The globalization of gender and history in contemporary Serbian women's writing.
Mirjana Novakovic's Fear and Servant is undoubtedly one of the most popular and best sold Serbian novels in the last decade, and one of those books that exhibit extreme subtlety in analyzing gender roles. The author who gained instant fame takes position on complex cultural and political issues within a plot which mixes realistic and fantastic elements, ancient and modern history, references to politics and witty parodies of various authors and styles. Fear and Servant unites a multilayered narrative with a row of fictitious characters, archetypal forces and contemporary politicians. Using a conventional gothic plot about the search for vampires in 18th century Serbia, Fear and Servant tells of countless political traps and an eternal struggle for power. Blending horror with politics and mystery with history, this novel turns into a truly postmodern recount of politics and religion and yet, it deploys the strategies of a conventional genre novel. The reader is offered nothing less than the devil's version of the New Testament and an apocryphal recount of the history of Belgrade.
Set in 18th century in Belgrade under Austrian administration, the narrative revolves around the 1725 arrival of the commission from Vienna to investigate vampires in Serbia. Allegedly, after the death of Petar Blagojevic in the Serbian village Kiseljevo, some peasants claimed that late Petar was coming to them during the night to drink their blood. After the commission and the local priest had exhumed Petar's body, stabbed it with a hawthorn stake and burned it, the report about the "arch vampire" was sent to Belgrade and Vienna, soon turning into the main theme in Vienna's public circles. In a manner resembling Stephen Greenblatt's strategies of fashioning histories and identities, Mirjana Novakovic uses this trivial anecdote to start a rich narrative which connects the turbulent eighteenth century Serbia with reminiscences of the literature, history and pop culture of today. This fascinating account of the hunt for vampires turns out to be a clash of two narrative forces: there is a seemingly mellow voice of a woman on the one hand, and a braggart perspective of a man on the other. The masculine version of the story is rendered by the self-proclaimed count Otto von Hausburg who is, literally speaking, the Devil in disguise, whereas the feminine history (or her story) comes from a true aristocrat, Maria Augusta, Princess of Thurn und Taxis and wife to regent of Serbia. The princess and the devil set off on a vampire hunt in order to investigate the case, but also to redefine their priorities in life.
Instead of objectifying gender roles and casting stock characters from the "beauty and the beast" paradigm, Novakovic boldly subverts the stereotypes of a fairy tale: the princess is not living happily ever after (her life is miserable due to a loveless marriage, to begin with), whereas the Devil fails to embody a fearless monster, displaying a serious lack of either courage or authority. Von Hausburg is handsome, polite, educated, cynical and self-centered, stooping to all the mortal sins he advocates: while displaying a multitude of human traits and some of demonic characteristics, the Devil is at the same time a parody of manhood and masculinity types. Whenever required to act as an immortal figure of evil, Hausburg vacillates and flees, thus exhibiting a typical case of "masculine stress:" mechanisms of masculinity which accompany masculine gender roles result in emotional stress, so that Von Hausburg proves inadequate in situations which require fitness and strength, and unable to suppress tender emotions. Novakovic's Devil is actually an inverted parallel to the famous demonic figures ranging from Milton's Satan to Bronte's Heathcliff. Being proud and easy to scare, he is at the same time prone to succumb to charms of Mary Magdalene and quick to sneer at love and devotion. Whenever he is afraid, he smells of brimstone, he recites the lyrics of "Sympathy for the Devil" by Rolling Stones, drinks beer and smokes hashish; he calls Jesus Christ the Fishmouth and mocks Christian doctrine, turning it into clever and vile manipulation. Hausburg is as cynical in his use of language as with practicing religion: for instance, he hates travelling at the very crack of dawn since he hates dawn and "whatever crack it crawls out of (Novakovic 2009: 13). He does not understand why Baron Schmidlin talks "nineteen to the dozen:" "Why nineteen, I've always wondered; why not eighteen, or twenty, or even my old favorite, thirteen." (Novakovic 2009: 25). Von Hausburg's ironical examination goes further than language, deep into myth, history, epic literature and moral code, demonstrating refusal to be a blind follower of the divine principle, and wish to rebel against rules and hierarchy.
