In a review in The Guardian, Ranka Primorac argued that the “best of Croatia’s post-independence writing” challenges what she described as a “dualist (sunny beaches vs. nasty politics, ‘backward’ Croatia vs. ‘modern’ EU) mode of thinking.” Alongside the works of Zoran Ferić and Slavko Goldstein, Maša Kolanović’s Sloboština Barbie exemplified for Primorac this best of contemporary writing. Her review appeared the same year Sloboština was published—in 2008. Now over a decade later, its plea for a translator into English is even more pressing.
Sloboština Barbie is an illustrated novel set in 1990s Croatia written from the perspective of a child, albeit with the wisdom of age and hindsight. The story follows her accumulation of Barbies—that “sliver of plastic perfection” (my translation, 15)—in the midst of war. She discloses early, “That war in Zagreb, when you got used to it, wasn’t so bad after all” (my translation, 37). Indeed, the biggest initial threat to Barbie world is not war, but her friend’s baby cousin, Marijana—mainly, Marijana’s sprouting teeth.
In order to protect her Barbie collection, the child routinely goes through a kind of embalming process, packing them individually into freezer bags and gently arranging them in her Smurfs suitcase. “Because, if a bomb hits our building and everything’s reduced to rubble, spewing flames and black smoke,” the child reasons,
life won’t become meaningless as long as my Barbie stays safe in her flashy pink little outfit with its tiny fluorescent lemons, pineapples, and bananas, her pink-green watermelon-shaped bag, sunglasses, and open-toe heels, which go best with that combo. And of course, as long as nothing bad happens to any of my family, relatives, and friends from school and from my building. (my translation)
[Jer, ako bomba pogodi baš našu zgradu i sve postane zgarište iz kojeg će mjestimice sukljati vatra i crni dimovi, život neće izgubiti smisao ako čitava ostane moja Barbi u svom kričavo roza kompletiću s malim fluorescentnim limunima, ananasima i bananama, roza-zelenom torbicom u obliku lubenice, sunčanim naočalama te otvorenim štiklicama koje najbolje pristaju uz tu kombinaciju. I ako se, naravno, pri tom ništa loše ne dogodi bilo kojem članu moje obitelji, rodbine i prijatelja iz razreda i ulaza.] (15)
She finds logic where there is none, and meaning through a growing excess of plastic. For she accumulates Barbies quickly—Krystle from Dynasty Barbie, A “Day to Night” Barbie, Tropical Barbie, Aerobic Skipper Barbie, and more. The neighborhood Barbies run their own Barbie elections (thanks to Presidential Candidate Barbie). They stage a “refugee Barbie ball,” to which random children show up with miscellaneous dolls, expecting a more loosely defined refugee ball.
Play imitates life, and life imitates play. As violence and news headlines begin intruding into Barbie world, the developing identity crisis of her friend Svjetlana’s Ken—whom they have, in the meantime, renamed “Dr. Kajfeš,” after a commercial advertising anti-snoring aids—comes to fruition and he becomes a detective, one whose liability seems second only to his libido. Those he finds guilty nonetheless take no responsibility for their actions. Accompanying a photograph of “Robert Redford” Ken are the words “I DIDN’T KILL ANYONE, THOSE WERE JUST ORDINARY HEADS AND NOTHING ELSE!” (my translation, 115). (Here, “ordinary heads,” or “obične glave,” poses an exemplary challenge. It has the sense of “commoner” or even “meathead,” though that rendering may come off too strong in English.)
