Archive for the ‘Andrea Jeftanovic’ Category

Theatre of War

February 2, 2021

The title of Andrea Jeftanovic’s newly translated novel (by Frances Riddle), Theatre of War, hints both at the conflict within and the war which lies behind it. It tells the story of a family who flee the Balkans for the relative peace of South America from the point of view of the daughter, Tamara. As the novel opens she is nine years old, the age at which her father experienced war in his homeland and, as a result, an age he finds difficult to move on from:

“He’s stuck at age nine, which is how old he was when the war began… Dad is a six foot tall child, size XL, with wrinkled sleeves.”

Tamara’s childhood is, as a result, unsettled and unstable, “repeatedly changing houses, we are unable to anchor ourselves to any fixed point.” Like her father she clings on to her past, keeping “a glass of dirt from all the yards I’ve played in.” Her father meanwhile continues to live as if in the war zone he grew up in:

“He eats non-stop because war could break out any minute.”

Jeftanovic demonstrates visually how he imprints these memories on his daughter:

“Dad unknowingly writes on my arm the day I turn nine.”

The number he writes is “a painful number, the number of days the war lasted, the tears Dad cried.” Tamara finds her father’s childhood experiences difficult to escape:

“Lost in an era that doesn’t belong to me. I inhabit places I’ve never been.”

Further destabilising her childhood is the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, something she experiences largely from a distance as “races in the dark, slammed doors, drawers opening and closing,” though in one particularly disturbing scene her mother dances with her while telling her that her father sleeps with other women. Jeftanovic is particularly adept at presenting this from a child’s point of view, for example when her mother begins an affair with a workman who is repairing the house, she first notices he no longer says ‘excuse me’ before entering a room, and then:

“Suddenly the paintbrush rests alone for a long time on the edge of the paint can.”

Then she becomes further isolated when her mother loses all memory of her:

“For Mum, I’m nothing more than an empty space.”

Her parents are now split up and, in her mother’s house, she slowly cease to exist, all her belongings disappearing: her pillow, her toothbrush, her jacket. Eventually she is driven to return to her father.

In the novel’s second part, or ‘Act’, Tamara is an adult, now haunted by her own childhood:

“My childhood starts to inhabit me, floods me with absence, leaves me little space to experience the present.”

When she reconnects with her sister she finds that, “we’re so focused on settling our past that I don’t even notice my sister’s present day world.” A relationship with Franz is difficult to characterise as he “sticks around in a hazy sort of way,” Tamara admitting that she is “unable to construct the memory of any man in his entirety.” This fragmentation is echoed in the novel with short chapters, and often highly figurative language which, as striking as it is, has the effect of distancing the reader from the character’s reality as it is filtered through, some of which is jarring (menstrual blood as ‘lava’, segments of the past as ‘boomerangs’). This works well in the first part, but less so when Tamara is an adult, creating an impression of mental instability which doesn’t seem evidenced in her actions.

The presentation of her life as a drama, however, is effective throughout, from the opening line:

“The curtain rises on the shadowy dining room of my first home.”

It manages the transition to adulthood (“I walk onto my own stage”) and her sense of alienation (“I play a different role, behind the scenes”). Picking these phrase out may make them seem intrusive or even gimmicky, but they are used sparingly and always with an emotional power. In particular, this motif provides the novel with a powerful ending, where each of the characters describes themselves, like an actor outlining their part.

I found myself gripped by the novel’s first part but did become a little fatigued by the abstract nature of the narrative (and invisibility of the other characters) in the remainder of the book at times. Having said this, there is no doubt that this is a deeply felt examination of the effects of childhood trauma on two generations, and, more generally, of the way in which the past inhabits the present. I found its final pages particularly affecting, and, while perhaps occasionally overused, the author clearly has a gift for flexing language in new and unusual ways.