Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War takes place over three acts and many scenes, and is acted out on various stages. True to its title, this is theatre in the shape of a novel, with the narrative being revealed to us in fragments, snapshots and scenes, rather than a continuous, flowing chronology. Often, however, of greater importance is what happens offstage, backstage, in the wings, behind the curtains, in the side corridors. The muffled voices, the memories, now louder, now quieter, echoes, dress rehearsals, the rumble of props being moved, the silence of anticipation, of waiting, of remembering.
“The curtain rises on the shadowy dining room of my first home. Some familiar objects: the stone statues and the flattened wolf hide. In the corner sits a table with five chairs; the one at the head wobbles. The wallpaper is stamped with faded rosettes. The spectacle of my childhood begins. Repeatedly changing houses, we are unable to anchor ourselves to any fixed point.” (p. 3)
In certain scenes, the key events are taking place on the other side of a wall, through a keyhole, on a TV screen or in somebody’s mind. The boundaries between onstage and off and between past and present are sometimes unclear, like the redrawn borders of a post-conflict map.
The book is narrated by Tamara, whose father is from another continent, far from Chile, and is haunted by memories of war in his homeland. Her parents’ relationship is turbulent and violent, her upbringing rootless and unstable. Her own past, both lived and inherited, will affect her life in ways she struggles to control.
“My last name is hard to pronounce; I have to spell it out. People approach me with questions. But most of the time in the classroom or while reading I’m not there, I choose other destinations. I want to live under a table, inside a closet, between the lines.” (pp. 20-21)
The novel’s form and its constant references to stages, scenes, scripts and so on, are an example of how we often view our own personal histories not as continuous development and evolution, but distilled into isolated events, the big moments, the key dramatic scenes, the turning points. The narrative moves from Tamara’s childhood through school and university and into adulthood and yet is never fully in the present, always in throe to past events, trying to unravel, decodify and come to terms with what came before.
“Through memory, events may occur a second time, a third. The pages rewrite themselves again and again. Centripetal movements dissolve past forms as soon as they’re revealed.” (p. 157)
Linked to this idea of trying to make sense of often unlived experiences and unknown territories, as well as the theme of rootlessness and migration, another recurring semantic field is that of cartography. Like theatrical elements, maps appear over and over again as Tamara and her family attempt to navigate a present blurred by the past to the point of obscuring the future as well. There is a constant sense of loss, of something missing.
“Franz’s body is a familiar map, creased in the same places, but it never fully unfolds. I gather my nerve to cross the border.” (p. 86)
Jeftanovic’s prose, seamlessly reproduced by Frances Riddle, is exquisite, each sentence carefully crafted, doing so much on its own, while contributing to the whole. This is an intense, introspective read that offers plenty to reflect on and revisit. You will no doubt return to certain passages and phrases, turn them over and find something new.
This work is also an examination of the psychological effects of trauma. An attempt to understand by acting out scenes, reading others’ scripts, drawing maps in the hope of finding yourself. There are scenes which mention therapy and in a way the book’s very premise is an act of therapy.
The novel speaks to landlessness, crises of identity, the weight of collective memory and shared trauma. It raises existential questions about agency and the impossibility of escaping the legacy of our parents. Tamara is pulled from one place and circumstance to the next by her family, by the ghosts of actions that were not her own, by the contradictions of a past she cannot hide from yet cannot fully grasp. She questions, too, who she and others are, and if people can really be multiple characters, or different characters in different moments.
“Without knowing it yet, I’m tracing a path of circular migrations. I periodically return to the city of my birth, the city of my youth, to everywhere I’ve stopped along my way. My character gets stronger. I count one, two, three, four. I know how to hold my breath. I stand up in the audience; I don’t want to slump down and let things simply happen around me anymore. I walk onto my own stage.” (p.70)
With Theatre of War, Charco Press have done it again. I will be looking out for how Jeftanovic’s novel is received by other readers and I won’t be surprised to see it repeating history itself and following in the footsteps of other Charco titles by marching its way onto awards shortlists in the near future.
Andrew McDougall is a translator from Spanish and Portuguese. He was born in Glasgow and studied Portuguese and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. He has lived in Sussex, Lisbon, Coimbra, Logroño, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Norwich, where he completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa and translating Ana Cristina Silva as part of the Escape Goat project, on which he also collaborated as an editor. He writes about books at A View from the Book.
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