Big Love, The Night Circus and Other Stories
Big Love by Balla, Jantar Publishing (trans. Julia and Peter Sherwood), 2019, 126 pp, £10.00 (paperback)
The Night Circus and Other Stories by Uršul’a Kovalyk, Parthian Books (trans. Julia and Peter Sherwood), 2019, 98 pp, £8.90 (paperback)
Though Balla, one of Slovakia’s most prominent contemporary novelists, has been compared to Kafka, he might more reasonably be called a nihilistic Etgar Keret (Israeli author of The Nimrod Flipout and multiple other collections of surreal short stories), given the thoroughly ironic, often absurdly amusing, take on contemporary life that characterises his work. This is certainly the case for Big Love, an autobiographical novel chronicling the deterioration of the relationship between alcoholic Andrič and single mother Laura.
While the Kafka comparison misses the mark (Kafka’s preoccupations are more metaphysical than Balla’s), Balla is the inheritor of a distinctly Central/Eastern European style, characterised by a sort of black humor that tightropes between age-old superstition and the ominous State. Take the scene in which two middle-aged men visit their friend in the hospital: ‘The other two dash towards the staircase, faces screwed up with hatred. As if possessed by the devil. This is just a turn of phrase, because in fact the devil has always been inside them’. If the narrative does not follow a necessarily clear chain of cause and effect, this is always compensated for through humour: ‘My neighbour got the point and has since started chemotherapy and pre-op tests though he has yet to be diagnosed with any illness’. A personal trademark, this darkly ironic style of Balla’s is reminiscent of is often seen in Eastern European literature. Slovak literature is only now being properly translated into English to coincide with the state’s celebrating twenty-five years of independence.
Beyond its apparent cynicism and humour, there is a degree of poignancy to this book – for instance, the touching description of Andrič’s grandmother, dressed in dark colours (as is traditional for older women in rural Eastern Europe): ‘She reminded him of a crow but he loved her very much, despite a hate campaign waged by his mother’. As an ensemble, one feels compassion for both Andrič, who is extremely depressed and part of a brutalised society, and for Laura, a woman trying to find a man willing to be a father for her child. The sense of futility that accompanies the inevitable breakdown of the mismatch is highly realistic, despite the narration being at times pompous (‘Their value on the vast market place of bodies was depreciating’). Indeed the tone of the novel is ambiguous, self-ironising and difficult guage. Long monologues, too, tend to be excessively expository, while elsewhere dialogue sparkles with wit. Balla has a knack for wonderfully specific characters, with Andrič’s friend Panza being the most ludicrous of all: ‘He’s had bad experiences in the past when he used to listen and got nothing in return, so now he professionally and routinely doesn’t listen’.
As Andrič’s relationship with Laura unravels, so does the narrative, though a clearly discernible plot is evidently not the author’s priority, while philosophical meanderings on contemporary life are. This is somewhat unsatisfying for the reader, but, in fairness, harmonious with Andric’s own passivity, and thus clever as a tool of construction. This plotlessness, however cinematic, is compensated for through tone and its barren yet particular atmosphere.
Julia and Peter Sherwood do excellent work in co-translation (the presence of two different voices is non-existent), and evidently take pleasure in the text’s many ridiculous and amusing moments, as the spunk of the English version shows: the future, for example, is described somewhat presciently as ‘a total storm of dickheadedness’.
Despite being ornamented by a sardonic sort of pessimism, the message of Big Love is quite simple and sadly relatable when it comes down to it: ‘Hatred engulfed him like an incurable illness’. Paranoia and displacement, as well as fear for the future, might have seemed more natural sentiments to feel in Eastern Europe thirty years ago, but today, the ailment strikes one as generational rather than the result of belonging to a certain part of a world or living in the aftermath of an oppressive political regime.
While Big Love is written from a male perspective, Ursula Kovalyk’s short story collection turns the tables by being composed almost exclusively of female narrators and protagonists. Flipping through the contents of The Night Circus and Other Stories, one is surprised by the number of texts included in such a slim volume – 16 stories in less than 100 pages. Yet the impression that remains in one’s mind after closing the book is quite clear and homogenous: it is a work about the female body, one’s connection to it or alienation from it.
In ‘The Predator’, a bombshell of a woman proves to be more than meets the eye as a conversation with a friendship reveals a dysfunctional marriage, while in ‘Julia’ the eponymous character playacts at a normal marriage throughout a spiritually empty sexual encounter. A generally cynical view of marriage is pervasive; for instance, ‘The Bathroom’: ‘Her life was identical to those of many women her age, women whose youth had been spent under the shadow of the Iron Curtain and who had wasted their prime in queues for bananas. It was a life without ups or downs, without passion or direction, without emotional outbursts or love affairs’. Leaving aside the inescapable flatness this condemns the character to (not to mention its implausibility), this story is characterised by the precise sensorial detail of the surrounding environment that permeates the entire collection: ‘The bathroom was again glowing green, exuding a magical light like a lamp that attracts moths. The light mingled with the shrieking of monkeys, the screeching birds and the drumming of water as it dripped onto the leaves’.
A metaphor of boiling water resurfaces again and again in the narrative as tensions rise, and at times the exactitude of description is striking: ‘There’s a strict inspector sitting inside of me. If she catches me not working hard enough she transmits harsh, reproachful signals to my brain’ (‘Go Slow Therapy’). The aspects of female identity in discussion – such as daughterhood, to name one – are broached with bravery (microscopic attention is given to the body of a dying mother as she agonizingly draws her last breath), and often makes for a discomforting read. The author’s main preoccupation seems to be with the aging body, and multiple stories are dedicated to this subject. Often, one often gets the impression that there is more to be unpacked than we are given: women rarely reach their full psychological potential, and literally go up in smoke. This elusiveness deserves the benefit of the doubt, as the texts are indeed very short. On the other hand, the intense or fantastical nature of the plot sometimes fails to compensate for the lack of subtlety ailing most characters. It is in the author’s position as an inheritor of magic realism that the work’s shortcomings become apparent: sometimes, characters are stereotypical and excessively similar to each other; old ladies are excessively quirky and husbands are superficially boorish. Dialogue, as a result, is somewhat insipid.
These concerns of subtlety are, however, only an afterthought. Kovalyk is striking in the boldness of her imagination: we encounter cute and creepy dwarves, dream sequences, overripe trees, trippy paintings. There is much representational work at play that deserves applause, precisely for its artistic intention. Women see things that are not there: the author plays with the painterly ‘trompe l’œil’ effect, turning the concept of ‘gaslighting’ on its head, while a physically tiny man becomes a metaphor for the dangers of masculinity misunderstood. Disturbing intensity nearly always lies beneath the surface. Strands remain loose, and leave questions in their wake: how connected are we to our bodies?
Sometimes impressionistic and fantastical, sometimes naturalistic, Kovalyk’s The Night Circus, although not necessarily a virtuosic collection, offers an interesting and – often chimeric – examination of the representations of female identity.
Review by Andreea Scridon.
Balla’s Big Love (Jantar) and The Night Circus and Other Stories by Uršuľa Kovalyk’s (Parthian) feature in the Raising the Velvet Curtain events programme celebrating contemporary Slovak arts and culture: www.slovakliterature.com
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