Wild Woman

The Croatian writer Marina Sur Puhlovski came early to writing but late to publishing. She had written nine books before the first was published in 1991 only for the Yugoslavian civil war to interrupt: “After the war, and nearing fifty, I found myself in a situation where I had been writing my whole life and I had authored just one book.” Luckily she found a sympathetic publisher and soon her many years’ worth of manuscripts were appearing in print – Wild Woman, the first to be translated into English (by Christina Pribichevich-Zoric) is her twentieth book. All her work is rooted in her own life – “All my novels and stories belong to the same life. I never made up stories – they came on their own” – and so we can assume the story of Sofija Karlj (her name is revealed on the final page) is to some extent autobiographical, if that at all matters.

Wild Woman charts Sofija’s unhappy marriage to “my one and only” (her husband is never named), a fellow student at university where they are both studying literature, and her attempt to gain independence. As the novel opens she is finally ‘free’ but finds herself barely functioning in a flea-ridden flat:

“I have no idea how it happened – how I became a zombie – when only two days ago I was literally dancing with joy around the house, happy that the bastard had finally left.”

The novel then rewinds to the time when Sofija was a naïve nineteen-year-old, lacking in confidence, particularly when it comes to her appearance:

“I’m a bit of a chunky girl of nineteen, with narrow hips and broad shoulders, but strong thighs and claves, and legs that are neither short or long, but definitely not made for mini-skirts, which is what all the girls are wearing when I’m in secondary school.”

The chatty tone is typical of the novel, one which suggests the narrator is taking us into her confidence. When she meets her future husband she isn’t instantly attracted – “for a while I vacillated, yes I do want him, no I don’t” – and, in fact, only agrees to go out with him after a friend suggests that she will happily take her place. How far he fools her and how much she fools herself is hard to tell. Early on she senses “he exuded an unhappiness that needed soothing”; whereas, in her mother’s words, “There’s something wrong with that boy.”

Puhlovski makes much of that fact that Sofija is influence by what she has read. Fairy tales are mentioned frequently; the template for their relationship, in her mind, is Satre and de Beauvoir; and she describes being in love as “better than flying on a magic carpet, like in Scheherazade.” Looking back she admits she was “indescribably stupid”, having not

“…yet experienced anything except in your imagination, based on the stories you’ve read in books, which you see as real, though they’re not, and you project yourself into the story as if it’s going to be yours.”

Sofija has her own doubts when her husband disappears while on holiday after going out to buy a packet of cigarettes. Hours later she finds him sitting alone in a café; it will be a while before she realises he craves anything other than solitude. Her life deteriorates further, however, when she discovers he has a brain tumour – one which he and his family already knew about before the marriage:

“I left my youth behind when I walked into the hospital.”

(There is a parallel later with a dog they buy which develops sores on its paws which turn out to be a genetic condition – “You should never buy a puppy like that,” the vet tells her). While he recovers, she writes the articles for a radio show that he has been commissioned to do so he doesn’t lose his job. When he has a chance to have the tumour surgically removed, it isn’t entirely clear why the (admittedly dangerous) operation doesn’t go ahead – is it him who cancels it? Staying near the hospital, we can see that Sofija is beginning to long for freedom, bitterly disappointed when her mother arranges for her to stay with relatives rather than in the room she had found:

“…my hear sank, I had already imagined myself living in that dark quiet little room with the ray of sunlight slicing through the air and on my open book.”

Such is the patriarchal pressures of the 1970s, her mother, who has never liked him, does not want Sofija to leave him: “the poor man is ill, you shouldn’t do that to him.” Sofija herself feels she can only leave him once he is secure:

“With his degree and job I don’t owe him anything anymore.”

(As well as doing his job for him, she has helped him study, and cheat, for his degree). Even then she feels she must make him want to leave her.

Though Sofija’s life is often depressing (another constant battle is with space as they are forced to live with parents even when married) the novel itself is never gloomy thanks to the narrative voice which is full of life even when bitter and angry, with bursts of eccentric imagery:

“My head is like a cage full of exotic birds trying to out-squawk each other.”

Wild Woman is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and I can only hope for further translations as I would happily spend more time in Sofija, and Puhlovski’s, company.

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6 Responses to “Wild Woman”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    Nice review, Grant. I read this last year and the narrative tone is definitely what makes it so enjoyable. I’m glad the book club brought it to so many more readers.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I might be completely off beam with this, but something about your commentary on this novel makes me think of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. Maybe it’s a combination of the conversational narrative noise and the focus on a unhappy marriage, but there’s something there, I think!

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great post Grant, and another author new to me. I can recognise the pressures placed on the narrator not to disturb the status quo, and the kind of support she provides for her husband sounds typical of that era. I’ll look out for her books.

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