Otto von Hausburg and Princess Maria Augusta Thurn und Taxis spin their respective stories and resolve their respective conflicts, finding out in the end that they have both been mere pawns of powerful mega systems in religion and politics: while Hausburg unnecessarily worries that the Judgement Day might have come if the dead have risen for real, Alexander von Wirttemberg, Regent of Serbia, uses the hunt for vampires to cover up his treason, unaware that his wife pines away after his love, and that her ambitions are far from politics or plotting--or so it seems to the reader ready to take her words at face value.
History and conspiracy always intersect in novels and stories by Mirjana Novakovic, but in Fear and Servant two alternating narratives clash with history and ideology by opposing each other. The conspiracy is a powerful weapon of all the participants of the vampire hunt, being an effective exit strategy for all sorts of problems and a cunning disguise of betrayal and cheat. For instance, the flow of refugees coming from Nis by the end of the novel is officially proclaimed vampires so that they could be denied help and assistance.
While Von Hausburg tells his story in the present time, shifting focus to the remote or recent past, rendering the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as well as his encounter with the Jesuits in Vienna one month prior to the time of the narrative, the Princess questions her memory and reconstructs the course of events more than fifty years after the vampire hunt: her narrative collides with the Satan's, swerves aside and alters causes and effects, offering a mostly intimate account of a desolate life without love and understanding. For all that we know, she could be questioned by the Inquisition. Both the Princess and the Satan use the first person narrative, supplying their testimonies with details, allegations and explanations that should make them both reliable narrators in their own right. The reader manages to understand the secret bond between the two they are both so willing to hide: the bishop Thurn and Valsassina is coming to Belgrade to save the Devil and settle the case, and he is the one who will, in fifty years' time, become the confessor and the examiner of Maria Augusta. The bishop is also the one who prophesies the Doomsday on August 11th 1999--the day when the entire Serbia seriously panicked over the solar eclipse, which was, on the other hand, the most-viewed total solar eclipse in human history.
The same as an astronomical phenomenon was used to manipulate people worn out with the NATO air campaign and a decade of political instability, fictitious vampires serve as a perfect excuse to a world brewing with conspiracies and schemes in which the supernatural becomes a catalyst to the action: it intensifies the plot, yet the devil and the alleged vampires remain unchanged. The most mysterious figure is the bishop Thurn and Valsassina, who might well be--apart from acting as the confessor, judge and supreme plotter--the hidden author of the book and the ultimate force spinning the yarn of history. The influence of Princess, her husband Lord Regent of Serbia and several noblemen on the fall of the city of Nis and the surrender of Belgrade remains shrouded in mystery as well. The postmodern novel with its intricate web of references is not supposed to end in the total disclosure: it rather demonstrates that the fantastical and supernatural are mere ironic disguise of politics.
The Devil is aware that his image was created to inspire fear and subdue the frightened. Still, he needs to point out that his public persona is constructed in order to cherish the idea of "mighty opposites:"
I never promised anything out of the ordinary. Those are the kind of promises one makes to simpletons and the mad. All I offered was to save his life, there on the Mount of Olives. All I wanted was to persuade him to flee the millstone. I never promised loaves of bread for stones, or flights through the air, or power and might. Never. They made all that up afterwards, to make me seem greater and more terrifying. I had to be made into something unspeakably dangerous, so he could be unspeakably good. (Novakovic 2009: 123)
The function of the narrators is to display the ultimate unresolvedness of any private history or story: the facts of reality vanish into thin air, and what remains is the story twisting these facts. The incompleteness of both testimonies implies that both real and the fantastical depend upon the undecided status of the reality check: we might question vampires, angels and the Morning star singing in the sky the same way we question the motives of the characters to swerve away from the truth.
So you think it makes me happy to finish a story? Ha! I feel just like Old What's-His-Name on the first Sunday. For I created this world. Even John Damascene says so, and he's a saint. This whole world is mine. My lie. Apart from me it doesn't exist. I am the good storyteller who made it up and said what it looked like--this horse, the reins, the hand that holds them. And the ramparts behind the city ahead. And the princess and her prince, and even a frog if need be ... (Novakovic 2009: 244)
Stubbornly sticking to her story, the Princess says: "I've told you everything just as it was" (Novakovic 2009: 267); her very last sentence, which puts an end to the novel, is a mild but resolute request: "Now let's hear what you have to say." The mysterious you is probably the hidden author of the book, the bishop Thurn and Valsassina who will tell us the complete truth, which is hidden somewhere in between two alternative and alternating narratives.
