Love Novel, by Ivana Sajko (translated by Mima Simić), is a brutally honest tale of a marriage suffering the twin stresses of a new child and grim, economic uncertainty. He is an unemployed scholar with plans to write a book for which the words won’t come. She is bearing the brunt of their childcare responsibilities having given up her job as an actress, albeit one who never quite made the artistic mark she hoped for.
“they had no interest in art, but rather only in very exact material relations; how many bums on seats per play […] They assured her the audience wouldn’t tolerate art either; all the questioning, uncertainties, hidden meanings and open endings”
The couple met, fell in love and then fell pregnant. Now they are living in a small apartment for which they cannot afford the rent. Suffering from lack of sleep and having to care for a young child, their resentments towards each other grow and fester. They lash out verbally but without explanation, believing the other should understand.
He escapes this toxic family life by taking part in meaningless protests against government corruption.
“when thousands of people sit in the streets to stop traffic, protesting against politicians, judges, bankers or the corporate mafia who, ultimately, pull the strings of all their lives, and when they unfurl their banners that read ENOUGH, they know it won’t be enough”
She deals with her anger by compulsively cleaning and tidying their home. She hates the ugly couch he brought with him when they moved in together, an item of furniture he regards as ideal for purpose. This difference comes to symbolise the emotional blindness they both suffer regarding the other.
“everything was still in place, undamaged, before they’d started resenting each other over promises unfulfilled, over weakness, laziness, selfishness, over stupid trifles and the goddam rent, while they still believed that love saves”
There is a brief respite when both find jobs and money worries recede. What happens next proves that hard work isn’t always enough – a timely reminder given the current and likely worsening economic situation here.
A thread explores the actions of a neighbour who has time and inclination for bringing residents of the apartment block together and trying to improve the aesthetics of the place. The couple seen through neighbours’ eyes reminds how societal judgements are made. What becomes of this man is shocking and rendered with perceptive precision.
Elements of the story are also told through their effect on the baby. It is painful to consider why grown children will often avoid calling or visiting parents, and the roots of this behaviour.
Although an often uncomfortable read this is still a love story, stripped of veneer and then corroded by emotional and material difficulty. There is no suggestion that either of the couple is a bad person, although they themselves may beg to differ given the thoughts they suppress. Their spiral towards the denouement builds tension but also a rare togetherness.
A remarkably intricate dissection of a relationship under pressure. The pithy yet powerful prose delivers a bitingly impressive and always riveting tale.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.