(Rumena Bužarovska: Wisdom Tooth, Blesok, Skopje, 2010)
#1 After the extraordinary debut of her short story collection Scribbles, the latest collection by Rumena Bužarovska, an author who belongs to the new generation of Macedonian contemporary short-story writers, brings us a total of eight stories. Hence, the title of the book Wisdom Tooth (bearing the title of one of the stories) also carries symbolic meaning:1F the number eight, among other things, signifies cosmic balance, which emphasizes the inner logic and strong composition of the collection. With this book Bužarovska offers eight “walks in the fictional woods” – to paraphrase Umberto Eco and his “Six walks in the fictional woods”, the six Norton lectures held at Harvard University in 1992 and 1993. Naturally, the woods stand as a metaphor for the narrative.
Walk no. 1
“A childhood friend of mine, whom I hadn’t seen for years, wrote to me after the publication of my second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum: ‘Dear Umberto, I do not recall having told you the pathetic story of my uncle and aunt, but I think you were very indiscreet to use it in your novel.’ Well, in my book I recount a few episodes concerning an ‘Uncle Charles’ and an ‘Aunt Catherine’ who are the uncle and aunt of the protagonist, Jacopo Belpo, and it is true that these characters really did exist: with a few alterations, I tell a story from my childhood concerning an uncle and aunt––who had, however, different names. I wrote back to my friend saying that Uncle Charles and Aunt Catherine were my relations, not his, and that therefore I had the copyright; I was not even aware that he had had any uncles or aunts. My friend apologized: he had been so absorbed by the story that he thought he could recognize some incidents that had happened to his uncle and aunt––which is not impossible, because in wartime (which was the period to which my memories went back) similar things happen to different uncles and aunts” (Eco, 1993: 9).
Something similar happens when we first start reading the short stories in Wisdom Tooth: walking through Rumena’s fictional woods, we feel as if we are in our own private garden. Her stories are soaked in “the living life” (as Boris Pasternak used to say), but do not exhibit as much as a glimpse of the pathetic. The characters are so suggestive in their “flesh and blood” portrayal, that the reader, at the moment of reception, spontaneously and subconsciously draws parallels to his/her own life experiences, recognizing events and characters from his/her own memories. Possibly, during the act of creation, the writer herself used characters and events from her reality as prototypes or aesthetic objects for her fictional world. However, these characters, moving from reality into fiction, gain a status of independence, having transformed themselves in a world belonging to all of us. This mingling of reality and fiction, this play with the narrative as if it were a permeable membrane between the real and fictional, ultimately questions the idea of artistic truth.
Walk no. 2
If we accept the view that “Literature is always, in some way, real, just as reality is always, in some way, literary”, or “Looking from the ‘inside’, reality is ‘outside’, but looking from the ‘outside’, reality is ‘inside’” (Solar, 1980: 43), then we are reading reality as fiction, and fiction as reality.
On October 4th, 1926, during one of his walks through the streets of Paris, Andrè Breton met the real Nadja – the future heroine of his novel bearing the same name. Today it is also October 4th, but the year is 2010.2F Here we are now, in Skopje, 84 years later, at the book launch of Rumena Bužarovska’s collection Wisdom Tooth. Disregarding the coincidental numerological overlap, but bearing in mind Rumena’s extraordinary talent to breathe language into the events and characters of her surrounding, surely we can conjecture that this evening we shall all find ourselves into one of her future narratives? Our reality is, perhaps, just as imaginary as the reality of the heroes existing in Bužarovska’s world. Through the dilemmas such as: Are we real or imaginary characters? Where does reality end, and where does illusion begin? – and, Where does the imaginary end, and where does the real begin? – Rumena plays, quite lucidly, with the great secret of literature.
Walk no. 3
The protagonists in Rumena Bužarovska’s short stories are ordinary people, whose voyages through the existential courses of life are fulfilled on the margins of Erich Fromm’s famous thought “to have or to be”. Rather than heroes of our time, they resemble antiheroes, outsiders who cannot manage to communicate within the circles of their families, friends or surrounding. The individual’s attempt to understand the world is vain, but they also want the world to understand them. Such is the case in “Tina’s Problem”: a warm, moving story which raises the issue of small-town mentality, while subtly criticizing medical institutions. The short story is a remarkable example of the dismal defeat of individual hopes and dreams.
Bužarovska’s heroes frequently follow their own, inner logic, which, as if by some kind of rule, stands against the grotesque vision of the world of others, a world governed by the logic of money. Paradoxically, however, they allow themselves to be swept away by this type of corrupt logic. Do we, if at all, live for ourselves, and to what extent are we subordinated to the desires, needs and expectations of others? How much do we borrow from the viewpoint of the Others? These are the key dilemmas of Keti from the short story “Wisdom Tooth”: in spite of her clear reasoning, she falls into the trap of her friend’s norms, behaving irrationally and against her own will. Overly considerate towards others, she goes against herself: she is powerless and unable to stand up to the violent mechanism of the materialistic world.
This short story bears a distant resemblance to the short story “Sharks” by Mitko Madzhunkov. “Sharks” is an even more drastic example of the relation Self vs. Others, since the hero is put in a situation where he has to choose between death as an “objective danger” on the one hand, and “the irrational braveness of the people” on the other hand. Unexpectedly, in opposition to his rational character, the hero chooses the general hysteria of the masses and goes into the shark-infested waters.
1. The Macedonian equivalent of the English word for “wisdom tooth” is literally “the eighth (tooth)”. Hence the double meaning of the title.
2. This essay was read at the book launch held on 4.10.2010. The fact that the sum of the digits amounts to eight is an interesting coincidence.