Serbian literature incorporates a variety and abundance of women’s voices but, unfortunately, many of them are unheard. Literary works written by female authors fail to earn the critical acclaim they deserve. This receptive void is due to many reasons which are to be dealt with elsewhere: silence and neglect surrounding the best works of women’s writing are logical consequences of a male-oriented literary canon which pidgeon-holes women’s writing into the section of trivial literature and pot-boilers. This paper will be an attempt at voicing the main issues of Serbian women’s writing.
Some of the most remarkable novel and story writers among women are Mirjana Novaković (1966), Judita Šalgo (1941-1996) and Mirjana Mitrović (1961). In their novels and stories they focus on plots and motives which male writers usually ignore: they deal either with the topics of maternal body and matrilinear heritage, women’s clashes with the oppressive society and all kinds of conflicts and crises experienced by women. In their own way, they also deal with historical conspiracies and political complicity. Although their narrative strategies vary to a great extent, the common thing to those three writers is voicing the void: an attempt to fill in the blank spaces of literature, culture and society with a fresh and distinctive outlook.
New Female Religion: A Worm in the Apple of Progress
Mirjana Novaković’s novel Master Fear and His Servant was short-listed for several prestigious literary awards in 2000. Widely read and praised both by readers and literary critics, this vivid account of a Pynchonesque quest for vampires undertaken by a Turn and Taxis offspring and the Devil himself came into the lime-light almost as a sort of warning: Novaković’s literary fame duly reminded of the wide negligence for women writers, who tackle many important issues ranging from love to war. Although her vivid postmodern tapestry inspires multilayered readings and interpretations, we will focus upon an earlier work by Mirjana Novaković, which deals with a topic practically unparalleled in the world literature - the female Christ.
The first book by Mirjana Novaković, The Danube Apocrypha (1996), consists of two novellas, The Thunderbolt Legion and The Gospel According to A Thirsty Woman. They develop the same motive - the divine miracle. The former is set in the last days of Roman Empire, whereas the latter takes place in the year 2000. In The Thunderbolt Legion all characters are men, commanders and warriors in the Roman army, some of them heathen, some Christian, but all of them trying to cope with adversity, defeat and the miraculous rescue from the peril in their own way. The second story is told by the voice of a woman, and deals with a bunch of girls who are, as Pynchon would have it, “silently awaiting” their Goddess to appear.
The Gospel According to A Thirsty Woman sets its plot into the year 2000. On one level, the story functions as a bleak parody of an Utopian society which advocates equality at the cost of losing identity. In a dystopic city which used to be called Belgrade, people are not allowed to use their personal names or to attach any proper names to towns, mountains or forests. Plastic surgery becomes a convention, because everyone’s ambition is perfect looks, and genetic modification is a common thing, almost a rule. To look your best, perfect and faultless, even becomes an obligation imposed by authorities. The Open Society - as this dismal social formation is called - advocates the defragmentation of the family and breaking all bonds: individuals are supposed to live happily in self-sufficiency and detachment, away from their families and impeded in all attempts to make friends. Students can sue their professors if they try to teach them skills such as mathematics; their arm-joint personal computers are supposed to do basic operations of adding up and multiplying. Later in the story, one of the characters will elaborate the idea that both the beginnings and the decline of a civilization are marked with the inability to perform mathematical operations: “As a civilisation begins to fail, mathematical skills are lost and the number of people who know arithmetics drops. At the end of a civilization rare are those who can add up to ten without using the calculator. That is what is happening now. Mathematics becomes a secret yet again; or, as they like to put it, it is one’s human right not to learn maths.” (Mirjana Novaković, The Danube Apocrypha, Belgrade, Narodna knjiga, 2001, p. 116; translation mine). Students are encouraged to pursue a daily routine of much play and little work: they can bask in the perfect happiness by taking the drug called “hyperextasythree” and frequenting the so called “rage” parties. The motives of mental lazyness, listlessness and overindulgence serve the purpose of criticizing a globalized culture which do its best to subdue individuals without offering an alternative. Still, this view could be disputed: we could without batting an eye also claim that Novaković intended to present the young Serbian lost generation of the nineties. However, the element of social criticism in the story is not prominent enough to make us draw parallels between the actual and fictitious societies.
