Blesok no. 76, January-February, 2011
Eight walks in the fictional woods
(Rumena Bužarovska: Wisdom Tooth, Blesok, Skopje, 2010)
After the extraordinary debut of her short story collection Scribbles, the latest collection by Rumena Bužarovska, an author who belongs to the new generation of Macedonian contemporary short-story writers, brings us a total of eight stories. Hence, the title of the book Wisdom Tooth (bearing the title of one of the stories) also carries symbolic meaning: the number eight, among other things, signifies cosmic balance, which emphasizes the inner logic and strong composition of the collection. With this book Bužarovska offers eight “walks in the fictional woods” – to paraphrase Umberto Eco and his “Six walks in the fictional woods”, the six Norton lectures held at Harvard University in 1992 and 1993. Naturally, the woods stand as a metaphor for the narrative.
Walk no. 1
“A childhood friend of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for years, wrote to me after the publication of my second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum: ‘Dear Umberto, I do not recall having told you the pathetic story of my uncle and aunt, but I think you were very indiscreet to use it in your novel.’ Well, in my book I recount a few episodes concerning an ‘Uncle Charles’ and an ‘Aunt Catherine’ who are the uncle and aunt of the protagonist, Jacopo Belpo, and it is true that these characters really did exist: with a few alterations, I tell a story from my childhood concerning an uncle and aunt––who had, however, different names. I wrote back to my friend saying that Uncle Charles and Aunt Catherine were my relations, not his, and that therefore I had the copyright; I was not even aware that he had had any uncles or aunts. My friend apologized: he had been so absorbed by the story that he thought he could recognize some incidents that had happened to his uncle and aunt––which is not impossible, because in wartime (which was the period to which my memories went back) similar things happen to different uncles and aunts” (Eco, 1993: 9).
Something similar happens when we first start reading the short stories in Wisdom Tooth: walking through Rumena’s fictional woods, we feel as if we are in our own private garden. Her stories are soaked in “the living life” (as Boris Pasternak used to say), but do not exhibit as much as a glimpse of the pathetic. The characters are so suggestive in their “flesh and blood” portrayal, that the reader, at the moment of reception, spontaneously and subconsciously draws parallels to his/her own life experiences, recognizing events and characters from his/her own memories. Possibly, during the act of creation, the writer herself used characters and events from her reality as prototypes or aesthetic objects for her fictional world. However, these characters, moving from reality into fiction, gain a status of independence, having transformed themselves in a world belonging to all of us. This mingling of reality and fiction, this play with the narrative as if it were a permeable membrane between the real and fictional, ultimately questions the idea of artistic truth.
Walk no. 2
If we accept the view that “Literature is always, in some way, real, just as reality is always, in some way, literary”, or “Looking from the ‘inside’, reality is ‘outside’, but looking from the ‘outside’, reality is ‘inside’” (Solar, 1980: 43), then we are reading reality as fiction, and fiction as reality.
On October 4th, 1926, during one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Andrè Breton met the real Nadja – the future heroine of his novel bearing the same name. Today it is also October 4th, but the year is 2010. Here we are now, in Skopje, 84 years later, at the book launch of Rumena Bužarovska’s collection Wisdom Tooth. Disregarding the coincidental numerological overlap, but bearing in mind Rumena’s extraordinary talent to breathe language into the events and characters of her surrounding, surely we can conjecture that this evening we shall all find ourselves into one of her future narratives? Our reality is, perhaps, just as imaginary as the reality of the heroes existing in Bužarovska’s world. Through the dilemmas such as: Are we real or imaginary characters? Where does reality end, and where does illusion begin? – and, Where does the imaginary end, and where does the real begin? – Rumena plays, quite lucidly, with the great secret of literature.
Walk no. 3
The protagonists in Rumena Bužarovska’s short stories are ordinary people, whose voyages through the existential courses of life are fulfilled on the margins of Erich Fromm’s famous thought “to have or to be”. Rather than heroes of our time, they resemble antiheroes, outsiders who cannot manage to communicate within the circles of their families, friends or surrounding. The individual’s attempt to understand the world is vain, but they also want the world to understand them. Such is the case in “Tina’s Problem”: a warm, moving story which raises the issue of small-town mentality, while subtly criticizing medical institutions. The short story is a remarkable example of the dismal defeat of individual hopes and dreams.
