Singer In The Night, by Olja Savičević, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Istros Books, 156 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1912545971
It is, surely, one of our greatest fears that we will lose our memories and with it the very basis of our selfhood, the recall of experiences that thread the random elements of our lives together, the names of those we once knew so well we hardly ever used them. It happened to Clementine’s father: “there were occasions when I, his daughter, would move for a few days into his past, moving right out of his present (on those days he would leave me without dinner, having eaten my portion as well as his own)”.
Now, Clementine, a Croatian writer, is also in danger of succumbing to traumatic memory loss. In her late teens she had begun to write romance stories, having read some of the novels owned by her grandmother, which led to her eventually becoming a very successful writer of soap opera scripts. In those earlier years, she had met a boy called Nightingale – a poet of the streets, an artist of sorts – with whom she fell in love and married. As she narrates this novel they haven’t met for many years and memories, many from a time of unregistered happiness, twenty years previous to the present, press hard against a mind that may be faltering, and she wants to meet with him again. Gale, as she calls her former, and first, husband, is an ambiguous bearer of many identities, as enigmatic as he is inventive. On a boat that they once owned together Clementine finds a collection of letters purporting to have been written by people (both dead and alive) and a dog who lives on Dinko Šimunović Street, where she and he once lived together. Most begin by commenting on the intrusively loud love-making that can be heard repeatedly, echoing around the apartment blocks at night, keeping neighbours awake when all they want to do is drift into the oblivion of sleep. The whereabouts of the always amorous couple cannot be located because the sound rebounds and echoes so that even a dog can’t rest easily. The first of Gale’s letters is a “Letter From A Wistful Dog”. This sad old mutt mentions “the little acoustic scandal that has been rocking our neighbourhood in recent days”, but really he wants to talk about love and loyalty, or rather the ways in which they diminish and can suddenly be withdrawn by cruel “owners”. No creature feels rejection more than a dog: “Remember that at least in the morning, when the goodwill of a beginning briefly reigns, toss at least a bone to those genuinely hungry for the meat of hope.”
Letters continue to appear throughout the deliberately diffuse, time-shifting, where-are-we-now chapters that follow. “Who’s this waking me?” asks an “Indifferent God”. But he too has other things bothering him. He is misunderstood, most especially by those who pretend to represent him on earth. “What have they to do with the divine? … At some stage I want to be everyone’s God. A magnanimous, powerful and comical father. Until then – make your own way.”
Gale had a lot of fun writing these letters and inhabiting the diverse personas of those he pretends to be. He writes, with verve, as a war veteran, a “little girl who does not want to fall in love”, a banker, an incurable woman, a passing cyclist, an unborn poet and Dinko Šimunović, after whom the street was named. Šimunović was, like Olja Savičević (the author of “Singer In The Night”) a Croatian writer. He, however, was thought of as a reactionary writer, keen to champion an idealised view of rural life which he saw as superior to the urban attitudes of his time in early twentieth century Croatia. But in the present time of the novel, he wonders, “What could I write about now, at a time of greater freedom, at least for some?” He has read the literature of this time, “and I have found a great deal of contemporary people’s justified fury. I postulate that if love disappears as a literary obsession, all we will be left with, as topics, will be injustice and death.”
Considerations of love are central to much of “Singer In The Night” because Clementine is travelling through Croatia, from Split to various towns and villages, in search of the man who was, by some distance, the most significant love of her life. But as she tries to locate him, we too attempt to establish the identity of this intriguing and puzzling character. But his secretive, multi-faceted personality has a serious purpose and is integral to a man who became an adult (and thus eligible for conscription) at a time when post-Communist Yugoslavia was being divided by violent nationalism and factionalism. It was an act of outrageous defiance to refuse an easy definition of oneself by religion, region or both. Serb? Croat? Chetnik? Muslim? Christian? Deterministic convictions abound. “Every Serb was a Chetnik, every Serb had a beard and carried a knife between his teeth, even old women and babies, that was common knowledge.”
At one point, we are presented with a multiple-choice set of options:
“If they come to the door of your flat (or village) and want to kill you and set fire to the flat, you a) run away and let everything go to hell, because it’s not your war, and the flat is your Gran’s; b) you let the usurper set fire to you along with the flat, the building, the town and the village because you are opposed to violence; c) you grab the first available weapon, a hunting rifle, pitchfork, or axe and drive the enemy into the shit,” said Gale. “I think, all those responses are OK, but I know which is the most honest of them for me. (I reject violence. Except in self-defence.)”
A dangerous self-justification, perhaps. How many have said they attacked another only because they themselves were under attack?
Summoned to return to a fighting unit in Bosnia after graduating, “he chose response a) and hid”. At such a time, identity and memory also become weapons or, if one chooses, a route to smashing the insistence that we can only be what our background says we are. Gale, a regular graffiti artist, sprays his thoughts on the walls of Split. But he is too well-known for his work to be unrecognised.
All of this is recalled by Clementine and in time we learn that there is a necessary urgency about her need to remember and memorialise. She suffered a brain injury in a car crash and her ability to retain even routine details is beginning to decline. She fiercely needs to clarify her feelings about Gale and the times they experienced together. It is for this reason that she meets Gale’s mother, visits a man at the apartment on Dinko Šimunović Street and travels to a remote area to attempt a meeting with a woman called Helanka who was a very close friend to both Clementine and Gale when they were a couple. Helenka is away when she arrives at the “non-existent village”, so Clementine spends time with her friend’s remarkably resourceful thirteen-year-old twin daughters and their grandparent-like neighbours, including the astoundingly foul-mouthed “Granma”. But there is no information regarding the whereabouts of Gale who has, somehow ‑ in an age when it is supposed to be impossible to hide ‑ disappeared.
The meetings with Josipa, Gale’s mother and Joe Pironi on Dinko Šimunović Street are inconclusive. But in terms of the novel, they bring forward a problematic aspect of the translation by Celia Hawkesworth. In an effort to render the accented dialogue of the original, she has to choose accents for the characters. It is a jolt to suddenly have Josipa saying things like “Bloody ’ell you looks great” (a Cockney in Croatia?) or Joe saying “Stone ve crows. I mus’ be dreamin” (a German Cockney in Croatia?) Thankfully neither character is with us for long and the rest of the book is very readable, although there is the occasional awkward construction. One of Gale’s anti-war slogans is translated as “Love of country justifies the making of large numbers of murders.” A more succinct slogan would both sound better and waste less spraypaint.
But nothing of that sort should deter anyone from reading this imaginatively constructed book. Singer In The Night is an outstanding example of contemporary European writing. A complex construction for a confusing time. This is a novel which prompts the realisation that much of what we remember is formed from the residue of our mistakes. Regrets are an inescapable part of our memories. Yet we don’t want to stop remembering.
Declan O’Driscoll has written for The Irish Times, Music & Literature and several other publications.