my princess dress reflect the light of the blazing sun and the reddish snow simultaneously. They look like streaks of blood on the snowy white dress. I just stand there.

You may be familiar with a Roald Dahl short story about bullying, ‘The Swan’, that is absolutely brutal. It baffles me that it appears in a collection for children, it’s so much more disturbing than his stories for adults. This story is a beautiful counterpoint to that one, and with a happier outcome. And a welcome hint of gender ambiguity at the end, too. I had to read the story twice and I’m still not sure I’ve read it right. It makes me curious about gender in the Slovene language, and of how to translate from non-gendered into gendered languages and vice versa. See posts on any number of linguistics blogs for more on that endlessly fascinating subject.

For a deeper, more perceptive and altogether better review of the book, do read this.