Bužarovska’s heroes frequently follow their own, inner logic, which, as if by some kind of rule, stands against the grotesque vision of the world of others, a world governed by the logic of money. Paradoxically, however, they allow themselves to be swept away by this type of corrupt logic. Do we, if at all, live for ourselves, and to what extent are we subordinated to the desires, needs and expectations of others? How much do we borrow from the viewpoint of the Others? These are the key dilemmas of Keti from the short story “Wisdom Tooth”: in spite of her clear reasoning, she falls into the trap of her friend’s norms, behaving irrationally and against her own will. Overly considerate towards others, she goes against herself: she is powerless and unable to stand up to the violent mechanism of the materialistic world.
This short story bears a distant resemblance to the short story “Sharks” by Mitko Madzhunkov. “Sharks” is an even more drastic example of the relation Self vs. Others, since the hero is put in a situation where he has to choose between death as an “objective danger” on the one hand, and “the irrational braveness of the people” on the other hand. Unexpectedly, in opposition to his rational character, the hero chooses the general hysteria of the masses and goes into the shark-infested waters.
Walk no. 4
A common characteristic of the short stories of Wisdom Tooth is the taste for the bizarre, the unusual, the uncanny. Consciously and intentionally, this book chooses to stand in opposition to the normative order of things, to promote the principle of the abnormal instead of the normal, the incongruous instead of the harmonious, the bizarre instead of the sublime. Nevertheless, the purpose of this ploy is not to serve as a defense of certain negative aesthetic categories and criteria, but rather to employ reason and thus detect anomaly, absurdity, whim, kitsch, the culture of hypocrisy and other types of atypical behavior. In addition, it provokes the taste of the potential readers, shocking them into questioning the distorted values of the grim reality of our contaminated, banal environment, which deeply affects our little lives.
Thus, Bužarovska belongs to the tradition of her distant literary ancestor, Edgar Allan Poe, whose short stories “are textbook examples of the seemingly assimilated ‘bizarreness’ that still provokes reactions” (Rosik, 2002). The sense of the bizarre as an ethic and aesthetic principle serves an auto-imagological function: in the presented unusual image of otherness, we recognize ourselves and the bizarre contemporary environment.
Walk no. 5
In opposition to the bizarre, there are occasional bursts of lyricism in Bužarovska’s prose. She is able to give the ordinary and mundane a poetic and aesthetic dimension. Such lyrical passages are abundant in the short story “Waves”. To exemplify, let us quote a passage: “The city lights passed overhead through the foggy windows and slowly became milky spots between my lashes. I couldn't really see my mother's face because she was watching through the window without wiping the mist off of it. Then with her index finger she tried to draw an eye, but accidentally smeared the right corner. She erased it with her palm and next to it drew two mountains with a sun in between. Slowly the car got warmer, and the mountains started running down the glass. Suddenly, I was all soft and warm and fell sound asleep.”
Here, prose sounds like true poetry.
Walk no. 6
As far as possible from any utilitarian or didactic tendencies, or a type of black and white representation of reality, Bužarovska portrays a dynamic concept of reality: critical and ironic, unburdened by dogmatic perception. Irony (sometimes even the grotesque) grows into a vital philosophy, as it is the only powerful weapon of man in his grueling efforts to survive, despite all. Humor is a corrective of reality; this Rumena knows all too well, employing it tactfully within the stories. However, she also knows that “the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly human” – as Henri Bergson states in his essay Laughter. “Landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable. You may laugh at an animal, but only because you have detected in it some human attitude or expression. You may laugh at a hat, but what you are making fun of, in this case, is not the piece of felt or straw, but the shape that men have given it,—the human caprice whose mould it has assumed” (Bergson, 1911: 9).
