Stiliana Milkova reviews Jovanka Živanović's Fragile Travelers

Translated from the Serbian by Jovanka Kalaba (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)

The first paragraph of Jovanka Živanović’s novel Fragile Travelers, translated from Serbian by Jovanka Kalaba, zooms in, then out, of the mundane circumstances of Petar Naumov’s life. An omniscient narrator informs us in a vertiginous narrative sequence of Petar’s disappearance:

Given how deftly he could bounce the coffee can in his hand, he didn’t have to take off the lid to know that it was empty. He realized that if he wanted coffee, he would have to run down to the kiosk on the ground floor of his building. Such occurrences of his being absent from the apartment, unplanned for and only for a short while, didn’t require much clothing, so Petar, without closing the door behind him, dashed out of the apartment foyer in his slippers. The water he’d left boiling on the gas burner had no other option but to wait. It waited until the last drop, and when it evaporated, the water, logically enough, ceased to be aware of itself and therefore had no means to keep on waiting any longer. And even if it had been able to, there wouldn’t have been anyone to wait for, because Petar wasn’t coming back. Ten days had passed since he left the apartment, and he was now considered a missing person. The disappearance had been reported to the police the same day. The case stalled, however, at the level of a police promise that something would be done, and many days had now passed without any progress.

There is something slightly unsettling about this opening. It begins with a close-up of Petar shaking the coffee can; then follows him out of the apartment and into the foyer; then returns quickly to the apartment where the water on the stove is personified to voice the fact of Petar’s non-return. Fast-forward ten days and the police have made no progress in tracking down the missing man. This swift account of Petar’s disappearance promises a mystery novel. Or perhaps a novel about adultery, as Petar’s wife, Anđelija, suspects he may have abandoned her for a lover; or better yet, a mystery novel with a romantic subplot. But any genre expectations we might have are soon complicated. At the end of the first chapter, the same omniscient narrator announces, matter-of-factly, that “On his way to buy some coffee, Petar had ended up in a woman’s dream—and got stuck there.” And then adds, with a characteristic hint of humor, that “Although modern-day investigative techniques are superior, almost faultless, they’re still powerless when it comes to dreams.”

It is the novel’s job then to penetrate those dreams, to uncover what happened—the whodunnit and why. The book consists of the alternating voices of Petar Naumov, a successful middle-aged architect, and Emilija Savić, a high school art teacher in her late thirties, as they navigate the world of dreams. Emilija, or "Ema," lives two parallel lives. In her dreams she is both Christ- and Madonna-like. She walks on rocks wearing a crown of thorns on her head; she jumps off a cliff and flies away; she wills to life the impossible encounter of two famous philosophers; she nurtures a snake in her womb. In her waking life, she is a shy and absent-minded, good-natured dreamer, who lives with her down-to-earth lawyer boyfriend, Žarko. Ema is a fragile creature, torn between her two existences, between the love she feels for the entire world and the daily disappointments of a petty, crude, and ungrateful reality. Žarko cherishes and protects her in everyday life, but who watches over her in the dream world?

Petar, on the other hand, has been firmly grounded in the here-and-now: he is confident and good-looking, content with his marriage and profession, comfortable in his clothes, apartment, convictions. But as his first-person narration reveals, he suddenly finds himself in Ema’s dreams, playing the role of her guardian angel. Fragile Travelers then proceeds to unravel the mystery of Petar’s presence there. At the beginning, he is unsure whether it is physical attraction or spiritual affinity that has trapped him in a woman’s dream. Believing the former, he goes through a process of self-searching and ritual purification. He plunges himself in the waters of the Danube river to wash away his perceived sins, but also as a kind of linguistic performance. In her translator’s note, Jovanka Kalaba dwells on what she calls the novel’s “literalized metaphors,” whereby a common expression is taken and enacted literally. The Serbian proverb “neće te oprati ni Dunav ni Sava,” which roughly translates to “neither the Danube nor the Sava river will clean you” usually conveys the speaker’s doubt that the moral stain of an immoral act can be washed away. Petar takes this proverb at face value and performs it in order to cleanse himself of his imagined desire for another woman. In this subtle and ingenious way, the novel reminds us that Petar’s sin cannot in fact be washed away because it is not real. And so Petar realizes over the course of the novel that his and Ema’s love is pure and spiritual, the convergence of soulmates destined to be together in the dream world but apart when awake. Their love is one of intellects, not of bodies. “I love that you exist, Petar Naumov,” Ema tells him towards the end of the novel. “This way of existing would have been impossible without you,” Petar responds.

