Saturday, 16 May 2015

Death in the Museum of Modern Art - Review

Death in the Museum of Modern Art by Alma Lazarevska. Translated by Celia Hawkesworth. 
Published by Istros Books. 
(If you are interested, as I am! in Balkan Literature in translation, this publisher specialises in this field - a tremendous find)

Alma Lazarevska's prose focuses on detail, carries us into the room or street, expression, object, shadow, that is being described so that we see it with a clarity that can be breathtaking. This is the kind of writing that makes me pause frequently, to give it time to percolate into mind and being, its richness, its use of metaphor, its concentration and elaboration on what is described can provoke the layers and possibilities and intensities of poetry.

In the story Greetings from the Besieged City, memories from many different pasts weave in and out of the present. There's the narrator's remembered reading from childhood, reading to her own child, someone in her class at college, and the memory of a trip to Dubrovnik, where a small boy tries to sell postcards by the Onofrio Fountain. 

Just one of the 16 sides of the Onofrio Fountain, Dubrovnik

Her language catches feelings that can all too easily in real life be passed over too quickly to be acknowledged, here they are caught like fishes in nets, briefly removed from their native element, the kind of amorphous sea of indistinct images that passes like pale clouds or faintly moving curtains, adding sensations sometimes of pungent richness, sometimes draining what is in front of our eyes of colour, sometimes evoking a breeze or movement that really is not there. There is the fish, wriggling, wet and real, it cannot be denied now!
“It was hard not to be sentimental about a face like that. But we both recoil from such emotions. We know all too well how awkward one feels when they subside.”

In other stories, images from the shelling of Sarajevo are mixed in with images of red balloons, of a “high dead branch which the gardener had not managed to cut off during the spring pruning …....knocking tediously against the window pane, buffeted by gusts of wind”.
Mixed in with brief references to shocking deaths and the trauma that comes with it, are descriptions of tablecloths and small spoons, passing mention – with no hint of sentiment or nostalgia – of days when sugar and tea bags were a normal part of life, instead of “tepid water into which we had lowered a tea bag which had already been used several times.” But these brief gestures in the direction of death, suffering, lack, brief as a hand brushing a crumb from a sleeve, are far more potent than long and lavish descriptions, gory and emotional. The gesture, the nuance, the detail, these are like sweet wrappings which you hastily discard, which you acknowledge only by your intent to remove it, its stubborn wrapping requiring your attention only because it presents a brief impediment to your desire. Yet throws the desired object - or the memory of life where sugar, eggs and tea bags were plentiful, into sharp contrast. “Parquet was used for firewood throughout the city”. Memories are stirred and strained, like remembered fruit, ice-cream, postcards of sunsets, time itself is fluid and there are moments of warmth and intimacy with life itself, so sharp and unexpected, they almost sting. 

Celia Hawkesworth's translation renders the writing, with its pared down sentences, its allusions and seeming-simplicity, with a sure and practiced touch, as musical as it is authentic. 

Lazarevska's prose is marvellously layered, deceptively simple, full of questions about life, placed in descriptions of stairwells, suitcases, weather, books and their characters, neighbours, work colleagues, people from the past and the present, some detail of appearance, a gesture that sums up their attitude to life, an image of them that returns to superimpose itself on the physical present.