Week Before The Festival: Goran's Spring in Croatia

The Discreet Charm of Postmodernism: On Love and Oblivion

A Review of Olja Savičević Ivančević’s Pjevač u noći (Singer in the Night)

/ by Davor Ivankovac

It's been six years since Croatian author, Olja Savičević Ivančević, published her highly-praised and awarded novel, Adio kauboju (Adios Cowboy). Her second, long expected and, judging by the critical reviews, equally great novel Pjevač u noći (Singer in the Night) confirms the prominent place the writer has taken in post-Yugoslav literature, in prose as well as in poetry.


Singer in the Night is subtitled Romance which is, in the very beginning, an important signifier, one that would be confirmed in pages to come. But a more careful reader, someone familiar with Savičević Ivančević's past work and, on the other hand, with all of the postmodern genre playfulness, might sense an obvious guideline.


After reading the novel, dilemma should be resolved with what seems to be a paradoxical statement: The expectations are confirmed, but the novel has not let us down. In other words, Singer in the Night is essentially a love story, but far from a trivial one, and that says a great deal about this writer's art of storytelling.


The novel is divided in two parts. The first part, entitled “Letters to Loud Lovers,” is significantly more comprehensive, composed of letters by Slavuj Mitrović and prosaic chapters by Naranča Peović – the main character. It should be noted that, in his letters, Slavuj doesn't speak for himself, he rather plays, mystifying the authorship of each individual letter. In doing so, the novel becomes distinguished by a polyphony of voices. However, Naranča can be considered the main character, being the one who compiled all of the letters and added some sort of a journalistic notes regarding her own quest, after her first husband, Mitrović, went missing.


The storyline is quite simple. Naranča, the screenwriter of internationally-successful soap operas, is selling most of her real estate, until she ends up with only a ship that she jointly owns with Mitrović. Then she travels from Ljubljana (Slovenia) to her hometown of Split (Croatia). But when she doesn't find Slavuj there, she sets off on a journey from Croatia to Bosnia, from the village Mitrovići to the village Tulumbe, in which her old friend from youth lives. However, Slavuj's letters, which help Naranča to reconstruct his destiny, are quite a different story. Slavuj started to write them, equally provoked and inspired by unknown lovers, who made love too loudly for weeks, in one of the apartments on Dinka Šimunovića Street. Not knowing from which apartment the screams and sighs came from, he multiplied the letters in hundreds of copies, and threw them into the mailboxes of all the tenants, which was not always met with approval. The letters were written exceptionally, often containing short stories narrated from different perspectives by possibly real, or fictional, residents of the street, and therefore in different styles, all addressed to unknown lovers. In them, we can read what the poet, painter and performer did, according to the imagination of Mitrović, what other residents think about the unknown lovers: A war veteran, a little girl, a banker, a terminally-ill woman, a person passing by, an unborn poet, an indifferent god and, finally, the spirit of Dinko Šimunović – a Croatian writer after whom the street is named. We can conclude that the letters are provocative, ironic and they surely don't lack in social and political context.


Similar play with letters has been seen in, for example, Mario Vargas Llosa's erotic – art novel The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto), in which the main character sends the letters to the chosen recipients, and in his novel, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (La Tía Julia y el Escribidor), that depicts the life of a radio soap opera writer, who slowly loses control over his job and life in general. Olja Savičević Ivančević implements her novel with many direct, but also slightly less obvious, references to literary, cinematic and musical classics that fit into her work seamlessly, managing not to leave an impression of some kind of postmodernist posture. This is not a prose that is trying too hard to come across as postmodern, but rather prose that combines some poetic trademarks of postmodern literature.


The novel is especially memorable at the level of style and language – in addition to standard Croatian language, we’re met with a myriad of local dialects used by different characters that come from specific social classes (this does credit to Slavuj's craft of storytelling). Nothing contributes as well to the atmosphere of the novel than the language itself—an atmosphere predominantly influenced by Federico Fellini's movies and their urban Mediterranean vibe, with a healthy quantity of sentiment and nostalgia, but not lacking the necessary self(critical) setting.


Whether the topic of her novels is war, media, art or language, as one of the vital points of Croatian nationalism, Savičević Ivančević will take a critical viewpoint, but she will do so while being able to stay within the monologues and dialogues of her characters, managing to avoid too much phrasing. Her criticism is intelligent and well-integrated into a mosaic of this distinct ambient, with all its contradictions.


For example, on the streets of Split, you will find all sorts of dubious characters, from war criminals to their victim’s families, but the greatest scandal of them all is the appearance of loud lovers and Slavuj's letters that follow. As mentioned before, Singer in the Night is, in fact, a love novel, but nothing disturbs the residents of this street more than the emergence of that love. This serves as their key to the novel, and for its main character.


Obviously, the writer after whom the street is named, Dinko Šimunović (1873 - 1933), is also important for the novel: One of Slavuj's letters to the unknown lovers was written by his ghost, and later on we find out that the street named after Šimunović has started to appear elsewhere, first in Detroit, and then elsewhere as a part of Slavuj's artistic performances. It is hard to say if the fact that this Croatian modernist, born in Split, who often depicted female characters in his novels, has any major influence on the plot of the novel, and that remains to be further analyzed. One thing that is certainly significant and very interesting is that, although Šimunović lived in a far more conservative and patriarchal era, in this letter, his ghost comes across as considerably more liberal and tolerant, unlike the society he had found himself in.


Let's put it this way: In the letter, his spirit finds a justification for the loud lovers, because only in love does he see the possibility of escape from the dark contemporary setting, from that enchanted circle of rage, hate and revenge, because “If love disappears as a literary obsession, we are only left with injustice and death.” Those words are a poetic manifesto, not only his, but for Naranča and Slavuj also, quite possibly the author herself, as well.


Towards the end of the first chapter, it becomes clear that Naranča Peović is actually unreliable as a narrator. Also, something we discover in the second and final chapter of the section entitled “Detroit,” turns upside down everything that has been written so far, and enacts a really impressive turn of events. It leaves the reader in doubt, evokes emotions, asking him to go back to the beginning of the book in search of something he possibly missed or passed over. That is, of course, one of the qualities that makes a good novel. And Singer in the Night is a good one, a very good actually and, compared to the writer's cult novel Adio Cowboy, it truly leaves a positive impression. The novel combines the elements of a road novel and detective novel (Naranča Peović as a wild detective) with the elements of social and psychological novel. But before anything else, it is a proper postmodern love novel, a romance, trying hard not to be forgotten or, even worse, trivialized. We can't say for sure if Naranča Peović has succeeded in her intent, but Olja Savičević Ivančević certainly has.

Davor Ivankovac

(1984) is a poet and literary critic for various online and printed journals.