While this novel is auto referential in the manner of the postmodernist fiction, it is still closely related to the contemporary world and reality with its vivid and sharp satire and parody directed at the modern ways in general, particularly at the Serbian cultural models. Von Hausburg sneers at love, belief and trust, and yet he hopelessly falls for mortal women. The subplot of the novel focuses on the obsessive but hopeless quest for love and happiness.
"Love is the mother of all ills," tells the Princess to her lady-in-waiting. "I did not fall in love because I was looking for boundless strength or flawless beauty or bottomless wisdom. On the contrary, it was when I realized the imperfections that I began to love ..." (Novakovic 2009: 25). There are many hints that the princess's wailing disguises her active role in the treason and that her seemingly estranged husband is in fact her accomplice. The active and sinister role of a woman shows yet again how deceptive gender representations can be.
In the intricate interplay of Hausburg's and the princess's true lies, the story changes from a mere hunt for vampires to an extended examination of the nature of good and evil. Novakovic struggles with the fluctuating truth of language and its inability to portray reality, due in part to the inherent instability of a world which shifts according to each individual's perception of it, but also thanks to the inherently unstable nature of language and communication. Gender and history share the instability of the global world: there are no fixed roles, no fixed identities and all certainties vanish into thin air.
Serbian women writers are concerned with the truth of gender in history and therefore they indulge into brave experiments with historical perspectives. The best case in point is probably Mirjana Durdevic with her eleventh novel Kaya, Belgrade and the Good American. Deciding that there are no fixed elements in the narrative, either in history or in fiction, she casts a witty and comic projection of her own incarnation, with the intention to tackle the issues of changing gender roles in a patriarchal community ready to embrace diversity and turbulent historical, political and technological changes. Apart from being a family saga and a social tapestry of the Serbian capital Belgrade between the 1920s and the 1950s, the novel unites elements of melodrama and mystery that keep the reader deeply engrossed in the intricate plot. The author partially reconstructs the less known episodes of Serbian cultural history such as the cultural encounter with the Kalmyks, a western Mongol people whose temple in Belgrade was the only place of Buddhist worship in Europe between 1929 and 1944. Mirjana Durdevic focuses on the brief historical episode of the Kalmyks' arrival to Yugoslavia after the savage reprisals by Bolsheviks against the Kalmyk people and Buddhist clergy during the Russian Revolution. Settling in Belgrade, a small Kalmyk community lives a secluded life and yet invests energy into strengthening ties with their new home. The title character Kaya is a young Kalmyk girl who is gifted and privileged, cunning and perky, an outsider who basks in all the pleasures that upper middle class life in Belgrade can offer. The story of Kaya starts as a conventional plot about a foundling. Half Russian half Kalmyk, she arrived in a boat to Zelenika with a contingent of Russians, beleaguered by fever starvation and lice, with an elderly woman who had simply taken charge of her after her mother's lifeless body was thrown over the railing somewhere around the Strait of Otranto. She was adopted by Dr Hara-Davan, who took proper care of her, and that is how her eventful life starts: Kaya lives through several turbulent episodes including forbidden pleasures, flirtation and putting her child up for adoption, but also the robbery of church relics and participation in Nazi experiments. Kaya bedazzles John Dyneley Prince, the US Ambassador to Yugoslavia and a renowned linguist, becomes his protegee and the next best substitute for his absent granddaughter. The Kalmyk girl and the good American of the title are close friends of Serbian writer Mica Durdevic, a humorous sketch of the writer's former self who lived in the first half of the twentieth century as a writer and fencing teacher who trained young girls. Ms Durdevic is also a former student of architecture who spends a great deal of her time fighting tooth and nail to provide proper urban planning for Belgrade. Most of her stratagems or ideas go awry, but she never gives up either on spying Kaya or on selflessly helping the Kalmyk community.