Although the OS (Open Society) advocates a complete fulfillment of human rights, it denies all kinds of civil disobedience, judging that even the mildest protest against the society contains the seed of rebellion, and even worse - regression to the chaos and anarchy of the life prior to the OS. The first ineffectual attempt at disobedience took place before the story begins: the narrator’s class has been forbidden to use their arm-joint personal computers for three months because they had inserted an infected disk into the computer network. The punishment aims at taking the disobedient back into the technological past, depriving them of the recent inventions. No matter how harsh it is, the castigation always forces the hero to make right decisions. The narrator herself can metaphorically be seen as an infected disk, a sort of a rotten apple in the Open Society progress.
The second attempt at disobedience (which marks the narrator’s initial recognition of feelings) comes unexpected and unannounced, and equals epiphany: the first thing narrator learns about Her, the divinity of the thirsty people, is that she has never been subjected to either genetic modification or plastic surgery. That arouses the first acknowledged feeling, narrator’s pity for Her who is “so tragically ruined before her life even begun”: “Before that day, I could not imagine that someone who is unequal existed, someone who has less, who is worse off, who was doomed to inherit all of her parents’ bad traits, someone who cannot stand up to us from the very beginning, someone who is different from us. ’Well’, I thought then, ‘Married people are prone to all sorts of misdeeds.’ “ (p. 59-60). Henceforth, the main character becomes subject to all kinds of moods and feelings: first it is shame for being forced to wipe the words “Get thirsty!” off the blackboard, and “the shame for feeling ashamed”. At first, she attributes her Joseph K.-esque shame to a failed genetic modification, but it becomes clear that all kinds of emotional response lead to revealing her true self that lay buried under the restrictions of society. She also begins to fight her urge to use hyperextasythree for bringing herself into the state of bliss.
We can see that Novaković deals with the loss of freedom as a result of political repression, but she mostly focuses upon the repression of feelings. On the other hand, Novaković is prone to harsh criticism of all kinds of unification society imposes. In a seemingly perfect but clinically dead world of the near future she introduces a disturbing element - the perpetual and unquenched thirst. Thirst becomes an inverted parallel of the biblical motive: while Jesus Christ makes people never feel thirst again after having tasted his doctrine, his female version aims at causing eternal thirst. The “tribe” of thirsty people is the one who names names and asks questions. It is the company of people who advocate imperfection and difference. The Thirsty Woman, She - a female Christ - can be seen by her followers, but she is never really present: she is reduced to a voice coming from afar or from an unknown direction, to a gentle touch which helps the main heroine in her search for the elusive reality. This Messiana works miracles, walks on water and leaves traces of her presence all around her, but she is an image of imperfection: she is not beautiful, she wears glasses and her clothes are ragged.
The idiom of the story is quite terse, the sentences are short and aiming at denotation and extrospection. Even when trying to find about her true feelings and wishes, the main heroine uses a succinct language and a matter-of-fact style. She is trying to remember what it was like to feel and to think, in which she gradually succeeds, evoking the childhood memories about short holiday visits of her mother. Her idiom matches her bleak surroundings, ironically pointing that she has, in the long run, become a part of the world she unwillingly inherited. The heroine’s words display a void of emotions and suppressed wishes that never become the part of her conscious self. Her mute female identity is hidden in a repressive society which allows for chasing happiness by means of plastic surgery but not for an emotional retrospection. The Open Society works as a metaphor of a denial to live according to a feminine gospel: cutting off family ties, erradicating marriage, advocating rational thinking and a strained equality, this Orwellesque world also attempts at blurring the gender differences. The female construct of love, compassion and attachment can gain in strength only by guerilla struggle. The gender void presented in the story does not lead to harmony between sexes.
Bleak male figures regularly appearing in the story are the Human Rights Representatives, the Hurrs (the acronym being deliberately cacophonous). The Hurrs are vigilant of any potential breach of law. In the end they manage to impose their control upon the tribe of the thirsty, but the seed of rebellion remains, owing to the narrator (we learn in the end that her name is Catherine). She is the only one left to tell the gospel according to the Thirsty Woman.
