Vida Ognjenović - Adulterers
Amalija Kojić-Stanić, known to friends and family as Bubica, comes home to find her husband has left, and isn't coming back. The note is calm and courteous, polite with a touch of affection, but it's message is clear – her husband, Boško, has fallen in love with someone else, and that's that, really. No harm done, but their life together is over. Bubica is, understandably, shocked, and -
No. Stop. Novels, particularly great ones, are more than a paragraph description of their plot. Suffice to say that the plot of Serbian author Vida Ognjenović's novel, Adulterers is, particularly in its opening pages, secondary to the depth and clarity of self-examination presented by its main character, Bubica. Ognjenović has created in Bubica a character of exceptional focus, one who relentlessly self-examines and, through her examination, probes deep into the concept of identity, family, and the desire to understand one's self.
Bubica is well educated, and has translated several books. Her ex-husband has a doctorate, which means in effect that we are dealing with intelligent people. She recognises that the onset of depression can be combatted with the latest drugs and medicines, and notes that
Once I'd been branded, made recognizable by their diagnosis, and given a bottle of pills for the maladjustment, disorientation and psychosomatic woes, they'd approve my temporary release, seeing as I pose no danger to the community, on the condition that I return regularly for check-ups.
But this leads to a “bond of dependency, with me as their transparent homunculus of flesh and blood, forbideen to keep secrets, and them as shadowy coven attending to my malady from afar.” Bubica rejects medication, and in doing so, she also rejects the easy answers available from self-help books and from friends with consoling words but disinterested tones. Indeed, with friends like these:
Admit it, Bubica, you thought you'd settled everything once and for all by getting married, didn't you? And here you are, reeling from the shock and pain. Silly girl. Who's to say it's not for the best that the two of you have split up? Only time will tell. Why are you looking at me like that? Tell me I'm wrong, she said, her voice rising. What's with you? Tell us, Bubica, am I right or am I just babbling?
Who would want to unburden one's self to them? Instead, she turns inward, neglecting herself physically in an attempt to understand the course of her life and the processes and events by which everything has come to a single, horrible point. She notes that, “[w]ho can say how and when all this started in me? Perhaps even before I was born.”
From here, things become interesting. Adultery, the confession of it, and the reaction to it, clearly acts as an end point for a relationship. The marriage either concludes, or it continues under a different guise than before. For Bubica, the end of her marriage is expected to be a conclusion of much that is good, but for her it instead becomes the beginning point from which her opportunity for self-examination arises. It forces Bubica to delve deeply into the composition of her self, and to question the solidity of her identity, which previously seemed strong, but now appears to have cracks and fractures. So much of her current identity was wrapped up in her husband, but now she thinks that
In fact, I don't believe he cares about what I feel and how I am. I don't believe that any of us, including him, can truly care about what happens in other people's lives, even the lives of those closest to us. Human curiosity is gauged, like the fuse box, up to a certain voltage: once you surpass it, you have a short circuit.
Bubica, at first somewhat unwillingly, explores her memory of the times she shared with Boško, and finds that the slow and steady entanglement of two lives can in fact become constricting, and is impossible to forever truly sever. Though their current, practical ties might be cut – financial, physical, sexual, and so on – there is a significant amount of Bubica's life which will always remain tossed together with Boško's. You may be able to sell or destroy the bed upon which you first made love together, Ognjenović tells us, but you can never destroy the fact that you first made love together. Our memory is only ours, and it's something we can't ever properly escape from.
These memories weigh on her, pin her down into submission until it is all she can do to simply live. Bubica forgoes society and food, the attempts by her friends to console her, and the sometimes useful distraction of work. Her recollections begin short and sharp, anecdotes with which to reflect upon her current situation. But as she travels through the history of her self, she begins, in a strange way, to 'open up' to herself; she relaxes into her memory and spends greater time within her past than she does her present. The effect on the text is that her current situation becomes somewhat lost, and her past, which is to say her self, becomes the primary topic under examination, and not so much the collapse of her marriage. Her life, like all lives, is comprised of significant points that blaze brightly against the generally dull nature of our existence, and it is these bright spots to which her intellect turns.
The brightest (not best) point, for Bubica, involves the discovery of her adoption at a very young age. She does not, however, react negatively – far from it; she loves her parents just as much after they tell her – but it begins the process by which her identity comes under scrutiny. Upon discovering, in her thirties, that she is adopted, Bubica starts to question which aspects of herself come from her adopted parents, and which from her natural (she hates the term 'real'). Boško becomes aware of her adoption and he, too, wonders now about Bubica. From this springboard the tension and conflicts of the narrative begin to resolve, and a sense of Bubica, and her troubles, coalesce.
