Yugoslavia has disappeared, but its spirit continues to live in works of fiction being written in its former territories, spanning “from the River Vardar to the Triglav mountain”, as a metonimic verse from a 1980s popular Yugoslav song states (Vardar is a river in the most southern part of the former Yugoslavia and Triglav is a mountain in its most northern part). In the aftermath of the 1990s wars, the fragments of people’s traumatized lives were scattered everywhere, left to the brutal forces of the transitional period, in which a new democratic order was supposed to emerge. In the post-Yugoslav transitional societies, the most fragile communities have suffered the most – the refugees, the families who lost their dear ones in the war, LGBT+, the poor, the disabled and frail, the ethnic minorities. From time to time, a literary work would appear that would succeed in giving a voice to the voiceless ones. How Are You?, an excellent collection of short stories by a Croatian journalist and writer Barbara Matejčić, is one of these literary works.
The issues tackled in this book are the ones concerning the community in which the author lives, along with the issues it shares with the neighbouring communities. The topics that were highlighted make us think about the state of journalism, where the stories in this book originate from, and make us question the status of literature, where the author has arrived to, having written these stories about the invisible people of one post-Yugoslav society. Namely, Barbara Matejčić has chosen six life stories and narrated them mostly in the third person (“August in Šarić Struga”, “Top Grades From the Bottom Classroom Desk”, “An Ordinary Day in Branimir’s Life”, “Lovrić Family from Osijek”, and “Long Live the Pussy”), while the story “One Out of A Hundred”, about a young woman suffering from schizophrenia, is written in a form of a diary.
Barbara Matejčić is predominantly interested in the current state of the post-Yugoslav societies and their institutions, which are undergoing a dissolution process during which all of their features are being lost. If solidarity, or care for the other, is fundamental to the society, then the lack of it is the theme that drives the author’s storytelling. Moreover, this space emptied of empathy gets filled up with the opposite emotions of hatred, lack of tolerance and ignorance which all lead to violence. That is how an intolerant community is being brought about, with its cohesive forces being ritually recharged in this space emptied of empathy, and it is this space that becomes the focal point of Matejčić’s narrative. The individuals at the center of the narrative, whose life stories serve to tell the truth about the society they live in, are very real and concrete and every resemblance to actual people and events is intentional. Those individuals are mainly women, either paralyzed like Ivana, after a car accident, or ostracized like Bojana, a young Roma attending a highly segregated school, or beaten up by the angry young men, like lesbians in Split. The story that is somewhat different is “One Out of A Hundred”, which is presented in a form of a diary of Jadranka, a schizophrenic patient. Through her obsessive meditations on herself and the society, the meditations on relation between mental illness and sanity, Jadranka confronts us with the following inversion – how the society, while trying to cure those who are “unwell” with the use of electroconvulsive therapy, develops within itself the characteristics of a real mental patient. Hence, the diary, as a record of a mental illness, morphs into a record of social pathology. This pathology is diagnosed by the main character in the following way: “So, if you want to get a job don’t mention your illness, we live in capitalism. Or, maybe the best thing is to say it straight away, so they don’t hear it from someone else. They will find it out anyway.” Jadranka has identified very precisely how the society has been transformed in the meantime. The radical shock therapy performed by the society on all who were different, had been experienced by Marija Lovrić fifteen years earlier. Marija is the central character in the story “Lovrić Family from Osijek”, which revolves around the theme of the war in Slavonia and the suffering of a mixed, Serbian and Croatian, Yugoslav family, following the executions carried out by Branimir Glavaš’s troops. Marija’s experiences during the war and in its aftermath resemble the exposure to the permanent electroconvulsion therapy by other means.
Barbara Matejčić’s narration is persuasive and the very first sentence shifts her writing from journalism to literature (“Ivana knows what people are thinking while she walks about the city.”). The author has spent a period of her life with her characters, being with them, helping them and listening to their stories, and her method is hence intrinsically one typical of investigative journalism. While listening to other people’s stories, Matejčić demonstrates a rare gift to recognize, amid all the suffering and misery, those almost invisible offshoots of life, paying special attention to them. Such moments in the book serve as a counterpoint to the societal decline, and at the same time they are maybe the parts of the greatest literary value in the book. One such moment is the scene of Ivana’s repeated going to the fair in Šarić Struga. Ivana is in her wheelchair, listening to the music by the bar. In this scene Barbara Matejčić’s language has such an effect on us that we can sense the internal tension of a rhythm permeating Ivana’s paralised body, almost moving it. Its counterpart is a scene when Marija walks along the bank of the River Drava, at the very end of the story. While trying to make peace with the past marked by the war, Marija looks at her grandson as he runs with his arms spread, pretending to be a plane. After a decade of everyday struggle, she succeeds in her fight for the Croatian state to admit that her husband is dead. However, she still hasn’t been told why. The image of this persistent woman who awaits this most important answer in her life is imprinted symbolically in the shared imagination of the post-Yugoslav communities.
By Saša Ilić
Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic