European Literature Days 2016: Review of Gabriela Babnik by Judith Vonberg

Multiple stories are interwoven in Gabriela Babnik’s Dry Season (translated from the Slovene by Rawley Grau and published by Istros Books. The two protagonists, who narrate their own presents and pasts in a complex, at times confusing, sequence that defies conventional forms of narration, are Ana and Ismael. Ana is a 62-year-old Slovenian woman who has travelled to Burkina Faso to escape the unwanted complexities of life as an orphan, an adoptee and a mother of a deeply troubled son. Ismael is a 27-year-old Burkinabé man who never knew his father, was orphaned as a boy and has lived an unsettled existence ever since, taking on odd jobs and robbing tourists with his albino friend Malik.

A chance encounter on the street brings Ana and Ismael together, a couple as unconventional as the narrative itself. They become lovers, they move in together and Ismael asks Ana to marry him. Yet this chronology disguises the labyrinthine nature of the paths they take, both as individuals and together. And at every stage, they are confronted by difference.

As Ana says,”the real question wasn’t so much our different skin colours, or even the age difference, the main thing was, we came from different worlds.” Ismael, she writes, “was the product of the African street, and also, in places, burnt grass, the harmattan, the harmattan season’s flaming birds.” She, however, “belonged to the world of brightly-lit streets, sparkling bathrooms, and cut flowers in vases.

Words often fail to overcome the gulf of difference. Their first brief exchange sets the tone for a relationship burdened by silence made ‘heavy, viscous’ by the ‘things left unsaid’ and by language that all too often stifles rather than enables communication. Ismael offers to carry Ana’s bag for her and she answers, “No need. I’ll manage.” “Of course”, she adds, “the subtitles said the direct opposite.” This time, Ismael deciphers her words correctly and takes the bag, yet this early encounter exposes the gap between what is said and what is meant, between words and reality.

Later, Ana and Ismael communicate increasingly at cross-purposes. Towards the end of the novel, Ismael reflects on his relationship with the Slovenian woman. “I was the one she had come here to tell her story to,” he writes. But “[she] herself told me nothing, or rather, she told me very little”. Instead, like Ismael, she tells her story to the reader in visually evocative prose. Glimpses into their pasts reveal lives disturbed by the nearness of death, by troubled relationships with surrogate families and by unfulfilled desires.

Yet we are not allowed to forget that words are the medium and that words are not reality. Ana, a highly self-conscious narrator, remarks that writing is “probably about finding meaning”. Yet just a few pages later she reveals that “something has been trying to make me write that my mother and her brother were drinking tea in the kitchen […] and the truth is, the strangers behind the kitchen door were never drinking tea.”

Finding meaning is not always about writing the truth, it seems. There are other impulses at play. As readers of a piece of fiction, we are of course very aware of this. Yet Babnik has created a remarkable novel, in which her protagonists are themselves aware of the opportunities offered by fictionality. They refer to certain episodes in the present or past as ‘scenes’ and to their lives as a ‘story’ or ‘narrative’.

Miscommunication – the gap between what is said and what is meant – condemns several of the relationships in the novel to failure. Yet this same gap makes fiction possible. By making her protagonists the self-conscious narrators of their own ‘stories’, Babnik celebrates the art of writing fiction and invites the reader to do the same. To appreciate this unusual novel, we must abandon our search for ‘a reliable narrator’ and revel in embellishment, omission and the limitless scope of human fantasy.

By Judith Vonberg

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 22 September 2016.

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