'Hair Everywhere' by Tea Tulić (Istros Books)
This novel by the Croatian writer Tea Tulić brings us stories from the young narrator's life, such everyday incidents as shopping in the market, a walk in the park, reading the news, playing with friends, the comments of family members. These stories often combine the compression of poetry with a filmic quality, suggesting a series of stills taken from a narrative movement. The reader's imagination fills in the spaces between the images that we are privileged to view.
But while these descriptions are of 'ordinary life', the background theme of life's transience, often in an understated way, forms part of the picture – a neighbour who falls in the tenement stair, photographs of dead family members, pets that die, documentaries on TV about the second world war. These are all seen from the perspective of the narrator, sometimes as a child, sometimes as a young adult, as she attempts to understand the weighty questions of life and death.
Religion's rules and tenets too, could be puzzling. In 'A short Conversation about our God', she decides she wants to be baptised. Afterwards she feels 'immortal, safe ... [and] engaged to God.' But as she thinks of those unbaptised people – 'I asked the priest: How can God send my father to hell if He loves me?'
The form of the novel is unusual. Instead of the longer chapters we are accustomed to, many of the short condensed bursts of prose read like poems written in a conversational style. These packages of experience – images, conversations, questions, facts and imaginings – are heightened by the background, and sometimes foreground story of the narrator's mother and her advancing illness. But in using this form, where memory and experience are cut up like pieces of a tailor's fabric to form a larger whole, Tea Tulić is in good company.
I think of Irena Vrkljan's 'The Silk, the Shears', a kaleidoscopic autobiography that follows associations and cuts up chronological time; and the marvellous rhythms and descriptions of Danilo Kiš's 'Diamonds, Ashes' where feelings and moods take off like hot air balloons, and facts are not so much the anchors of reality but, like the landscape seen from a great height, are imbued with a soft-edged nostalgia.
Tulić’s nostalgia however is more laconic, stripped bare. From 'Catechism': 'I kept the book under my pillow at night. I didn't know whether that was right. Nothing was written in the book about keeping secrets.' Her treatment is to take the most apparently mundane events of life and pack them with energy, intensity, significance or apparent lack of relevance, and the measure of her craft shows in the seeming-careless, almost perfunctory telling as if the narrator has noted these events in a scrap book and invites us to flick through the pages.
The seeming-simplicity, as if recording events in no particular order, or rather through the order of association, with a nod to chronology, belies the art of both packing and paring, that has gone into the writing. A label from a packet (tea), family members (grandma, grandad, mum), snippets of news (newspapers).
From 'Crisps': '"Drunk again, poor man!" Grandma was standing in the kitchen stirring her burnt minestrone soup. Mr Neighbour had missed the steps this time, and his chance for a new day.'
Her writing captures that languid and seeming-inconsequential feeling that life events as lived in the present often have. Overshadowing these seeming anecdotal events is the narrator's fear and anxiety for her ill mother. While this is not elaborated, occasional references are made to a 'snake in her belly'.
And this is often how it feels, when something momentous is happening in our lives, and the world continues in its own way, with its trivia, its nonsense, its inconsequential drivel. Events that have nothing to do with you, that have no relationship with your life, suddenly become imbued, if not with meaning then at least with connection, just because you heard it then, just because you saw it there. Just because it is contiguous with your own life, it rubs shoulders with you, it leans its elbows on your arm as if was a trusted friend (it isn't), as if it has every right to do so.
From 'Mum': 'I passed the square where, a few days before, a handsome young man breathed his last.' From 'Other Types of Tea': 'I shan't buy tea in filter bags any longer. They contain only dust.' From 'The Market Place': 'A woman with potatoes in a bag and a glint in her eye asks: "Is anyone dead?"'
Here, grief is not romantic but is mixed up with fears, selfishness, techniques for avoidance and distraction, as well as determination and courage. There are many levels in our grief edifices and we visit them all in this book, from basement to balcony.
After the death of her husband, then one of her daughters, grandma says: 'I've been left all alone.' This refrain is echoed later, by the narrator. But while death is mentioned, it is often in an almost tangential way – the neighbour, the boy in the park, pets. And alongside sadness there is lightness and quirky humour, there is compassion, there is what continues, what is passed on, as well as what is lost. A delightful, tender, uncompromising book, and translated by Coral Petkovich with close attention to detail, feelings and mood.