Fancy spending a night with Tonka? She’s a foul-mouthed mother of one, who is watching tv with the volume turned down and a remote control in her hand. Besides the insomnia, she’s awaiting dawn where she’ll leave her husband, Kiki , for a younger man, Miki.
Welcome to the protagonist from hell, created by Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan. In an interview with Dalkey Archive Press, Ana Lucic said to Rudan “You use a lot of vulgarities. Not a style of writing is usually associated with women writers”, the response?
“I have never thought of myself as a “woman.” I am a human being who lives in a country in an age that allows the poor only one weapon in their duel with life, and that’s swearing. Swearing is the scream of a victim, their only normal way of speech. If they don’t swear aloud, they swear inside. There are many people out there who, after they read my book, realized what rage was brewing inside them. I am a loser, I don’t have lots of money, I don’t have power. But, I have an opportunity to express my rage and not many people have this opportunity. I didn’t want to break any rules, I didn’t even know that there were rules in literature. And this thing about how some people think only men can swear”
This is a 211 page work, which has a short prologue (explaining that Tonka is addressing us, as though an actress in a one person play) and then one “break”. It features long paragraphs that continue for numerous pages. Our “monologue” is being addressed to us (the reader), who interrupts every so often with an inane question. The basic plot of a sleepless, damaged woman, venting her hatred of the planet, whilst she prepares to run away with a younger man captures you from the opening lines of the main book itself:
I’m looking at the Ikea clock on top of the TV. The television is on, but the sound is off. There are some old women talking about something or other. Or maybe they aren’t old. They just have grey hair. And no teeth. I’d look like an old woman too, but every three weeks I pay Alexandra a hundred marks to dye my hair red. I’ve spent four thousand marks on dental work so I can laugh with my mouth open. But...I don’t laugh like that. When I was fourteen, the dentist pulled out my top left incisor. For years I laughed with my mouth closed. We were poor. My mother, my grandmother, and I. I bought myself my left tooth for my twenty-fourth birthday. I didn’t have a big smile even then. I still grin that way.
We learn of her poor upbringing, why she has no father, her bitterness towards her mother and grandmother, and throughout the Croatian vs Serb tensions and the horrors of war. The random killing of women and children, people having their throats cut, being thrown down wells, the rape and pillage, the concept of “motherland” and what people are fighting for all come bubbling to the surface, as Tonka rants her views toward us. As the imaginary reader who asks the inane questions, we appear more interested in the sexual connotations of the stories and keep bringing Tonka back to the stories of affairs, the tale of her best friend’s husband, who is drafted after a liaison with the director of the Defence Office’s wife. All of the tales bringing home a reality that people are more interested in the trivialities of life, they don’t want to hear about the horror.
Nothing is sacred and if you have strong opinions on just about any current affairs matter you are in for an ear bashing from Tonka. Her point of view is rapid fire on all matters, from the Twin Towers, to Coca Cola, to the media, Bill Clinton, Taliban, Serbs, men, women who stay with me, old people, young people, they’re all in Tonka’s sights.
Written whilst Vedrana Rudan was suffering a deep depression this is not a book where I can quote larger sections without profanities or distorting the “stream of consciousness” style. In the aforementioned interview, Rudan speaks of her “influences” whilst writing this work:
When I was writing this book I was going through a terrible depression. I had lost my job . . . I can’t even remember from which newspaper. I would wake up and think: this is the end! I am fifty-three-years old, nobody wants my work, and is there any life without writing? OK, OK, I have two kids, a husband, home, garden, my cat and my mom, but, between you and me, all this doesn’t give me an orgasm on a daily basis. I sat down in front of the typewriter, yes, a typewriter, and entered into a duel with the world that doesn’t know that someone in Croatia, sitting at the kitchen table, is at work one of the world’s greatest novels. I found a publisher immediately, I have no explanation for that.
In a world where we are offended by strong language, where war atrocities are sugar coated to be palatable to the reading public, this book is a breath of fresh air simply by not playing to the expected rules. Confronting is a possible word, although it is worthwhile reading Rudan’s interview at the Dalkey Archive Press website here, simply to give you a taste for her style, her bitterness, her fighting to highlight the Croatian atrocities, put the interview on steroids and you’ve got a rough idea of what this book contains!!! If cynicism, conspiracy theories, candid use of a mirror up towards a society run by corrupt officials is your thing, then I suggest you give this work a try. Whilst potentially missing much of a plot and skipping back and forth as Tonka rambles, the mental unravelling of our protagonist is a voice that needs to be heard. Not fitting a usual narrative structure could also upset a few readers, however there are gems a plenty to make you double-take and check that you in fact inhabit the same planet as the people featured here.
Vedrana Rudan also has a story in the “Best European Stories 2015” anthology, a work titled “My Granddaughter’s Name Is Anita” (translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac) This story was the catalyst for me exploring her work further, and laying my hands on “Night” as reviewed above. A different musing on relationships:
My head is in the closet. I am sniffing my blouses. I count them. Forty-three colorful babes watch me merrily. White, green, red, pink, pale green, the color of water, black, I even have one the color of dirt. A big, dull, dark-brown blouse I don’t dare take it out of the closet because it is a gift from my husband. When he gave it to me I thought, God, you know nothing about me. A dark-brown blouse. A mound of dirt by a freshly dug grave.
There are a lot of common themes here, ribbons on wreaths, sex as a function, expensive clothes, porn films, maternal love, movies the opposite of real life. A sharp short story highlighting the perils of marriage.