Sunday, March 8, 2015

Affected and Dissected

"North wind blowing....." - no,no, not in Washington anymore, thank God! The weather is finally quite humane here.  The quoted "north wind" is blowing in Croatia, at least figuratively, according to my dear friend, writer and translator Marina Horkić.  She writes from Zagreb - an exclusive essay for this  blog.

Marina Horkić                                                          Zagreb, March 2015

Marina Horkić

North wind blowing. Hats pulled down, collars upturned, eyes cast to the pavement. Zagreb, Croatia, on the BBC weather forecast recognized only generically, as the Balkans. These are not real countries with a name and instant recognition, these are blurry areas. In its third decade as an independent state, Croatia is moving in fits and starts through a post-war, post-this&that crisis.  Discarded paper and plastic bags blown down the street, green PVC trash cans gaping open after yet another hunched plastic-bottle collector has rummaged through them - it could be just any city anywhere in the world.  Fifty lipa per bottle - a government initiative to protect the environment. In a place wracked by unemployment, a whole bag of bottles might buy you a lunch. Only yesterday a friend, an economist – too many of them in this sluggish economy – was made redundant.

The news on the radio is bleak. What comes to mind is The New World Disorder. Daily conversations in the streetcar and debates at work are not uplifting either. Following the recent presidential election the nation seems ever more polarized. Fors and againsts. Those who fought in the 1990s war for independence and those who did not. Those who once were and those who now are.

To wash out the sour impact of reality, I put on a Massaki Suzuki CD and try to extract some wisdom from my grandmother's floral fiesta tea cup, which has miraculously survived Croatia's transitions from one country or political system into another - no less than seven times in just over one century - and which has humbly served for drinking whatever is available at a particular time. For a spell, it was coffee made of acorns. Today, the choices are endless.

I have set out to write how translating two female writers into Croatian, a Londoner Zadie Smith and a Lagosian Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, affected me personally. Really, how does delving into the inner structure of another's mind affect you? For a few months, which is the time needed to translate a book, working a few hours a day, or a whole day sometimes, you ride the tide of another's mental energy, you absorb and transform them into lexical constructs of your own language, hopefully retaining the original resonance. What remains after the process is completed, the book submitted to the publisher, and the long wait for the fee to land on your account begins?

Zadie's NW and Chimamanda's Americanah - I'll call the authors by their first names since, although unaware of it, they were my closest buddies for the two long hot summers of 2013 and 2014 – grapple with the adult worlds on the border of the orderly landscape of youthful urban hopes and expectations. London and Lagos of their respective novels are divided into the haves and the have-nots, into the cans and the cannots, the successful and the unsuccessful, the winners and the losers. Likewise, the world I live in as an adult is far removed from the imagined toffeeland of my growing up. It is increasingly torn along the same dividing line of haves and have-nots, of those who posses a know-how to life and those who do not. It must have always been so, only that for a short while I was on the youthful winning side, too overwhelmed with life to notice its underlying inequalities.

Zadie ends her novel with a surprisingly opportunist conclusion that what the main characters Keisha and Leah have, the winning side of the territory they now occupy, is well-deserved, something they have fought for. What lingers, however, is a What If. What if you were born just a few kilometers or a few neighborhoods away from the side where it is possible to win? If you were born in a village on the front line of a raging civil war, or in a house where your next door neighbor turns out to be a weekend militiaman of an opposing group's army, given to setting enemies' houses on fire? What if you were born into a family where violence or neglect or illiteracy simply bruised you too badly to be able to claw your way to any sane territory? The answer is simple and it forces itself as painfully on me as sympathy for Felix and Nathan, the two characters in the NW story who are marked by a losing streak.  It engulfs me and I avert my eyes towards Chimamanda.

Hers is the dilemma of Africa vs. America, of African vs. Anglo-American identity and its solution in Americanah could be simplified to: east or west, home is best, spiced up by the ever-effective love shall prevail. Fair enough.

And what is the solution to the rift in my mind caused by the constant tug of war between pro-Croatian and pro-European forces in my country, between good nationalists and bad commies, between those in favor of a church-guided state and those in favor of the secular one, not to mention the widening gap between those who delve through garbage bins for plastic bottles and those who dictate the import of luxury designer labels?

I turn to my grandma's porcelain cup for answer, but it just stares back at me blankly.  Velvety voices of Bach's Matthäus-Passion fill the room. Chimamanda, after all, is closer to my heart.

Marina Horkić is the author of the acclaimed Croatian novel Seks, domovina i rock 'n' roll, and  translator of major English-language best-sellers.  She lives in Zagreb.

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