Review by Tom Conaghan
Singer in the Night is a novel about the Balkans conflict of the 1990s and the long term trauma it inflicted on its youth. It tells the story of the generation that came of age during the war and how they internalised its violence and hatred.
Now 38, Clementine lives in modern-day Slovenia, working as a successful screenwriter. But after a car accident leaves her comatose, she awakes to re-evaluate her life and realise that, by distancing herself from memories of conflict, she has thrown away her chance of love.
This is the story of the search for her ex-husband, a war-deserter, poet and graffiti artist, the eponymous Nightingale.
The journey takes her back to Croatia, to her teenage haunts in Split, where she begins to find out what happened to ‘Gale.’ Neither his mother nor Peroni, an old neighbour, know where he is but each add to his legend. Peroni tells the story that, disturbed one night by loud sex noises, Gale leafleted every flat in the street with his poetic petitions for quiet. Shell-shocked by his experience of war, the sounds of love are maddening. This early scene establishes the tension between the public and the personal that make up the drama of the story.
But Gale left the city a long time ago, headed for the village of Tulumbe and the mother of his children, Clementine’s best friend, Helanka.
Clementine journeys into the countryside, through war-torn scenery, fragments of the past occurring as vividly as the present. Here she finds Helanka’s children, fending for themselves in a bucolic idyll, abandoned by their parents, cared for only by neighbours. One of these is a man who has renamed himself Jusuf – having hid from the war, he has now taken on the identity of someone killed.
Each character poses a new consideration for Clementine. The children remind her of her wish to stay childless. She feels something like relief that her non-existent daughter will not suffer, ‘separation, bad food, bad education, maybe even a war or a camp, statistically that’s very likely, it gets us every other generation, she won’t be blown up on a school trip by a terrorist, she won’t kill herself on the underground.’
As her reasons pile up, we understand more and more the dread felt by a people shaped by war and their resulting reluctance to perpetuate themselves.
Before she can make a new life for herself, Clementine must first confront both the memories of her youth and the present-day trauma she and her friends have suffered. The expression: “twenty years ago” recurs like a mantra – an attempt to reclaim her youth, before she alienated herself from her creativity and became part of the entertainment industry, mass-producing sentimental TV shows.
This is in stark contrast to Gale. As we piece together news of him from rumours, the poetry he disseminated, his graffiti, we understand he has been able to sublimate the conflict in his past and create anew. Gale represents art’s potential to work from the forge of private invention, inspiring and defining a new public ideal.
His mural on a battle-bloodied building, ‘wipes away death as though it were dust. Perhaps that’s all that’s possible, to reconquer the space. To bear life across death.’
Clementine and Gale, Helanka and Jusuf – these characters represent the different ways her generation have tried to live on beyond the war. As Clementine’s injured mind becomes too fragmented to tell a conventional narrative, it seems Savičević instead structures her novel thematically.
And indeed, the tensions between the characters can often feel like the interaction of archetypes – their symbolic burdens are often in plain sight and their emotions sometimes drowned out beneath the heavy clanking structures of polemical writing.
When the characters’ thoughts and actions are intended to be mapped onto a larger stage, they become less distinct. When they are at their most soulful is when they are the interplay of different influences – the domestic as well as the historical.
Luckily, Savičević is both poet and journalist and, for the most part, the thematic intricacies of her story are complemented by visible and palpable impressions of the richness of the characters’ lives – the hot earth burning the narrator’s feet as she spies on the nudist beach, the rich girl in the convertible as she drives past the soldiers going to war, Gale in a foil crown, a young sea god, declaiming a poem.
The book won the 2018 ‘English Pen Translates Award’ for Celia Hawkesworth’s translation, spinning this into a lithe and sonorous English, creating anew Savičević’s lucidity, her poetry and word play, her dreamlike salvaging of the language of love from the tolling chaos of war.
Does Clementine make contact with Gale? Is he truly the Dionysian hero of art? At the threshold at which his art becomes public, will the people understand it?
This novel is a compelling and thoughtful exploration of how lives are distorted by conflict.
Of all the public events that affect the individual, the most atrocious is war. Savičević wants to show us that it is through art that we can work through the violence and create love, to share something like peace, and something like life. Her novel is an intricate and brilliant expression of this idea.