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By: Booksa

Heroines of our time

Foto: Art Siegel / Flickr
Maja Hrgović: The one who wins is the one who cares less (Profil, Zagreb, 2010)

Review written by Leda Sutlović. Translated by Una Krizmanić Ožegović.


Placed in a neighbourhood of transition's losers, Maja Hrgović's stories bring sequences of lives of young women who are trying to find their way in the newly formed landscape. Divided in two parts, winter and summer, the stories take on the features of the seasons in question,to a certain degree, so the winter stories are intimate and depressing, while the summer ones are mainly positive and more lively. The winter stories take place in a small railroad town, an island in the centre of a town, where time is conserved, together with its inhabitants. Although it is right next to the central railway station, where buses from the outskirts bring rivers of people into a big underground passage filled with bright-lit shops and pubs, the surrounding area stands in utter contrast to its fast-pacing counterpart. It is gray and in a state of decay, the apartments are moldy and hazardous to live in, the tenants are poor, wasted people whose time has passed.

The focal point of the entire neighbourhood is a pub called 'The Railway Man', a warm, friendly dump where railway workers, the locals, alternative youths and various other scalawags who treat the tracks and the station as their natural habitat, while drowning their sorrows in alcohol. This is the landscape where the heroines come to find shelter and time to discover the meaning of life and themselves. By being dislocated from real time, and even space, the railway topography provides the heroines and some of their lovers with a welcomed break from real life. 
Unlike the winter stories, summer stories are set in Novi Zagreb's skyscrapers, student mess halls, but also provincial roads, and most surprisingly, corporate parties. These heterogeneous places may be attributed, to a certain extent, to the seasonal vibe, but also to a possible inconsistency of the collection. When a tycoon tears down the old railway neighbourhood in order to build a shopping mall, that is the end of the first part of the book, when a relation is established with real time events while annihilating the possibility of demonstrating a potentially more positive, summery side of the ragged town. The reader is deprived of a somewhat brighter side of the hood, so the glum scenery, although brilliant both structurally and narratively, maintains the level of typical portrayal of marginalized characters who have a glass of bitter nothing on the rocks for breakfast.

On the other hand, by showing the conditions on the island in the town centre, but also the tin buildings and blocks of buildings in Novi Zagreb, Maja Hrgović gives a feminine outlook to the so-called urban prose and joins the guys – poets of the asphalt romanticising life in the suburbs. The formula cannot fail: some booze, some music, some sex, dip it in social problems and existential crisis of the protagonists, with a woman's face on it. What does it look like?
Women being bohemian

The heroines of the stories participate in all the wonders of the hood: they dwell in their apartments unemployed, get wasted in the Railway Man, hop across the railway tracks drunkenly on the way to their little shacks and look for love somewhere along those three street blocks where their lives unfold. The girls from the stories are pretty sensitive, melancholy, in possession of a bit of an artistic soulfulness, with a tendency to drink, loiter and occasionally act out. The combined effect of all those tendencies leads to their temporary residence in the railway district where they do not exactly belong, but where they find perverse enjoyment in their banishment, trying to catch their breath before starting a new, more mature and serious part of their life. 

The narrative voice that leads us through the everyday life of the renegade heroines is always in first person, which creates an intimate atmosphere with a confessional note, particularly noticeable in 'Poppy on Lungs', 'Jopa', even in 'Hand'. The narrators are emancipated young ladies who share their intimate stories, but do not care about the activist eros. The personal never becomes the political for them, and social issues that are interwoven in the stories, are left on the back burner as a mere statement of fact. The specifically female experience that comes with these stories is exposed through female narrators, from a women's perspective which, therefore, outlines the main points of feminist writing, even more so because the author speaks about things that have, for some reason, been mostly reserved for men. Topics such as posttraumatic war experience, reality of transition, interrupted by bohemian escapades, while all those lives are lived by women, is certainly a novelty in our contemporary literary landscape. 

Solo riders in the episode: 'Alone against the Universe'
Political urban women prose (it is very likely a couple of more adjectives could be pinned), reveals an impeccably talented author of excellent narrative style which is reflected in every detail, especially when building the atmosphere with beautiful comparisons, such as the one that relates to love making – we piled on the days in the apartment, like eggs in a basket, one next to the other, and all of them the same; or the one that hilariously describes the heated atmosphere at a concert – and then the ones in the front rows started screaming like they were having a group bikini wax. By sharing certain places and moments, the reader starts feeling as an accomplice, which is a positive thing. Following the title of the book, what is being shared is a value that appears in all the stories – maintaining personal integrity, being true to yourself, although a change might mean victory.
With placing love at the heart of the story and adding current events such as war traumas and transition into the mix, as well as personal issues like finding meaning and shaping your own destiny, the author addresses a wide readership. Still, the romantic treatment of renegade heroines who live punk like solo riders, the author primarily addresses the alternative culture youths that hang around in a pub at the beginning of the story. It is pity a place such as 'The Railway Man' does not exist, where we could all get together.


This text was originally written in Croatian during the Art Module Criticise This and published in Croatian media Novosti on December 9, 2011.

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