Last week’s Borderless Book Club saw a fitting discussion for Women in Translation Month, with a session on the novel Wild Woman by Marina Šur Puhlovski, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić and published by Istros Books. The director of Istros, Susan Curtis, joined us for the evening to offer her insight on what it was like to work with and publish the book.
Wild Woman, described as an ‘anti-love story’, is written from the perspective of a young woman in 1970s Croatia. We follow the narrator through the evolution of her relationship and subsequent marriage with a misogynistic and toxic man, a relationship that is built on lies, false hope, and fairytale fantasies. When we meet her at the beginning of the novel, it becomes quite clear that she is young and naive, almost clinging to, and falling madly ‘in love’ with the first person she sees, something that is perhaps reflective of her apparent low self-esteem. We follow her story as she navigates the difficult realtionship and marriage with this selfish and self-absorbed man, at the same time as being shown small glimpses as to what life in 1970s Croatia was like for a young woman. Susan explained that during this time, Croatian women were expected to both work and fulfil their ‘traditional roles’ at home, roles that men were exempt from. This is shown in the novel through several strong and exhausted female characters and their somewhat pathetic and lazy male counterparts. The wider context of Yugoslavia however, is not drawn on in the novel, meaning that this narrative could easily take place in any country and in any time and context. The narrator’s thoughts and experiences throughout the relationship are presented through a stream-of-consciousness style of writing with boundless run-on sentences, something that Susan said had to be slightly reworked in the English translation, due to the English language not lending itself well to such sentences.
Susan explained to the group that whilst Marina has been writing for her whole life, she was for a long time unable to find a publisher and many of her works received little to no critical or public response. However, fairly recently a small press became interested in her work, and is now publishing her backlist. Wild Woman is the first of Marina’s books to be translated into English and the character around whom it centres also appears in Marina’s later works at various stages of her life.
Moving on to the group discussion of the novel, it quickly became clear that we all enjoyed the read, despite the somewhat confused and circling writing style that is reflective of the narrator’s state of mind sometimes leaving us a little lost. Marina’s writing is certianly brimming with countless intricate details, something that although at times is hard to keep up with, allows an insight into the protagonist’s mind, a mind overwhelmed with fairytale love stories, literature and notions of what love and life should be like. For this reason, the narrator has a very strong yet highly unreliable voice, and despite appearing fairly determined, she is someone who is easily swayed by fantasies, thus, drawn into a relationship filled with false hope. It is this strong and unique voice that really draws readers in to this very insular novel that presents an extremely personal story.
We also talked a little about how the narrator’s partner remains unnamed throughout the novel, this means that he is constantly being referred to only by sickly ironic pet names such as ‘my one and only’. These nicknames only further frustrate the reader as we see that the narrator appears oblivious (or perhaps chooses to be ignorant) to his lies and unexplained spells of disappearance. As a reader, we also do not come to know the name of the narrator herself until the final pages of the novel, one interpretation of this was that perhaps until she finally freed herself from this relationship, she wasn’t ‘herself’, only understanding her identity in terms of her relationship and dedication to her husband.
Something that also became clear in the group discussion was that whilst we felt some sympathy for the narrator (despite her often frustrating decisions and obliviousness) we felt little to no sympathy for her husband, finding him incredibly unlikeable and manipulative. As a reader, it was very frustrating to see the narrator put up with this, and reading the final pages in which she finally breaks free of this relationship was wonderful. Personally, I think this is a very realistic representation of how some young relationships can pan out, with almost a dawn of realisation as you mature and change.
A very interesting discovery came out of a reader’s question on the repetitive references to the Witch of Grič throughout the novel. Susan found out that this referred to a series of seven novels set in Zagreb in the latter half of the 18th century that all centred around the same woman. An exciting conclusion was drawn that perhaps this is what Marina is attempting to do with the character in this novel, creating a modern-day rewriting of this story through her works following the same character at various stages in her life.
This week’s book club was once again wonderful, offering some great discussions and opening up a brilliant discovery on the book!
I am very much looking forward to next week’s book club, for which we will be reading Grove by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, another woman in translation!