The story has a cyclic structure: it begins with an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The heroine was about to swallow the poisonous pill, but she changes her mind: “A while ago, I was ready, but now it seems it makes no sense to depart without leaving an explanation or a message behind. The explanation can sometime become a message.” (p. 48). The story that follows is at the same time a recounting of the past events and a historical testimony.
The first sign of the Thirsty Woman is a whisper the main heroine hears in her sleep, saying: “The one who pronounces her name will become thirsty. He will become so thirsty that nothing will ever be able to quench his thirst.” (p. 51). Thus the first sign of the Thirsty Woman’s existence is her imperfection: apart from causing thirst in people, she is of doubtful origin. Her parents were married, and they did not allow a single genetic modification either before or after their daughter’s birth.
The narrator matures and changes - better to say, releases her repressed feelings and urges - in the contact with Thirsty Women: when one of them tells her name, the narrator is shocked: “She told me her name! Before that moment, no one has ever told me his or her name. I have never been that close to anyone. In fact, I did not believe the rumours that there were some people who confessed their names to others. Supposedly, when you love someone very much and that someone loves you, the two of you can exchange names. But nobody I knew has ever experienced that. It is just that rumours spread, and nothing more.” (p. 93). Not long after this first epiphany, Catherine has her vision: she finds herself above the sea expanse, first flying over it and then diving into the water. After that experience, she does not feel thirst, but she desires to become thirsty. Her female initiation has begun…
Female Messianism: The Second Coming of the Body
“Messiana’s advent was announced and prophesied by unrefined, uneducated women and young girls, but also by the successors of Utopians such as Suzanne Voilquin, even by some men; by prostitutes, single mothers, women swollen with venereal diseases and tuberculosis, illegitimate children and orphans, pregnant girls under age, and in general women and children from the streets, as well as women and children bought and sold for Balkanic brothels and Turkish harems. Some of those women through whom the advent of the Egyptian woman was announced remembered a peculiar travelling woman, a German who visited brothels and boarding houses, asked questions and initiated conversations”.
(Judita Šalgo, A Journey to Birobijan, Belgrade, Stubovi kulture, 1997. p. 66-67; translation mine)
Judita Šalgo’s posthumous, unfinished novel entitled A Journey to Birobijan uses a cyclical structure to invent another version of a gospel according to a woman. Her gospel announces the advent of a female Christ, Messiana, but at the same time tackles the issue of the Utopian country which could serve as a refuge to all the weak and defeated. Freud’s ex-patient Bertha Papenheim sets on a journey which turns out to be not an intended field work with women rejected by the society, but rather a quest for the feminine continent. The existence of such a place is announced by fallen angels, by the tribe of destitute, pregnant and ill women. They all suffer from a strange side-effect of their therapy, the so called “syphilitic mesianism”. A Hungarian expert for venereal diseases tells Bertha that “prostitutes, especially the syphilitic ones, believe that they are entitled to save the world. Or, at least, the female part of it. You see, the fact that you do not have to die at once, in the most horrible way, that you can postpone death for a while and escape the most dismal option, has confused these poor women completely. As you may think, their female savior is supposed to arrive from Egypt, as a Big Mother. “ (Šalgo, op. cit, p. 84). Miss A., Bertha’s companion, has her own opinion of the matter: “ If Messiah had been a woman, she would probably have arrived by now. When a man comes, he endows them with syphilis, illegitimate children, poverty and death.” (Šalgo, op. cit. p. 85).
“While travelling around the world in their boats, men discover new worlds. Woman’s uterus can, if it does not give birth, detach itself from the intestines and unhappily roam in the world of the body. Instead of phoetus, the child, lacking a definite direction and way, which grows in order to exit into the light, the barren and empty uterus waits the least convenient hour to detach itself, the same as when it’s too old and its bonds to the intestines dry as autumn leaves: the uterus which is afraid of the fetus and escaping it roams and disturbs body and soul, the brain, brings disturbance, revolt and fear.