Bubica's adoption is actually quite an interesting angle to the story, one that at first seems tangential, and then takes centre stage. Being adopted is, in a certain manner, somewhat like losing an identity, and it is to Ognjenović's credit that the themes mesh so well. Bubica at first tells us that,
“In very few things do people differ so deeply and completely as in their suffering, although for some reason we persist in believing the contrary.”, but then she soon notes that,
I am observing myself as if I'm in a wax museum, in my memory returning endlessly to face, parts of conversations, conduct, complete scenes, pictures with no order or rhythm, often such as they impose themselves and then I live through them again.
And increasingly her 'museum' becomes inhabited by the memories of, and consequences from, her adoption. Boško never fades from the picture, but he certainly recedes, and in fact is generally shown in a positive light, for he helps her quite significantly in locating her natural mother. It is more accurate to state that his adultery recedes, that Bubica's troubles of identity are endemic to her life, and not, as initially supposed, focused purely around the collapse of her marriage. Which is how it should be, really, for she is both a strong enough personality, and intelligent enough, to realise that all of life cannot be defined by a single ruined marriage. But it can be defined by the complications of a life, and it is this to which her examinations turn.
At one time, she holds her change of name documents, and
I grasped that I held the proof about my familial dislocation, a sort of written proof that I was not that what I thought I was now, and neither what I had been before that. I am a person without an authentic origin, the daughter and grandchild of some Jelić or Gavrilović families of whom I today heard for the first time in my life. As if from the names of these unknown people, who are to me such close relatives, since they are ancestors of my mother, about whom, also, I don't know anything, I read mysterious rebukes and warnings.
It has become clear by now that the fractures from within Bubica began not when her husband left her, but earlier, and the divorce merely widened the cracks. She is a woman who, having been abandoned first by her mother and then by her husband, is forced to assess herself, and finds that her identity is wanting.
Ognjenović plays with the text, but only a little, and her techniques never overwhelm. The novel is written as a long, unbroken series of paragraphs, unsmudged by dialogue marks. It is confessional in tone, and has the feel of a prolonged diary entry. Midway through the piece, Ognjenović introduces a rather neat trick, whereby Bubica begins to relate her feelings and thoughts when she started writing, and includes snippets – which of course are identical to the opening of the novel. These touches are nice, and add to Bubica's strength of self-examination, and, as mentioned above, the little tricks here and there never overwhelm the story – it remains, through and through, Bubica's.
Though the novel tends more to the psychological than the physical, there are times when Ognjenović's writing really shines in its description. At one stage, old schoolmates now in their late thirties are described as
generally look like wide cupboards full of rheumatic bones, flabby muscles, fat, with numerous other illnesses about which they ceaselessly talk at length and into the smallest details.
Which is really quite wonderful, and certainly stuck in my mind as a singularly telling method for describing a distasteful person. Much earlier, Ognjenović has Bubica write that, “No matter how painful it is, digging through my own entrails, my greatest concern is to remain alone in this. Any other way would be harder.” Which, again, completely evokes a certain horrid, yet entirely accurate description. Self-analysis on this level really is like digging through one's entrails, though until I read I hadn't thought of it that way.
Ognjenović has created in Bubica a character of exceptional intelligence, and one who never truly succumbs to the misery of her condition. There are sentences that read, at their beginning, as though they will end in a type of woe-is-me complaint, a cry for attention that reeks of narcissism. But this never happens – instead, Bubica relentlessly examines herself, and analyses, analyses, analyses. Her topic is herself, yes, and her family, yes, but it never becomes an exercise in self-pity. Instead, we wish for Bubica to continue, on and on, as she peels back the layers of herself to find – what else? - more layers. Bubica is a fascinating individual whose parts, taken individually and as a whole, are not that interesting. But her method of analysing them? Riveting, and deeply self-reflective and empathic. This is the sort of self-analysis that only the very honest, and very wise, can ever hope to achieve.
Adulterers is a story that runs in ever deeper cycles, retelling the same story over and over, and each time adding more, colouring in the spaces, refining the lines. Ognjenović's novel is slim in its number of pages, but the depth of Bubica gives it the feel of a very large novel indeed. Adulterers is wise, and emotionally complex, and goes far beyond the constraints its simple-seeming plot would seem to enforce. Ognjenovic's Bubica is not exactly a joy to explore or experience, but the manner in which her self is laid bare certainly is.
Please note that this novel is not yet available outside Serbia. When it is available for purchase outside Serbia, I shall update the page to reflect its availability. Until then, I suppose all that one can do is to travel to Serbia specifically to purchase this wonderful book. It would be worth the trip.
(Original Title: Preljubnici)
||Jelena Banković and Nicholas Moravcevich
Titles that fall within the Geopoetika Serbian prose in Translation series under review include:
---Basara, Svetislav - The Cyclist Conspiracy
---Novaković, Mirjana - Fear and Servant
---Stanković, Slavoljub – The Box
---Valjarević, Srdjan - Lake Como