The novel is thus at once a metaphysical mystery, a spiritual journey, and a platonic love story. It blends the genres it anticipates at the beginning, but with a twist: its most enigmatic and intense moments arrive in the dream sequences narrated by Petar and Ema, in their other-worldly experiences, and not in the gray banality of their daily lives. Each of them walks the fragile, painful path of self-discovery and comes to terms with the “parallel tracks” they tread, as Ema calls them. Part of the story’s enigmatic effect derives from the fact that for the first few sentences of each chapter we are unsure who speaks—we hesitate between Petar, Ema, and the omniscient narrator who appears occasionally to give us insight into Anđelija's and Žarko’s characters. Jovanka Kalaba explains in the translator’s note that the Serbian language marks the speaker’s gender and therefore it is clear right away if the speaker is a man or woman. In English, of course, this knowledge is lost, and we have to guess from the context and from the tone, sentiments, and experiences of the speaker. In other words, we need to interpret the text to guess whose voice is narrating. The reader's brief uncertainty about who is speaking—that is, the reader’s momentary hesitation and interpretive work—complements the novel’s oscillation between dream and reality, genres, and voices.

Reading Fragile Travelers, I was reminded of Serbian writers such as Milorad Pavić and Danilo Kiš, whose novels play with genre boundaries, explore the limits of the text, rely on the blurring of dream and reality, dabble in history and mystery, and evoke a sense of Balkan mysticism grounded in local myth and folklore. Fragile Travelers is likewise a novel that plays with genre boundaries, that creates a dream world more physically present and emotionally fraught than the characters’ real lives, and which probes the borders of the narrative, calling attention to its own status as text. For example, I was struck by the omniscient narrator’s account of how Petar’s and Ema’s stories were brought to light. From the very first chapter these two characters are constructed as texts, as words on a page: “This story, too, would have reached a dead end, just like the inquest, had Petar Naumov and Emilija Savić not left written records about their unusual experience.” In this statement the omniscient narrator points to the very novel we are reading since it constitutes the textual account of Ema’s and Petar’s stories. But more importantly, in conjoining their written records, the narrator performs a textual marriage of the two non-lovers, binding them forever within the discursive space of the novel.

In a final twist, the last chapter offers a photographic reproduction of Petar’s handwritten manuscript as proof of the story’s veracity. This inclusion of an artifact further blurs genre boundaries, attributing to the narrative a kind of factual, documentary status. Nonetheless, Petar’s notes are illegible. This illegibility, the omniscient narrator explains, allows for an interpretation of Petar’s and Ema’s dreams that unexpectedly changes the course of events and leads to a satisfying resolution to the novel. Meanwhile, the cursive of Petar’s handwriting points to another key aspect of the text—the pervasive use of italics to mark a range of utterances. Živanović employs italics in a deft and subversive way, making them typographic signs of layered discursive play. They function as quotation marks to signal the discourse of others—either directly, by citing another’s speech, or implicitly, by articulating a common saying or conveying conventional opinions and judgments.

For example, when Ema describes Petar as a successful member of society, she adopts a colloquial expression only to mock it, showing its flatness and meaninglessness: “In a word, happy was the mother who had him.” Or when Petar recollects a particularly successful moment in his career, he quotes another cliché, mimicking commonplace praise: “My accomplishment was really something to take my hat off to.” His mockery becomes evident when shortly thereafter he literally takes off his clothes and sunbathes naked, right next to the praiseworthy monument he has designed. There are countless such examples of Petar or Ema citing conventional language, and especially the way others perceive or talk about the two of them, in italics. All of these examples are suffused with subtle humor or parody of dominant discourses. Jovanka Kalaba has performed a feat rendering these expressions in idiomatic English and demonstrating how the italics mark Petar’s and Ema’s awareness of their own difference, of their not belonging to what Ema calls “harsh, crusted reality.” The italics, in other words, at once imitate the discourse of the status quo and parody it by showing its irrelevance to those “who’d always go for the path less traveled if their hearts told them the path was the right one, although they knew that such paths are always traveled with a spoke in the wheel.”

Jovanka Živanović’s own literary journey can be situated along the path less traveled as well. Published in Serbia in 2008, Fragile Travelers is her first and only novel thus far. Živanović has no formal training in literature and does not belong to the literary establishment; she is an economist living in a small town in Western Serbia, not unlike the setting of her novel. Nonetheless, her literary themes and style are central to modern Serbian narrative. The italics and discursive play, the alternating realities and narrative voices, the confluence of banal and metaphysical, the self-referentiality of the text, and the cross-genre (as Ema puts it in relation to her dreams) nature of the novel, all signal that Fragile Travelers is a postmodern text. And yet, this slim volume does not claim for itself any of the literary gravitas or narrative tour de force that Pavić’s or Kiš’s postmodern novels have been accorded. Although fully deserving of such accolades, its accomplishments also lie elsewhere: it is a subtle, intimate, lyrical, even hopeful and humorous meditation on the human desire for happiness, in one world or another.