This is going to be a challenge – how on earth do I write a review about one of the most challenging and revealing love stories I’ve ever come across without revealing a little of myself? Many many moons ago I came across Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (it must have been over 25 years ago as the movie came out in 1988 and I saw that long after I’d read the novel), and its tale interweaving politics and love. Could what Kundera did for the eternal existentialist angst in Czechoslovakia be repeated by Koscec in Croatia?
Kundera gave us a roguish Tomas and the libertine Tereza, and Koscec gives us a male and a female narrative duet. I could go into ramblings about how similar I found some of the sections but then that would probably give the impression that this novel either owes something to the widely celebrated Kundera one or is inferior/superior in some way. I said this review was going to be a challenge and so it is turning out to be….stop that whole comparison thing, I’ll only get feedback that it didn’t work or some “expert” in Balkan literature giving me a lecture on my ignorance. So I’ll start again.
Marinko Koscec is a lecturer in French literatue at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, he is an editor and a teacher in novel writing and has written five novels winning the Mesa Selimovic Prize for the novel Someone Else in 2001. “A Handful of Sand” was nominated for the Jutarnji List award (a Croatian Literary award) – thanks Istros Books for the biography.
This is a tale told through two nameless voices, a male character who is living in Canada and a female back in Croatia. They alternate chapters and you can distinguish them not only through their different voices and foibles but also through different font. This is a novel that has very limited dialogue and one that is basically shaped through their personal revelations and feelings, musing on subjects such as art, publishing, suicide, loneliness, depression, drug abuse, relationships with family, living in post-independence Croatia and ultimately love.
Sorrow began to accumulate in me at a very early stage. I didn’t call it that straight away, and even later I only used that word as a blanket term for things whose exact reason and origin I couldn’t discern. When there was pressure from the outside I found the strength to resist; but in periods of peace, when the latest breaches had been stopped, I was plunged into an unjustified mood of dejection and listlessness, which revealed the extent of my weakness.
As each of our protagonists reveals more and more detail about the road that leads to them ultimately meeting each other, we feel their ultimate search for belonging, their loneliness and can personally feel what it is like for them to need love.
He never mentioned my sexual rights again. Of course, I kept seeing the boy I lost my virginity with. How quaint that sounds, I lost it, and in return I gained lifelong guilt, having betrayed paternal love with my genitals. Your virginity is gone and now for the rest of your life you bear the brand of that moral fall and the obligation to redeem yourself in the eyes of your father and all their surrogates. Every love takes you a step further away from your father’s. All your loves will be but a surrogate for the one you kill first, so they say. The only attainable ones are those painfully reminiscent of the unquenchable yearning for love, paler and even paler copies of the original no one has ever seen. There’s no love comparable with what we owe our Creator. That debt is carried on from generation to generation, with interest. Since its original creation, the principal has grown at a bewildering rate. It’s immeasurable. Invisible to the simpleton’s eye! It can’t see the tree of love, on which it is only a bud, for the wood of vulgarity all around. It doesn’t perceive the vertical of the tree, which extends to the very heart of love, to the heavenly superfather who created us all in the image of His own narcissism so long ago that He’s long since forgotten it.
As I mentioned in my review of “Philda” late last year I can, at times, really struggle with a male writer attempting to give voice to a female lead (or vice versa) but in the case of this novel I personally found both voices utterly convincing, however bleak they were. I’d rather not give away whether the ultimate joy of meeting each other and falling hopelessly in love will end in doom, but the tenuous thread by which we live and the role of love is raised numerous times, will our narrators succeed?
A novel that I thoroughly enjoyed simply because of the existentialist musings and wonderful depictions of minutiae in our everyday lives. One that’s well worth hunting down, another great addition to my translated readings and as I posted on twitter a little while ago I see this as a worthy inclusion on the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize list. Thanks for a few twitter followers for pointing me in the direction of this gem.