The humor marking the relationship between the two sisters in “Dinner Service for Guests” is particularly biting. Included within the short story are drawings – caricatures of the two protagonists, drawn by Jana Jakimovska. Not only do these portraits illustrate the content of the story, but they also evoke allusions to Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, since they visualize the true inner nature of the characters, as opposed to the masks they wear. As if on canvas, the irony is reflected in the drawings, allowing us to read within ourselves. In the end, the function of humor is luddistic, aiming to present, in the style of Bakhtin, the amusing aspects even in the deepest, most serious things.
Walk no. 7
“To read fiction means to play a game by which we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world”, Eco states in his Six walks in the fictional world, adding: “This is the consoling function or narrative – the reason people tell stories, and have told stories from the beginning of time” (Eco, 1993: 87). Of course, “[the narrative”] cannot say everything about this world. It hints at it and then asks the reader to do some of its work. (…) What a problem it would be if the text were to say everything a receiver is to understand – it would never end”, he concludes (Eco, 1993: 3).
Bužarovska prefers the formula of anticipating as opposed to direct descriptions. This is another strength of her open-ended narratives. Hence, her stories have double, or even multiple layers of meaning: the finale alludes to a behind-the-scenes turmoil; something puzzling is left floating in the air even after the formal ending of the story. Such are the examples of “Don’t Cry, Daddy” and “The Death of Stanka, Our Teacher”.
Man is a being destined to dialogue, communication and coexistence with the Others. Communication, however, by rule, is impaired, implying a sense of exclusion (either-or), an imbalance in dialogue or encounter. Hence, this suggests a tension in the narration which in turn opens quintessential dilemmas and ideas that linger with us long after we have finished reading the story. There are no absolute truths about the meanings of our lives; life is a trap – these seem to be the thoughts of the author.
Walk no. 8
I shall conclude these eight walks in the “fictional woods” in the manner in which I started them: with a story. This time, a story of another great master of narration – Italo Calvino. In one of his undelivered Norton lectures, Calvino speaks of the awkwardness felt when someone wishes to tell a joke, but is not good at it. He alludes to a novella by Boccaccio (VI, 1) dedicated to the art of oral narration:
“A jovial company of ladies and gentlemen, guests of a Florentine lady in her country house, go for an after-lunch outing to another pleasant place in the neighborhood. To cheer them on their way, one of the men offers to tell a story.
‘Mistress Oretta, if you please, I shall carry you a great part of the way we have to go on horseback, with one of the best stories in the world.’” The lady accepts and the master cavalier begins his story “which was indeed a very fine one”, but with “his repeating of the same word three or four or six times over, his recapitulations, his ‘I didn't say that right,’ his erring in putting one name for another, he spoiled it dreadfully.”
“Mistress Oretta, hearing him, was many times taken with a sweat and a sinking of the heart, as if she were sick and about to die. At last, unable to endure the torment any longer and seeing that the gentleman was entangled in a maze of his own making, she said pleasantly: ‘Sir, this horse of yours has too hard a trot, and I pray you to set me on my feet again’” (Calvino, 1998).
“The novella is a horse,” – Calvino comments, and then continues: “a means of transport with its own pace, a trot or a gallop according to the distance and the ground it has to travel over; but the speed Boccaccio is talking about is a mental speed. The listed defects of the clumsy storyteller are above all offenses against rhythm, as well as being defects of style… In other words, even correctness of style is a question of quick adjustment, of agility of both thought and expression” (Calvino, 1988).
But Rumena is an deft story-teller; she has the gift for telling stories; she is the Scheherezade of Macedonian literature. She manages to catch us willing readers in her narrative web, so that when we reach the end of one story, we wish to enter another one, where there is a a story within a story within a story within a story…
• Bergson, Henri. (1911/2007). Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. (authorized translation by Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell). Champaign, IL: Book Jungle.
• Calvino, Italo. (1998). Six Memos for the Next Millennium. (eBook)
• Eco, Umberto. (1993). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: Harvard University Press.
• Росиќ, Татјана (2002): Бизарни раскази, Магор, Скопје.
• Solar, Milivoj (1980): Ideja i priča, Zagreb.
1. The Macedonian equivalent of the English word for “wisdom tooth” is literally “the eighth (tooth)”. Hence the double meaning of the title.
2. This essay was read at the book launch held on 4.10.2010. The fact that the sum of the digits amounts to eight is an interesting coincidence.