The face, mind, craft and heart of the book
The Last Gulps is Bakovska’s second and latest collection of short stories, following the publication of The Four Seasons3 14 years ago. The subheading of this book is:”stories about essential matters, for the second time”, is an extension of the subheading of the first one:”stories about essential matters”. The book contains two cycles: Stories in the third person and Stories in the first person, with the first cycle comprising of 9 longer stories, while the second has 10 shorter stories. Even though this division is made in order to fool us into thinking that the first part contains the non-personal, fictional stories, while the second is the opposite (personal, non-fictional stories), still it is untenable to take this as the basic interpretative premise. I would rather say that the first part has the little less, while the second part the little more personal stories. All in all, The Last Gulps is a book of and about memories, a notebook from the past placed under the wobbly table of the present to stabilize it, to stop it from tittering. This exact image is one of the central symbolisms in the book and comes directly from the short story “The Wobbly Table” from the second cycle, a story so narratively potent that it could serve as the face of this book. As well as the mind and the craft, undoubtedly. The simplicity of the storytelling in this marvelous short story casts quite a shadow over the most complex literary and narrative procedures and principles. We can see a perfect reflection of the literary worldview of the author in the mirror of a mundane event in a fast food restaurant, when a mother props up and stabilizes the table with her notebook full of memories (of the past) which she then forgets and leaves it to remain under the leg of the table forever. She tells herself: “I have lost all of our troubled past for just a few moments of a balanced present”, which I think is the best and most precise definition of the specific literary style of Bakovska. This “definition” when correlated with the beginning sentence of this auto-referential short prose text (“Written words are these heavy epaulets on my shoulders, they are my rank, my award and my punishment”), further crystalizes our view that this short story is also the heart of The Last Gulps. The beating narrative pulse marching on in a regular rhythm.
Poetics of the title
Even though it should be considered part of the craft of storytelling, yet it seems that giving a title is an art on its own or that it could be seen as a targeted and intentional message by the author, bait the author casts to catch certain type of “fish” or whatever lies in general in the “water”. Giving a title to a collection of short stories is a whole different literary universe, because there we can also see how the author revolves around his or her own stories (or maybe even vice versa…) depending on the story or the detail/layer of the story the title is derived from, as well as on the manner and the reason behind the choice. The title The Last Gulps originates from “The Last Gulps of Warm Life”, the sixth story in the first cycle, through a simple and commendable reduction of the title which is highly effective and leads as well to the expanding of the semantic field of presuppositions and expectations of the potential reader. If the collection would have been named after the full title of the main story, then it would have narrowed the range of possibilities for the readers. They would be bereft of the process of questioning what do the those last gulps exactly refer to, because when they would see the last part – of warm life , they might conclude that the book represents… some sort of cold thirst? By the elision of the full title and only using the phrase “the last gulps”, the potential readers are presented with an open-ended title and greater freedom of expectation. There is no dichotomy of warm-cold, there is only the word “last” which can equally be understood as either the end of something or the beginning of something else. Because, behind everything that is last lurks something that might be a new first… Quite a refined creative choice by the author Bakovska.
The central story according to which the collection is entitled (“The Last Gulps of Warm Life”) is one of Bakovska’s typical and recognizable stories, but not perhaps the prose highlight of her collection. The message conveyed by Bakovska with the title is her way of directing our attention to the thing which is most important to her in the book. These aspects and seemingly innocuous reflections, for me as an author who had her initiation in literature through the genre of the short story, as well as literary critic who is dealing with this genre, represent the most enticing topics about which I have rarely had the chance to write about. The critic in me would have drawn from or just used the title of the most impressive short stories in this collection, or even the most typical ones, in fact. Thus, the preferred choice would be either “The Wobbly Table”, or perhaps of dreaming as the principle followed by the family of the storyteller from “Did You Dream Something Last Night?” (”My family who have always believed in dreams.”) Maybe I would have taken the title from the last story “Love I You”, promoting this agrammatism into a literary form of love transcending all written and unwritten rules. However, I would never derive it from the very story that Bakovska turns to, because even though it still is a very solid short story, still it seems to me to be too limited in scope for this collection. This is a collection of short stories with room to encompass the father… mother, brother, children, all the loves… and yet to still have enough space for many more things to be placed on the chairs and king-size beds of the stories. I refer primarily here to the stories such as “The Yasnaya Polyana Dossier”, “Sounds of Dying” and “How I Missed My Best Opportunity to Kill My Lady Boss” which are all very important stories for Bakovska, but that hardly fit under the umbrella of the existing title, exposing them to be caught and get soaked under the sudden and uncontrolled reader’s downpour.
The title of my text, then, comes from “Sounds of Dying”. I wanted to extract a title not from the already provided ones by Bakovska, but from something of hers which is common for all the 19 stories. I have recognized what I needed and sought for in the phrase (in the “location”) – “where silence grates”. I sense that all the stories are imbued with some sort of silence, a fear of talking which is imposing even when it is narrated in a torrent of words. This silence is grating and is not completely soundless, it scrapes at the heart and is the general feature shared by the whole collection of stories.
This, to a certain degree idle and intimate reflection gives me comfort to provide (for myself) answers to the questions no one has ever posed to me.
3 I wrote a review about Four Seasons right after its publication in the article “The first Prose Book”, published in Utrinski Vesnik on 13.7.2004, which was later included in my book One Book and One Woman, Ili-Ili, Skopje 2016 (pp. 196-198).