— Published on March 12, 2018
Fragile Travellers by Jovanka Živanović (tr. Jovanka Kalaba). Dalkey Archive Press. $14.00, 106pp.
All my suffering is rooted in the imbalance existing between the corporeal and the spiritual. Is that my cross, my limitation? (Kierkegaard)
This is the question that Emilija Savić struggles with on a daily basis as she finds the mundanity and isolation of everyday life too much to bear. Her dreams give her the strength needed to get through life, but they also cause her great suffering, and she yearns for someone to be there for her during her tribulations. In walks Petar Naumov, quite literally.
On his way to buy some coffee, Petar ended up in a woman’s dream—and got stuck there.
As he leaves his apartment one day, Petar finds himself in Ema’s dream, helping her escape from an ever-narrowing cave. In the first of many philosophical/religious themed dreams, there are allusions of Ema as a Christ figure during the resurrection as she tries to take her first steps forward, wearing a crown of thorns. It is Petar who is able to urge her to leave the cave and face whatever it is that is to come next. Named as such for a reason, Petar does indeed serve as Ema’s “rock” during her subsequent dreams, allowing her to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders through a number of Judeo-Christian themed trials.
Although uninvited, he would come as a support, as some kind of spiritual stimulant, as the stronger part of me—a man who could lift a burden heavier than himself without even being aware of it. (Ema)
Jovanka Živanović’s Fragile Travellers reads primarily as a metaphysical straddling of the spiritual and corporeal worlds, yet also manages to address practical, everyday concerns. Ema is a high school art teacher. In her mid-thirties, she lives with her lover, Žarko, an intellectually stunted lawyer. The term “lover,” of course, being misleading. The two rarely engage in any love-related activities. Ema is a timid character, trying to get through life unnoticed by others. On the other hand, Petar is a handsome, respectable pillar of the community. He has been married to his wife, Anđelija, for many years. Although unattractive and overly practical, Anđelija provides a stable and comfortable marriage that Petar has never questioned.
Ema is aware of Žarko’s limitations and frequently longs for more:
I’d been searching for something that simply couldn’t exist on Earth—two souls so tightly connected as to think or feel exactly the same thing. (Ema)
Obviously, this is a job description for which Žarko is underqualified. Ema and Žarko engage in an almost platonic, symbiotic relationship, with Žarko keeping Ema from becoming lost in her dreams and Ema providing Žarko meaning during his uneventful, mundane life. Žarko’s inability to engage with Ema spiritually and intellectually prevents him from engaging with her sexually.
At the beginning of the book, Petar, however, is only slightly aware of a feeling of “incompleteness.” It is through his interactions with Ema in her dreams that he is aware of a suppressed spirituality within him that has been left unnurtured for too long a time. This is hinted at when he reflects upon completing work to take his hat off (and everything else) and letting his brain loose for a while. Anđelija, as she says herself, being a woman incapable of introspection, is unable to connect with this part of Petar’s character and is in fact, threatened by it. Insecure and frequently suspecting another woman as the cause of their disharmony, in her heart she knows that she is not capable of providing fully for Petar yet reassures herself:
Maybe she couldn’t give him what he truly wanted in his heart, but neither could all those other girls, so she felt at peace. (Anđelija)
The limitations of their partners are, to an extent, the cause of the banality in Ema and Petar’s lives. Ema more aware of this than Petar initially, opines:
It’s often the case that those with whom we share our bed and bread are unable to accompany us on the personal path that is charted within our own spirit. (Ema)
As they become closer that their interactions in Ema’s dreams, Petar and Ema realize that they can fullfil these needs for each other. Petar can be the support that Ema needs, unafraid to understand her inner world and Ema can nurture Petar into being the person that he wants to become.
I knew that the Petar who awaited me at the end of that path was a new, whole me. (Petar)
Živanović’s affection for her characters is evident throughout the text. Although serving to mostly describe the motives and characteristics of Petar and Ema, Žarko and Anđelija are written delicately and with warmth. They are not mere obstacles impeding Petar and Ema’s journeys. The reader feels sympathy for Anđelija as she recalls how as a naive, inexperienced college girl, she was able to capture Petar’s heart (although with just a little manipulation) and genuine enthusiasm for Žarko’s attempt to express himself through poetry towards the end of the book.
