Olja Savičević Ivančević, Summer with Marija, Fraktura, 2022.
That Olja Savičević Ivančević is talking about a woman in her new novel is clear from the title itself, but she does it in a completely impressive and inspiring way. The thematic sets and conceptual frameworks of “Summers with Mary” encompass the life of women from one family in a small Dalmatian town whose name we do not know even at the end of the novel. Just as male names were passed down from generation to generation in these areas, so in their family the name Marija was passed down with different variants of nicknames – Mara, Mare, Marijeta, Meri, Merica, Marica, Marijica, Marjuča, Maša, Little Marija, Big Marija, Pretty Marija called Bozena, Great-grandmother Marija, Aunt Marija, Cousin Marija.
“Marija was, in a very personal way, what connected them more than the last name, which is men’s thing anyway, they told her, and she herself had already figured it out.” (10)
About “eternal daughterhood”, Savičević Ivančević speaks from intertwined time perspectives, so these determinants are stretched and include stories from the period from 1921 to 2021. The first sentences of “Summers with Marija”, as the author points out in the acknowledgment at the very end, were written in the summer of 2017 in Korčula, and the last only in the summer of 2022 in the same place and island. The novel is divided into two parts, which the author titles “Summer holidays” and “Grandma’s summer”. In the first, we read about women’s stories from different time periods of the last century, and in the second, in a conversation between a mother and daughter, in the year 2021, all the family diagnoses narrated up to that time are summarized, and the whole is formally rounded off. Fragmented in time and separated by chapters, this novel can easily be described as a collection of stories. And in that, we wouldn’t go far wrong.
“Summers with Marija” emphasize the thematic polyphony of women’s (autobiographical) records in the direction of family chronicles, memories of childhood and growing up, with a continuous reference to forgotten ancestors-daughters and society’s attitude towards them over time. Savičević Ivančević chooses two quotes, two epitaphs for the intro of his novel. One is a line from her poem “Century”, and the other is Marguerite Duras’s: “Mothers remain the strangest, craziest people we have ever met, we, their children.” Of course, both are closely related to the meaningful essence of the novel – genealogy with an emphasis on the connection between mother and daughter, understood both on a literal level and on a certain symbolic level. The author gives voice to stories from the past that have never been mentioned before; this is a novel that we could look at as archiving what women, mothers, wives, and daughters said to each other – their conversations are part of the tradition of women’s gatherings and based on them it is visible how the life was and how much has changed. All Marias, Marijolas, and Maras have been struggling with their femininity since childhood; and throughout their lives, it is their main obstacle, but “Summers with Maria” does not show that they surrender, on the contrary. They are headstrong and stubborn and continue to struggle with all the challenges that come their way.
By illustrating the relationship(s) between mother and daughter, the author exposes the most sensitive places in the social perception of that relationship. The generational sequel of maternal care in this novel is also reflected in the following questions that come after Marijola grows up and becomes a mother: Do daughters inherit their mothers in all segments of existence, do they live with the continuous burden of questioning their role, which is often imposed on them as the only essential one for them, and other variations on that theme. Through five generations, their destinies connect and condition each other, just like the three strands of hair in a braid that adorns the cover of the novel designed by Ivan Stanišić. Conditions are determined, first by gender identity, then by national identity, but also by those imposed by the patriarchal archetype of the relationship between mother and daughter.
Maria, the heroine of all our ages
The title of this novel may also recall to the reader’s mind “Summer with Monika”, the famous film by Ingmar Bergman from 1953. Although we would think that the reference communicates with the mentioned film only on the level of similarity of the title, there is still (something) more. The idea, motif, and atmosphere of the summer in which the stories are set are important determinants that contrast with the fates of all the Marys in the book. “Summers with Marija” releases their magic by reviving the scents of the Mediterranean, a mixture of the sea wind, the sea with maples, the scents of women, and wild narrow bays; we experience the same in “Summer with Monika”. Their private dramas are presented up close, in close-up, and summer is a necessary illusion and counterpoint to lives that are not so “magical, soft and beautiful”. Also, with Savičević Ivančević as well as with Bergman – big and small stories, personal and historical – intimate breakups, women’s tragedies, encounters – enter into what we could call raw material, the essence with which one moves into creation. “Summers with Marija”, just like Bergman’s “Summer with Monika”, is a work that strengthens the focus on the female perspective from which the world is viewed. Therefore, finally coming to the point, we should praise the title, which very nicely captures the connective tissue of the work itself and summarizes the atmosphere present in it.
Savičević Ivančević uses the first and third person as the main narrative technique, which connects the narrators and focalizing characters, and enables us to see the presented situations from the lives of women objectively at the same time, but also to be emotionally involved in their destinies, potentially identifying with them. In this way, this novel takes a critical look at its theme, which is concentrated on the experiences of several women whose stories have been echoed by wars, deaths, downfalls, and triumphs of nations, as well as pandemics. All the more interesting is the author’s choice to write the chapters of the novel that are temporally set in the distant past – the 20s, 50s, and 60s of the 20th century – using dialect, localisms, and humor, using a simpler style than the case is in the less humorous contemporary chapters, which are more filled with anxiety, but certainly keep pace with the general state of consciousness of the world at that time. With this approach to language, the author managed to convey the authentic life experience of five women of different generations. And not only that, but she also showed how much things have changed in those hundred years. From Marija-ancestors who spent decades in kitchens and rooms, to their descendants who in many ways contributed to the emancipation and giving voice to all those forgotten women. Writing about the problems faced by the family’s predecessors, Savičević Ivančević also talks about the steps forward when it comes to the visibility of women’s names and work over time. All this is framed through the image of a family tree where there is no place for women.