Mrs. Durdevic, a well-known Belgrade writer and even better-known fencing teacher, is seen for the first time sitting on a branch of a cherry tree and waiting for her cat to come down. This casts an unconventional portrait of a testy, confident and bold woman who carries her plans through regardless of the consequences. She enjoys controlling lives of her small circle of friends and never lets anyone question her good but somewhat intractable intentions. Her American friend John Dyneley Prince, the one-time professor from Columbia, was based on a historical person, but the author adds juicy details, such as his former doctoral student, Pearl Buck, who is constructed as an inverted parallel to Mrs. Durdevic. Buck is described as a "dauntless woman, inclined to living dangerously, highly intelligent, educated and a talented writer who wrote excellent stories (...), but did not have the courage to publish them" (Durdevic 2010: 27). The author decides to turn her heroine into a comic version of the American Nobel Prize winner: "Mrs. Durdevic, who felt exactly the same about herself, except that her inclination to living dangerously did not extend all the way to China, the Balkans were more than enough for her, and who had no qualms about publishing her perhaps not so excellent stories--had a theory: Mrs. Buck was hiding a terrible secret in China and avoiding publicity" (Durdevic 2010: 27).
David Albahari's Bait, a novel about exile, memory and inheritance, is far from being playful when history is in question. The plot is triggered by the audio tapes, brought to Canada from the Former Yugoslavia by the main character, which contain his mother's personal history. The narrator of Bait hears his mother's voice speaking in his mother tongue "across time and outside of life" (Albahari 1996: 93), equaling her voice to an urn containing the ashes and a substitute to reality. Along with his mother's story, the character narrates his own life to his Canadian friend Donald, a writer who fights to grasp the meaning of both ethnic and intimate conflicts. The three characters have different experiences, shaped by history and culture, being unable to communicate the pain and the frustration of the ardent wish to be understood. For the narrator's mother, "history had been a fact, a mallet that with inexorable precision had come down on her" (Albahari 1996: 20). Born in a small Bosnian town, she got married in Zagreb to a communist Jew from an Ashkenazi family, and converted to Judaism at the beginning of the Second World War. In order to escape the Holocaust that started in Zagreb, the family moved to Belgrade, but the father was sent to a concentration camp and killed. The narrator's mother has to represent herself as an Orthodox Serb again, in order to save the lives of her children, and her manipulations with her identity go on. "I never stopped being a Serb, nor did I renounce the Jewish faith then. In war, life is a document. What was written on the paper, and on all my papers, still said that I was a Serb" (Albahari 1996: 28). At first, forced to change her identity because she "did not exist" for her husband's family, the narrator's mother had to revert to the "old," abandoned identity which suddenly provided her with an existence in the historical context. The Balkan identities thus seem to be absolutely inconvenient: they are subject to change, they must be adopted and renounced, lost and found.
The impossibility of self-identification in the Balkans seems to be as absurd as the postmodern transfigurations of identity: the narrator's mother was born shortly before the fall of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy and saw the birth of a new country, which first became the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians (1918), then The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1929), only to--shortly after World War II--turn into the National Federative Yugoslavia, and then the Socialistic Federative Republic of Yugoslavia that fell apart in the 1990s. The changes of the name and the political system denied the possibility of forming a fixed identity. The disintegration of the private self is influenced by the social-political discourse in a tragic way. In the case of the identification of the Balkans the playfulness and experimental potential of the postmodern identities are irretrievably lost to a dismal threat of social exclusion.
Serbian writer Jelena Lengold casts unassuming accounts of ordinary lives with an ambition to discuss the tricky and ambivalent concept of everlasting love rather than engage into questioning the turmoils of history or impasses of gender inequality. Her female characters belong to a paradigm of recurring traits: their fear of happiness is almost as unbearable as their fear of death, while their intense awareness of love's fragility and inability to last forever stems from their turbulent family histories. Lengold's female characters are obsessed with the gender-linked miscommunication, with the unbridgeable gulf between men and women, especially between husbands and wives. Not yet estranged, but already far from burning with desire for each other, the couples in her fiction try to redefine their relationships, looking for excitement in communication and sometimes even using new technology and novel mass media formats of communication in order to rekindle the flame that has long burned to ashes.