However, obviously, the relationship between Petar and Ema forms the spine of the book and raises questions of guilt and fidelity for both the characters and the reader. Živanović pre-empts these questions and makes sure that she addresses them through both characters questioning themselves throughout the book with Ema ultimately declaring:
I didn’t feel any guilt; I sinned against no one—welcome back to my dreams, Mr. Petar Naumov. (Ema)
As a reader, this is not so clear. It is obvious that the intention is for the relationship between Petar and Ema to be seen as one above the physical and both characters stress a lack of sexual motivation during their encounters, both in dream and in reality. The addition of Isaac of Nineveh, the saint and ascetic theologian, in the role of almost a spiritual guide as it were, further brings the writer’s intention into view.
Still, there is something inherently unsettling about Petar and Ema’s relationship. The climax of the plot, where Petar and Ema join together, seemingly as one spiritual being is dripping with sexuality in its description.
And then our lips joined – simply, without searching or hesitating, with the passion of those who had looked for each other endlessly and were finally together. (Ema)
Something mad was happening in our heads – as if our brains had turned to liquid and were flowing together, becoming one in a way that denied the possibility of them ever separating again. (Ema)
The amount of themselves that they keep concealed from their respective partners does give their connection an adulterous tone. Similarly, the fact that they both use Žarko and Anđelija as means of albeit, ineffective support, does come across as cynical. Živanović attempts to absolve her main characters of any wrongdoing does in fact, bring it even more to the forefront.
Some of the themes that Živanović explores are interesting and she does have meaningful commentary to provide. Her classification of people into their base materials is well-considered and explained, giving a solid framework to Peter and Ema’s journey as fragile travellers. The isolation felt by both Petar and Ema is similar in nature yet still unique to each character. Again, these characters are real for Živanović. Žarko and Anđelija suffer from similar isolation and like their partners, their isolation is caused entirely by the situations they find themselves within the confines of reality. Each isolation has a chance to resonate with different readers and it is thoroughly because of Živanović’s attention to deal that this is able to be the case.
Živanović’s writing is excellent throughout. The structure of the book certainly helps with the chapters told by a narrator bookending Petar and Ema’s first person chapters. These chapters have no clear style and almost take the form of a police investigation into a disappearance whilst also injecting moments of humour and farce Žarko and Anđelija’s third-person chapters also provide much-needed outside perspective to avoid their soliloquies becoming monotonous and stale. Interestingly, Petar and Ema’s voices become more similar as their connection grows stronger over the course of the book. Repeated vocabulary used by the pair such as “the abyss” and “azure” when other word choices were possible suggest their impending spiritual fusion. Dream and reality are unclear for the duration of the book, mirroring Ema’s feeling that:
I couldn’t tell where reality ended and dreams began, and I couldn’t speak of one realm and not betray the other. (Ema)
This is shown by many of Petar’s experiences (and indeed their final meeting) not clearly being dream or material. When Petar suffers from frostbite in one of Ema’s dreams, he goes back to his own apartment to treat it and then returns to her dream. Also, Serbian language metaphors are literalised in reality but keep dream-like qualities, such as when Petar lets his brain loose for a while or when he swims the Morava in an attempt to wash away his sins. Logically, both scenes must take place in dreams but are written as if they are occurring in reality.
The book does come across as an extremely personal work on the part of Jovanka Živanović and she clearly wants to present the themes and ideas of the book in a certain way. She uses her characters as a way of expressing her thoughts on subjects that are close to her. However, she can try to do this overzealously and it is that these times, that she is too heavy-handed and does a disservice to the characters that she has so vividly brought to life. In the end, Petar’s journey seems to be a lot more convincing than Ema’s. In the final dream sequence, where Petar and Ema are finally able to talk and put into words the difficulties they have with their existence, Petar’s growth is clear and his transformation is complete. Ema, on the other hand, revisits her previous complaints about how people respond to and discard arts and literature. Such minor hang-ups seem to trivialise their connection and although important to the writer, could have been left out. Their parting dialogue however, fittingly brings the focus back to the transcendental nature of their relationship, without overtones of the romantic:
I love that you exist, Petar Naumov. (Ema)
An important distinction and one that is not always achieved through Fragile Traveller.
Jaimie Lau currently lives in Seoul, South Korea. Having worked as an English teacher for seven years, he hopes to undertake a Masters in Publishing later this year. A keen reader of Balkan fiction, both contemporary and historical, he has reviewed for Three Percent and regularly shares his opinions through his Goodreads account.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North It’s Ibn Fadlan’s account of his remarkable journey that takes up the larger part of Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone’s newly translated anthology Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. In 922 Ibn Fadlan set off from Baghdad as the envoy of caliph Muqtadir,...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.