Montenegro: home truths

Around the end  of May, I was mooching about on Twitter trying to drum up leads for some of the gaps on The List when @markbooks swooped in to recommend The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis for the small South-eastern European country of Montenegro. @stujallen had just read it, he said.

I was in the process of thanking them when @MissCathO joined the party to say that, on the subject of Montenegrin literature, she was hoping to get an English translation of fiction by @ksenijapopovic shortly. Soon after that @ksenijapopovic popped up with the news that her novel was being proofread as we spoke and should be ready in ebook form in the next few weeks. I asked  her to keep me posted and she duly did, tweeting at me excitedly on 16 July to say that A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf was now available on Amazon.

In the meantime, I’d done a bit of research on Ksenija Popovic (or Xenia Popovich as her name is rendered on the e-cover of the English version). It turns out she’s something of a Montenegrin literary star. Her first novel was a bestseller, won an award (the name of which I’ve been unable to find a satisfactory translation for) and was made into a film. She also did the translation of her latest book, the only one so far available in English, herself. Sorry though I was to have to bypass Andrej Nikolaidis, about whom I’d heard several good things, I was going to have to check this out.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf unpicks the backstory of Klara, a classical pianist turned housewife, who at the age of 30 is already ‘old and tired’. Taking us back through her tough childhood in an orphanage, or ‘home for mistakes’, in an anonymous semi-American, semi-European town, the narrative explores the horrific events that led to the collapse of her relationship with her first love, Vuk, and her subsequent lonely marriage.

The wit and cynicism of Klara’s voice is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. ‘Born bitter, unwilling to indulge in childish deceptions’, she looks the calculating mechanisms of the children’s home, where wards of the state are ‘spared the pressure of attending high school’ by being sent to work in the neighbouring factory, full in the face. The early passage where Klara introduces us to the staff’s manipulative method of getting visitors to donate money pulls no punches:

‘The director’s impeccable system, which she liked to call her only child in a sea of other people’s children, triumphed whenever one of us pulled the lady by the sleeve and asked in a sweet voice, “Are you my mommy?”‘

The robustness of the storytelling means that the narrative is able to take the weight of the traumatic events that later crowd in upon it. While the gear change into graphic descriptions of abuse may be too abrupt and shocking for some readers’ tastes, Popovic’s fearlessness and frankness carry it through. Her insight into the way extreme experience warps the dynamics of human relationships is particularly impressive, and I found myself repeatedly typing ‘great’ and ‘wow’ into the notes on my Kindle as I read her account of the mental labyrinth Klara wanders through in the latter half of the novel.

The secret of the book’s success is that, unlike most authors writing about under 18s, Popovic is not an adult writing about children but a person writing about people. Her work is entirely free of that coyness writers usually seem to feel about children’s emotions, meaning that love, fear, anger, sexual attraction and hatred are every bit as raw, present, shocking and enthralling for her young characters as for adults, if not more so.

One or two strange words like ‘pianism’ and ‘snobbism’ have slipped through the translation net. These stick out, however, because the rest of the work flows so well – helped no doubt by the years Popovic spent in the US as a child. In fact, as the book goes on, you begin to wonder if they aren’t meant to be coinages by Klara, so atypical are they of the rest of the text.

But this is splitting hairs. As a whole, this is an outstanding piece of work: raw and fearless. If anyone needs proof of the value of authors being able to self-publish to ebook, it’s right here in this novel: the second self-published translation of a work published commercially in another language I’ve read this year. A fantastic achievement. More please.

A Lullaby for No Man’s Wolf by Xenia Popovich, translated from the Montenegrin by Xenia Popovich (Xenia Popovich, 2012)

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