Heroines for our time
Placed in a neighbourhood of the losers of transition, the stories in Maja Hrgovic’s collection The One Who Wins Is The One Who Cares Less (Profil, Zagreb, 2010) portrays a sequence of lives of young women trying to find their way in the new landscape. Divided into two parts, winter and summer, the stories take on the features of the seasons, so that the winter stories are generally intimate and depressing, while the summer ones are mainly positive and lively. The winter stories take place in a small railroad town, or an island in the centre of a town, where time is conserved, together with its inhabitants. The area stands in stark contrast to the nearby railway station, where buses from the outskirts bring rivers of people into a big underground passage filled with bright-lit shops and pubs. It is gray and in a state of decay, the apartments are mouldy and hazardous to live in, the tenants are poor, wasted people whose time has passed. The focal point of the entire neighbourhood is a pub called The Railway Man, a warm, friendly dump where railway workers, locals, alternative youths and various other good-for-nothings treat the tracks and the station as their natural habitat, all the while drowning their sorrows in alcohol. This is the landscape where the heroines come to find shelter and time to discover the meaning of life and themselves. Dislocated from real time and space, the railway topography provides the heroines and some of their lovers with a welcome break from real life.
The summer stories, on the other hand, are set in Novi Zagreb’s skyscrapers, student halls, but also provincial lanes and, surprisingly, at corporate parties. These heterogeneous places can be attributed, to a certain extent, to the seasonal vibe, but also to a possible inconsistency in the collection. When a tycoon tears down the old railway neighbourhood in order to build a shopping mall, it signals the end of the first part of the book: a relation is established with real time events while annulling the possibility of the portrayal of a more positive, summery side of the ragged town. The reader is deprived of a brighter side of the neighbourhood, so that the glum scenery, though brilliant both structurally and narratively, stays at the level of the typical portrayal of marginalized characters who have a glass of bitter nothing on the rocks for breakfast. On the other hand, by showing life both on the island in the town centre and also the buildings and blocks of Novi Zagreb, Hrgovic gives a feminine outlook to “urban prose” and joins the guys – asphalt poets who romanticise life in the suburbs. The formula cannot fail: sex, booze and music, dipped in social problems and existential crises, with a woman’s face. What does it look like?
Women being bohemian
The heroines of the stories participate in all the wonders of the neighbourhood: they live in their apartments, are unemployed, get wasted in the Railway Man, hop drunkenly across the railway tracks on the way back to their little shacks, look for love somewhere along the three streets where their lives unfold. The women in the stories are sensitive, melancholy, in possession of some artistic soulfulness, with a tendency to drink, loiter and occasionally act up. The combined effect leads to their temporary residence in the railway district, where they don’t exactly belong, but where they find perverse enjoyment in their banishment, trying to catch their breath before starting a new, more mature and serious part of their life.
The narrative voice that leads us through the everyday life of the renegade heroines is always in first person. This creates an intimate atmosphere with a confessional note; the narrators are emancipated young ladies who share their intimate stories but do not care about the activist eros. For them, the personal never becomes the political, and social issues that are interwoven in the stories are left on the back-burner as a mere statements of fact. The specifically female experience that comes with these stories is exposed through female narrators, from a women’s perspective, therefore outlining the main points of feminist writing, even more so because the author speaks about things that have, for some reason, been mostly reserved for men. Topics such as post-traumatic war experience, the reality of transition, bohemian escapades, while all lived by women, are, when written about by a woman, a novelty in our contemporary literary landscape.
Solo riders “alone against the universe”
Political urban women’s prose (an a couple more adjectives that could probably be pinned on), reveals an impeccably talented author of excellent narrative style, reflected in every detail, especially when creating the atmosphere with beautiful comparisons. Love making is evoked as such: “we piled on the days in the apartment, like eggs in a basket, one next to the other, and all of them the same”; the front rows at a concert is hilariously described as screaming as though they were having “a group bikini wax”. Sharing certain places and moments, the reader starts feeling like an accomplice, which is a positive thing. As the title of the book suggests, what is being shared is a value that appears in all the stories – maintaining personal integrity, being true to yourself, although changing might mean victory.
By placing romantic love at the heart of the stories and adding current events such as war trauma and transition, along with personal issues such as finding meaning and shaping your own destiny, the author addresses a wide readership. Still, with her romantic treatment of renegade punk heroines, the author primarily addresses the alternative youths that hang around the pub at the beginning of the story. It is pity a place such as the Railway Man does not exist, where we could all get together.