What can the novels Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski and Under Pressure by Faruk Šehić tell us about the breakup of Yugoslavia which caused such a tectonic shift in Balkan identity?
Each to their war and its troubled aftermath: one in the domestic sphere, the other out on the field and in the trenches. Both are informed by terror, brutality, power struggles and stubborn memories which refuse to go away. The gender split seems clear: survivors of domestic violence are primarily women and war veterans are mainly men – each to their trauma.
Born to be Wild
“I’m standing on sheets of newspaper streaked with paint and dirt from my slippers, because we’ve started painting the place . . . I step onto the carpet just long enough for the
insects nestling inside it to jump out and take possession of my ankle.“
Written with subtlety, insight, and pain, the ramifications of a shattered domestic dream are conveyed unsparingly. Wild Woman is a pungent, gritty read.
Two literature students meet at university, bonding through shared friends and experiences. Having first spotted him in the huge lecture hall, she was “on cloud nine, thrilled to have found a soul-mate.”
Her mother is an office worker during the day and types at night. “There’s something wrong with that boy, my mother said, worried, two months after I had brought him home to introduce him to parents so that he could come to the house and visit me . . . this man was going to destroy me. Or at least would try to.”
The pair date and rush into marriage. “But like all stupid twenty-year-olds I had decided to get my way, because you’re indescribably stupid when you’re barely twenty and haven’t yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours, but you haven’t had life’s robotic principles instilled in you for some sort of protection, principles based on logic, on controlling bad karma, bad karma can’t be avoided but its blade can be blunted if it is not too extreme, so I extract my mother’s arguments out of her like a dentist pulling teeth, which he will then throw away.
Cramped conditions, cramped lives
The young couple lives in impoverished conditions and their domestic idyll turns into a nightmare, “without a place of our own, always staying with someone. Everybody lives like that, either with their parents, like the two of us, like Adam, and Filip, which means under constant supervision, or in a student dorm where you are two to a room that’s too small for even one person and their things, and nobody is without things, or in a rented room.”
Then he is diagnosed as having at tumour, which turns out to be a great excuse for gallivanting about town and womanising after recovering. “There he is, sitting at a table, hunched over a glass of brandy, his trousered legs crossed, swinging his top leg as usual, a sign that something is eating at him.”
Seven years on, it is a struggle to survive. The patriarchy holds sway: a wife is expected to put up and shut up. “I cover my bruised face with sunglasses, which nobody sane wears at night.” An invisible but impenetrable wall stops them from reaching each other. “When you let yourself be snared and you let yourself be deceived, the hurt is bad.”
A woman’s sexual awakening is integral to her sense of identity. Will sexual pleasure and wild abandonment be the key to her fulfillment, or her downfall? Is there any hope for the future, or is nihilism the thing, given that “nothing is ‘forever’, not the dog, not me, not the damned insects or this apartment or this building or this tree or this town or this planet or the Milky Way and the Universe with it, everything changes, and so do words, which are basically always a matter of politics, in other words, a bitch.”
“Shrapnel kills morale”
War veteran and poet, Faruk Šehić’s first novel, Quiet Flows the Una, won him the EU Prize for Literature in 2013 and was extensively reviewed. Aged twenty two at the outbreak of the Balkan war of the early 1990s, he saw active service and was a unit commander in the Yugoslav People’s Amy.
The fragmented random jottings, musings and soldier’s stories from the war which comprise Under Pressure were written soon after Šehić returned home from the frontline, shattered and suffering from PTSD.
In lyrical, gritty prose, he describes mud and fog; how grenades are the implements of death; scorched villages, snipers and the joy of being wounded because in hospital you get cigarettes, regular meals and Skopsko beer.
He collects shrapnel, developing a fascination for it. The pieces (some from his own body) are stored in plastic medicine bags, with notes of where they are from, and when. An occasional respite from the grim horror of it all is offered by bars and music, booze and girls with big tits.
“I am a time bomb. Compressed into living matter. I curse the day I was born. I wait for someone to flick the switch. Button, lever, anything. To nullify the creature thinking in me. To raise the heckles of the consciousness.
When I go back to the frontline I’ll shoot cows, horses, sheep, chickens, dogs, grasshoppers, hay. Everything that breathes and slithers. I will shoot the grass and the soil. Let houses burn like candles on birthday cakes. I will shoot the sky above their line, the clouds will ooze the proletarian’s colour. I will shoot at my own rear. Let all sides feel the pain . . . The burial mounds are filled with cadaveric fighters. Festooned with wild herbs. Crocus, iris, dandelion. I live in an enclave. The internationals call it the ’Bihać Pocket’. I live in a pocket. Fast and recklessly.”
Šehić’s simple, direct, unadorned writing is underpinned by a certain fatalistic acceptance. In vivid, macabre prose, he makes poetry out of war, showing its futility and how violence begets violence.
Social exclusion, poverty and unemployment are a continuing legacy of war, exacerbated by economic insecurity as the communist system was replaced by a market economy and single party rule by democracy. The maintenance of traditional “family values” impact on women’s human rights and gender equality.
Wild Woman and Under Pressure are each in their way an intensive and exhaustive survey of one person’s inner states, expressing a new kind of existential angst for today’s world at war.
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