A particular rendition of a ritual of womanhood can be found in Jelena Lengold's novel Baltimore. In a seemingly simple and globally recognizable plot dealing with a woman writer's fighting a creative crisis, there is an unexpected twist: the solace for futile life and inspiration gone dead can be found in a specific union of literature and technology. In the narrator's imaginative territory, the identity of Edgar Allan Poe is transformed into a "virtual unknown"--an imaginary friend and lover whose elusive figure exists only in the eye of a web camera. The wordscape of the novel suggests that the pursuit of love turns into a journey towards death, transforming the virtual and fictional Baltimore into an allegory of death and the land of Never More.
Baltimore portrays a woman in her mid-forties who is feeling lonely and adrift within her marital bliss gone sour, trying to settle a strained relationship with her mother and fight writer's block. At quarter past two every day she is at her computer, watching via web camera a man in Baltimore heading off to work, quarter past eight his time. The nameless narrator invents a biography of the Baltimore man, names him Edgar after E. A. Poe, and constructs his quotidian routine and emotional history. She never considers the possibility of meeting her imaginary friend Edgar in person, since she is convinced that the deepest bonds are created between strangers--"the more your nearest and dearest love you, the lesser their wish to know who you really are" (Lengold 2003: 63), therefore the most intimate friendship springs where people know nothing of one another. This proposition empowers the cyberspace with countless possibilities denied in everyday life offline. Therefore only a fictitious, virtual character in the novel Baltimore is endowed with a name and a history: the narrator remains nameless as well as her husband, her mother and her psychoanalyst. The only exception to the rule is found when the narrator gets involved in an online romance with a young man: her short-lasting virtual self-constructed as a sexual predator and dominatrix goes under the name of Lucy. The affair in real life, that results from the virtual encounter, is brief and insignificant, not a feasible way to compensate passion and romance missing from her marriage and is quickly forgotten. The reader is even misled to believe that the sexual adventure might have been nothing short of an emotional idealist's wet dream.
Lengold character's need to communicate is reflected in her secret desire to see her own reflection in Edgar's eye. At times, she almost manages to meet his gaze when he smiles into the surveillance camera. Although she constructs his life and daydreams of their affair, this is not another fantasy of a perfect love or a simulation of an alternative life, since Baltimore more often than not refers to death, articulating heroine's strong belief that perfect love and the extinction of life make an indissoluble whole. In the end of the novel, the heroine makes one puzzling remark which questions both her destiny and her sheer existence: "Nobody will ever know why I went away, where I went and what became of me. Some will try to find the clues in my first and last novel. They will start looking for me in Baltimore, but in vain" (Lengold 2003: 102).
The wordscape of the novel offers an explanation that search for love and devotion has only been a part of journey towards death. Baltimore is thus not only a point on the virtual map, not only a fantasy about Mr. Right, not a sexual simulation or stimulation, but rather the Poesque land of Never More. Lengold weaves an intimate history dealing with a ritual of womanhood, differing to a great extent from the historical and cultural reconstruction of motherhood in David Albahari's novel and the bleak testimony of a failed intervention on history in Novakovic's Fear and Servant. What is common to these three authors is the acute awareness that history offers multiple ways of dealing with women's histories.
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VLADISLAVA GORDIC PETKOVIC
University of Novi Sad
Vladislava Gordic Petkovic is Full Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia and the Head of the Department of English at the Faculty of Philosophy. She has written widely on the English and American contemporary fiction, women's writing, Shakespearean tragedy, literary theory, media and technology. She published two books about the contemporary short story, The Syntax of Silence (1995) and Hemingway (2000). Her books of scientific articles and essays Correspondence: The Currents and Characters of Postmodern Fiction (2000), On the Female Continent (2007) and Mysticism and Mechanisms (2010) are mostly dealing with women's writing and contemporary fiction. Vladislava Gordic Petkovic writes on literature and technology in her books Virtual Literature (2004) and Virtual Literature 2: Literature, Technology, Ideology (2007). The books of short essays The Literature and the Quotidian (2007) and Formatting (2009) collect newspaper articles on the variety of writers across ages and cultures published in Belgrade daily paper Politika.
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|Author:||Petkovic, Vladislava Gordic|
|Publication:||Journal of Research in Gender Studies|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2014|
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