Bertha feels the same way on her journey: she feels like a uterus wandering through the body. Hysteria as an evil, unhealthy substitute for pregnancy, for the birth. Hysteria as an alternative, an unsuccessful substitute.” (Šalgo, op. cit. p. 105)
Bertha comes up with an idea - “If women cannot achieve their rights and a complete life here, they should travel somewhere. They can establish the world of their own, a state in which things will be properly placed from the very beginning.” (Šalgo, op. cit. p. 105) It seems that the classical female symbols have to be applied, since Bertha identifies the feminine continent with the moon and the water: “Instead of the masculine SUN CITY, they will found the CITY OF THE MOON (...) the city of the water”
Judita Šalgo’s novel wants to give voice to the rejects of the society, to the so called fallen women, but it also wants to articulate the female unconsciousness. Her 1987. novel Skid Marks is also a study of the unconscious, centered around two Jewish sisters who are - as most of Šalgo’s characters - less than real and more than imaginary. They are the marks left by the secret and subtle work of the unconscious. Freud’s history of the unconscious, being at the same time a story, becomes a relevant subject matter of the literature. Being too radical to be accepted as a source of literary inspiration, Freud’s theory is taken by Šalgo as a legitimate imagination’s territory. Judita the writer reads Freud as a fellow writer, using him both as a source of information and inspiration, letting him inhabit her text and play with it. The structure of Birobijan resembles the work or the unconscious, since the narrative clusters around the dominant motives of an unknown country, the female Savior, the weak and the sick.
Women in History: The Whirl of Conflicting Forces
The book Holy flock by Mirjana Mitrović has not met a very wide critical acclaim, but it presented a fresh view of history and identity. Holy Flock deals respectively with the era of Nemanjić dynasty reign and the period of twenty two years during the 18th century when Serbia was under Austrian reign. Stories are not focused upon historical events, court intrigues and political complicity, but they reflect them through individual lives. Conceived as a Borgesian project, Mitrović’s collection of stories uses two spans of time and authentic dramatic personae to present a new narrative reality. That reality is rich with symbols and intepretations referring to present time and some recent events, as well as to contemporary poetic strategies.
In an interview to the Belgrade daily “Blic”, published on February 24th 2000, Mirjana Mitrovic makes clear the history has taught her that the good does not win: “The good exists and its power is in its mere existence”. The main hero from the story About the Cat thinks in the time of adversity that “the man is so helpless if he is not evil” (Holy flock, p. 72). His own life consists of suffering, banishments and ailments. There is nothing he can do to change the course of events: he can only make an attempt to affront his destiny. Helplessness and passivity are fatal, not only because they stop man from living his life fully. They are the only outcome of goodness. The hero is not bad enough to take his life in his own hands, so he lives through a series of banishments and all kinds of misfortunes. Women, presented as silent but active (they are mothers, nurses and advisors knowing how to have their way even when subdued), construct the destinies of men. The hero’s wife (a version of Antigone in many a way) helps her blind husband to recover his sight and encourages him to endure in the face of adversity. She embodies an active force of good.
Mirjana Mitrović is particularly interested in the first part of 18th century, in the period of twenty two years when Austrians ruled Belgrade and the banks of Danube. “Belgrade is still half way between Vienna and Istambul, so even today we have two spirits and two structures confronted and following one another. No matter how we assert ourselves to be one of European nations, we cannot break out from the ever present Oriental element.“
“The clear and obvious border between two worlds does not exist anymore, but it persists in thinking. There is constructivism, that can be considered cold and the symbol of the West, but there is also that Oriental lustful and cruel mind which resides in us. (…) These types of consciousness still alternate here. We have only recently lived through a period when we thought that European attitudes will prevail. That was twenty years ago, but today we see the Levantine rules. The same alternation ruled on the same ground in 18th century.”
There is definitely a border between the male and the female world, which are separated not only by the bodily differences, but also by the historical circumstances that affect them in different ways. Although they refer to the same empirical reality, they focus on different things. Female point of view is reduced to a void which, fortunately, can be voiced by articulated women’s voices.