(Lidija Dimkovska’s A Spare Life, Ili-ili, Skopje 2012)
“I did not become a writer. I cannot write even now. Writing is a solitary act, and I can still feel Srebra’s head next to mine. That it can see what I am writing. And I feel ashamed, I feel embarrassed, and I cannot write. Except within myself” (Zlata, p. 365)
#1 Lidija Dimkovska’s newest novel is not just written ‘within itself’; rather, it spells out over 368 densely populated pages, unified in a book that weighs 380 grams, with a 20 mm wide backbone. Therefore, Lidija Dimkovska is not Zlata, the narrator of A Spare Life, one of the Siamese twins. With this, right at the onset, I put aside an autobiographical reading, disregarding whether or not I believe in a literature without the autobiographical or not…
A Spare Life’s Tail
A Spare Life is a richer and higher form/version of Dimkovska’s first novel, Hidden Camera. Yet Hidden Camera was neither petite in stature no diminutive in nature (110 grammas, 11mm wide), for when it was originally published, in 2004, it signaled a unique literary occurrence – the novel was the recipient of the “Stale Popov” Prize, awarded by the Macedonian Writers’ Association; it was also short-listed for all the other literary awards in Macedonia during that year. By a single vote it lost the ‘Novel of the Year’ Prize given annually by “Utrinski vesnik” [a Macedonian daily] in 2004, i.e., it went in the hands of Olivera Nikolova, the author mentioned both in Hidden Camera, and now again, in A Spare Life: on page 98, Zlata says: “I’d like to be like Olivera Nikolova”.
I think that it is almost customary to view an author’s previous successes as a kind of a ‘tail’ now attached, permanently, to their newer works. And A Spare Life’s tail is a rather lengthy one; the fans of magical realism might even suggest that it drags itself through “many meadows and mountains”, or if you like, through “many countries and continents”, too, since Lidija Dimkovska is one of the most successful Macedonian writers, both home and abroad, with a sling of awards, translations, literary residencies to her name. Consequently, A Spare Life is not Hidden Camera, even when we seem to find them inseparable. We are mistaken. We are tricked by the small stuff, the petty trivia; the truth lies in the larger chunks.
A Spare Life’s Body
This is a large-scale and utterly-consumptive novel; it presents itself through an extensive narrative magic as a kind of story-told fresco overlooking ours (as well as the others’) last three decades. The story begins in 1984, in a June suburban afternoon, somewhere in the vicinity of Skopje, and it ends on August 18, 2012, at the exact same location. The game the characters play is the same (the one from the book’s cover page): Fortune Telling. In the beginning, the Siamese twins Srebra and Zlata [the names are a play on ‘silver’ and ‘gold’, respectively] get to play it; in the end, it belongs to Zlata’s daughters, Marta and Marija, also twins. The circle is complete, as it includes 28 years of living, growing, suffering, personal and joint pain, love with accompanying hatred, hatred accompanied by death, the separation of conjoined twins, the break-up of joint [Yugoslav] republics and autonomous regions… Srebra is left on the outside; the circle closes without her, for she ‘does not survive’, much like SFRJ [The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] post its split… I cannot recall reading in Macedonian a more nuanced and precise rendition of artistically ‘handled’ political implications, subtle and clever political allusions, but also radical stances articulated as ‘art’. Yet, A Spare Life’s body is not the body politic of a political novel, in any one way. It is a powerful, massive body of a fierce personal saga, belonging to an individual who, both literally and symbolically, has been merged with the Other, with an Otherness without which it is left in constant mortal danger. The individual has been left on the precipice between life and death, armed with a stick of memories she uses to balance her hands, to balance her walk, if she only knows how…
A Spare Life’s Open Arms
