Friday, 2 June 2017

Book Review: The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergović

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25246902-the-walnut-mansion
Every end comprises everything that was before. This is especially true for us human beings because not just own experiences make us the people who we are but through socialisation we also carry on our shoulders the material and psychological burden of our ancestors, i.e. of entire history. Time heals the wounds or makes them fester beneath the surface. In The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergović the turbulent history of the Balkan countries that once formed Yugoslavia materialises in 97-year-old Regina Delavale who has seen it all and who finds her accidental end knocked out by tranquilisers in a hospital in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2002 after senile dementia has irrevocably turned her into a violent, abusive and wicked monster. Going backwards in time her daughter Dijana evokes the forming, if not traumatising events of her own and her mother’s life until her birth in 1905 and even a little beyond.

Miljenko Jergović was born in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now: Bosnia and Herzegovina), in May 1966. Already as a high school student he began working as a journalist for different magazines. In 1988, after his studies of Literature at the University of Sarajevo, he made his acclaimed literary debut with the novel Opservatorija Varšava (Warsaw Observatory) which was followed by several other successful works of poetry and prose, many of them dealing with the two World Wars and the Bosnian War. The internationally most noted books of the Bosnian-Croatian writer are the collections of interlinked short stories Sarajevo Marlboro (Sarajevski Marlboro: 1994) and Mama Leone (1999) and the novels The Walnut Mansion (Dvori od oraha: 2003) and Ruta Tannenbaum (2006). The author’s latest published novel is Wilimowski (2016). Since 1993 Miljenko Jergović lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.

The story of The Walnut Mansion actually begins at its end, more precisely in Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 2002, when Dijana entreats the powerless police archivist to do something to exonerate the young doctor accused of having killed her 97-year-old mother Regina Delavale, née Sikirić. The demented old woman behaved so violent and abusive in hospital that he administered once too often tranquilisers to calm her down. To Dijana and her twin children Mirna and Darijan her death is a great relief, even the yearned for rescue from three months of hell under the same roof with a dangerous madwoman. Already before these final months Regina is bitter and mean towards family and neighbours. She mercilessly torments her adolescent granddaughter when she at first grows only one absurdly big breast. However, the favourite target of Regina’s cruel urges is Dijana who repeatedly flees from her mother and always returns like in May 1980 when her boyfriend dies in a car accident crying over Tito’s death and she is pregnant with the twins. Dijana’s father is a merchant sailor with a long-time mistress in the USA where he dies suddenly and Regina buries his ashes in the cheap tin coffee box in which his mates take it to her. There’s also Luka Sikirić, Regina’s youngest and pet brother, who sets up a thriving cheese business in Trieste, Italy, after fleeing from Dubrovnik because he is critical of Stalin and fears for his life. The other brothers are whirled around by the ideological conflicts of Yugoslavia during World War Two joining Nazi Ustashe Croats, royalist Chetniks or Communist partisans respectively. Two are killed, while the third loses his mind and starves himself to death in a mental home. Regina masters the Great Depression and witnesses World War One. She is born in 1905.

To emphasise the reverse chronology of The Walnut Mansion and in line with Søren Kierkegaard’s who said that life could only be understood backwards and lived forwards, an unconcerned and all-knowing third-person narrator opens the biography with chapter XV and then counts down to chapter I. Thus spanning more than a hundred years, the novel is at the same time a family saga centring on Regina and twentieth-century history of the Balkans. This double quality makes it a difficult and bulky read because the number of people in Regina’s long life is necessarily overwhelming and because the geographical just like the temporal setting provides an extremely complex background for a novel. Previous knowledge of the region’s past, if only in the outlines, can be helpful although the author very skilfully interwove the plot with all historical information necessary for understanding. It’s also an opulent novel for its numerous bends and digressions temporarily shifting focus to others than the main characters, but slowing down pace they help to see the big picture behind individual fate. Well-placed irony softens the sad and tragic character of the book. The language is colloquial as well as lyrical which makes it a pleasure to read.

My copy of The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergović was a 600-page German edition that I found in a bartering shelf and that its original owner must have given up reading after the first half because the rest of the book was like new. Admittedly, the narration going backwards in time made me feel almost as much at a loss at first as the police archivist in the opening chapter, but as soon as I had gotten used to this unconventional approach to telling the interrelated stories of a life and a region, I was under its spell. Certainly, it’s a bulky and complex read – less in the English edition that counts just about 450 pages – that requires dedication to hold on until the end and attention too in order not to lose the thread. Still, it’s worth the time and effort unless you can’t bear sad stories. I enjoyed it immensely and therefore recommend it highly.

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2 comments:

  1. Of course, being a boorish American, I had never heard of this book or this author. But I want to read it! If you could, so can I. I have these black holes of ignorance in my knowledge of the world and the time and place covered here are one of those.

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    1. It's true. Literature from and about the Balkans isn't particularly known in the world - even in Austria although the region is so close and historically linked to us. I'm glad that The Walnut Mansion has been translated into English too.

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