Wednesday, April 20, 2011

stencil #033 - grozdana olujić

Grozdana Olujić in High Street Thornbury

Grozdana Olujić’s novel Гласам за љубав (I Vote for Love) ends with Slobodan Galac’s thrilling declaration to his pet turtle:
“Hold tight, Greta! . . . We’re taking off!”
Slobodan and Greta. Illustration by Simonida Filipova-Kitanovska

Slobodan, a sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield of the Balkans, shares his literary counterpart’s desire for authenticity and personal freedom (his name Slobodan means ‘free’). His decisive leap into adventure makes for a deeply satisfying ending to Olujić’s novel, contrasting sharply with Holden’s uncertainty and nostalgia at the end of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It’s not improbable to imagine Holden turning to pills. As for Slobodan, I’m not prepared to imagine anything less than success for him in his quest to reunite with his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Rashida (forcibly sent away to Sarajevo by her father), and also in satisfying his wanderlust: 
“We’ll reach the four corners of the earth – Rashida, Greta and me . . . even if it means sailing into the wind.”
It’s normally during adolescence that we realise we don’t get to do everything we dream but for Slobodan, the world is still an illusion that must be shattered. I’m a sucker for earnest, introspective loners like Slobodan. Throw in some Romantic/Sturm und Drang qualities and I surrender totally. Needless to say, I won’t be projecting my cynicism onto his adolescent aspirations.

Olujić’s novel, published in 1963, is an early (some say pioneering) example in Serbian literature of ‘blue jeans prose’. The term was coined by literary theorist Aleksandar Flaker to describe a trend in youth fiction of the 60s and 70s modelled on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. ‘Blue jeans prose’ is characterised by an antagonistic protagonist, typically a teenager, who expresses him/herself in contemporary urban slang, rejects established norms and conventions and is opposed to the world of adults.  Since the wearing of jeans was seen as a symbolic protest against conformity, the term aptly reflected the attitude of the protagonist. (Today we might refer to this type of fiction as ‘low-rise jeans prose’.)

Slobodan is a worthy icon for adolescent rebellion and angst. Like Holden, he rejects the hypocrisy of the adult world. Unlike Holden, Slobodan does not exhibit any of the qualities he disparages. Sublimating his sense of superfluity under a rebellious pose, Slobodan rejects a world in which qualities such as love and kindness are absent. His rejection is expressed symbolically in a school essay he writes opting for love: 
. . . if it's possible to choose, and if a person must vote for something, I vote for love, even if in some way it's a lost cause.
Early in the novel, Slobodan’s mother accuses him of negativity:
“You always see people from the worst possible angle.”
What Slobodan sees are dissatisfied, disillusioned and unhappy adults who have succumbed to a provincial mentality. It’s his negativity and his strong desire to evade a similar fate that propels him towards flight. From a Hegelian point of view, self-identity without negativity signifies the death of being. The transformative potential of negative freedom (freedom from constraint) is the possibility it provides for self-awareness. As well as voting for love, Slobodan votes for self-determination. 

Although some of Olujić’s work has been translated into over 28 languages, it appears that Гласам за љубав is only available in Serbian, Macedonian (Гласам за љубов) and German (Liebe ist wie ein frischer Apfel). In spite of the attraction of reading a text in its original and the aesthetic appeal of Cyrillic, it’s times like this I want to reconsider my decision not to do literary translation because it’s a book I believe should have wider exposure.

Fortunately, Olujić’s first novel Излет у небо (An Excursion to the Sky, translated by Kenneth Johnstone) is available in English translation. And it’s equally impressive. The bookflap summary should make it hard to resist:
Minya, the 22-year-old heroine . . . is cynical and disillusioned, convinced that life is nothing but a series of absurd incidents, relieved only by sporadic  love affairs which she calls ‘excursions to the sky’. She is tired and indifferent . . . She wants to glide through life, peeling off the days as painlessly as possible, but she knows she is merely marking time, that the moment when she must face the truth about herself is not far off.

Therapy of a different kind, Grozdana Olujić in High Street Thornbury

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We could also call some contemporary forms "skinny girl's jeans" fiction.