On the one hand, these arms reach towards a heart-breaking, even realistically cruel novel, speaking of all the personal and social mires we’ve had to plow through for decades on end; on the other hand, they open a kind of “auto-fictional biography”, or as the author herself would call her own writing, going back to Hidden Camera: “Others pen autobiographical fiction; I write auto-fictional biography.” A Spare Life’s open arms catch and release the death of a child, the heavy burden of guilt, hatred, weddings and funerals, incest, a poverty of the soul disguised as social poverty, faith and God, holidays and traditions, masturbation, family dysfunction to the nth degree, acculturation, the severing of familial bonds; in fact – a severing of intimacy cut down with a saber, for good; followed by, shady and speculative deals, various social (and personal) transgressions of each and every kind, a fake sense of co-habitation deeply rooted in hatred, primarily due to misunderstandings and mutual unfamiliarity…To be interested in how one’s neighbors, enemies, the Others live, but never truly interested in one’s own lifestyle…Despite all this, the author finds a place within the novel’s open arms so as to juxtapose foreign destinies and stories (un-Balkan), foreign events, fears and wars (yet Balkan-based, hence, “ours”); to merge “our” (domestic) pain with the global world of suffering; to include the similar, softer, but also far crueler destinies belonging to the geographical neighborhood (but also including un-Balkan ones), and with that (quite typical for Lidija Dimkovska), to create staggering essayistic landscapes that would help define the act of storytelling itself, of the author’s own literary and non-literary views. For example: “Again and anew, I came to realize that we are born, but never as national entities. We are not merely defined by the land we’d spring from, but also all those lands we’d stepped on, all the ‘airs’ we’d inhaled, all the people we’d met, all the languages we’d tried ourselves out in. The writer-man is a kind of a chameleon, a kind of a rolling stone. And before he dies, a worm lodged in the soul addresses the mother tongue: “Who are you? Who were you?” He dies before he gets to answer. This is a question the émigré writer does not have an answer to.” (Zlata, p. 277). Questions about language, writing, nationality, a-nationality, patriotism, and (non)belonging, when posed and answered in such a manner, rarely make for decent novelistic basis, yet we get to encounter them in A Spare Life; however, they do not stand as obstacles, nor do they in any way undermine the genre, rather, they get to widen it by enriching and sharpening its scope. As a kind of an illustration for the “self-defining, self-explaining” aspect of the novel, let’s examine the world writer up close. The word is mentioned 34 times, or percentage-wise, in terms of the number of pages, the writer mentions “a writer” on every 10 pages (on 85 pages in total). The 34 times take into account a truly wide spectrum of writers: émigrés, domicile writers, transnationals, exiles, those who had continued writing in their native language even after entering the state of exile, those who had changed the writerly language, those who stopped writing or started writing in their new physical environment…it’s used too often for us to dismiss it as mere coincidence. It’s used too often for us to believe that Zlata is Lidija Dimkovska, since, Zlata informs us: “I did not become a writer (…)” (365) Once again, now mathematically speaking, I reject autobiography in terms of this novel’s designation.
A Spare Life’s Plume
And, for the novel’s plume, we can definitely consider those beautifully rendered film scenes in the novel that I think we have not insofar read/seen in a Lidija Dimkovska narrative, not even in Hidden Camera. Let’s focus on three of those:
(1 scene: pp. 62-63) Going to the doctor’s office because of Srebra’s infected toe, when the father carries one of the Siamese twins in his arms, and the other one walks by them. Can you image this? Can you see this movement as real?
(2 scene: pp. 15-16) The moment when Roze teaches the Siamese twins how to ride a bike, i.e., two bikes!
(3 scene) The funeral for those objects the mother had kept on top of her wardrobe during better times. After the mother’s passing, Zlata knows that there are not going to be better days, neither for the mother nor for her things which had additionally strengthened the imagined family poverty, and thus decides to bury them with all the accouterments, right next to the mother’s body (unopened dinning sets – dead; unopened kitchen mixer – dead; boxes with candy – sadly sweet dead; packaged coffee left behind by guests – 120 grams dead; a jar brought from London as gift – a distant dead brought once with kindness and care…).
It is truly magical to read a novel this complex, this worldly, in one’s native language, accompanied by all the possible nuanced meanings of the atribute “worldly”.
Translated by Bela Gligorova