As the war ends, so does a certain form of play—the Barbies are handed down, worn out, donated, lost, or packed away more permanently. “My Barbies were leaving, and somehow parallel to them, so was everyone else” (my translation, 136). But Dr. Kajfeš holds her imagination. After Marijana’s mother gives the doll to her neighbor so she can sell it at the flea market, Kajfeš joins a sea of now equally useless things. In a turn of events, Kajfeš is lost. Legend has it, the narrator reports, that a dog found and transported him to a field: “Sources say that he’s still there, living in saintly ecstasy and preaching to the ants and radioactive snowdrops” (my translation, 139). Alternatively, it is rumored that Kajfeš rests upon a hill, a landfill, in the company of
empty milk cartons, a million cigarette butts, pregnancy tests, dried out ballpoint pens, ice cream sticks, Q-tips, tattered dishwashing sponges, blunt razors, empty containers, cardboard packaging, deodorant shells, frayed toothbrushes, wrung toothpaste tubes, soiled diapers, thousands of cans, millions of used condoms, billions of chewed out gum… where, according to some interpretations, he lived happily and contentedly for the rest of his life, to the extent that it was possible. (my translation)
[praznim ambalažama tetrapak mlijeka, milijunom opušaka, testova za trudnoću, istrošenim kemijskim olovkama, štapićima bez sladoleda, štapićima za uho, iscufanim spužvicama za pranje posuđa, tupim britvicama, praznim konzervama, kartonskim ambalažama, ljušturama dezodoransa, pohabanim četkicama za zube, iscijeđenim tubama, pokakanim dječjim pelenama, tisućama konzervi, milijunima upotrijebljenih prezervativa, bilijardom ižvakanih žvaka… gdje je po nekim tumačenjima ostao živjeti sretno i zadovoljno do kraja života, koliko god je to moguće.] (139)
The novel is filled with lists, pop culture references, and turns of phrases. Describing Croatia’s transition to post-Yugoslav statehood, the narrator explains, “in school, we weren’t allowed to address anyone as ‘Comrade’ anymore. Everything was clothed in something else” (my translation, 11).
From the very title, complex translational decisions are already required of the translator. (Parkorn Wangpaiboonkit’s review of Pimwana’s Bright, translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul, and Izidora Angel’s recent proposal for an English translation of Yordanka Beleva’s Keder, attend eloquently to this common challenge.) The German translation, which was published in 2012 by the now dissolved Prospero Verlag as part of their initiative “Windows to the East” (meaning, in this case, Eastern Europe), renders it in English as “Underground Barbie.” This twist—a German translation of a Croatian novel donning an English title—is doubly appropriate, given the fact that much of the plot revolves around children playing in the war-time basement-turned-shelter of their apartment building, and that much of their play relies on a U.S.-manufactured doll (inspired by the German doll, Bild Lilli, which Mattel’s Barbie eventually supplanted). Primorac alternatively suggests “Freetown Barbie.” Because “Sloboština” is a neighborhood south of Zagreb, “Freetown” is a compelling translational choice for establishing the noun’s geopolitical specificity. The choice also highlights the irony of the novel’s circumstances, wherein the neighborhood, Zagreb at large, and its residents could be said to be anything but “free.” In a short excerpt translated by Andrea Milanko and Ulvija Tanović which appeared in The Massachusetts Review in 2011, Sloboština is translated as “Bomb-shelter.” Leaving the proper noun Sloboština in its original seems like the least convincing option, as the grapheme š could give the impression of an untranslated text to English readers.
These and others will be welcome challenges for any translator who takes up the task of bringing this energetic and ambivalent text to English, a narrative which subtly wonders how childhood itself can be protected in times of war. Lest it be ten more years before it finds a translator, let’s set our alarms for this one.
Kolanović, Maša. Sloboština Barbie (2008).
Maša Kolanović (b. 1979) is a writer, editor, visual artist, and lecturer. She is a professor of contemporary Croatian literature at the University of Zagreb. Her first work, Leeches for the Lonely (2001), is a collection of poems. Her first novel, Sloboština Barbie, was published in 2008. Her PhD dissertation, Worker! Rebel? Consumer…: Popular Culture and the Croatian Novel from Socialism to Transition, was published in 2011. In 2013, she published a genre-bending illustrated prose poem in the form of a novel entitled Jamerika: Trip. She is the co-editor of Comparative Postsocialism: Slavic Experiences (2013) and The Cultural Life of Capitalism in Yugoslavia: (Post)Socialism and Its Other (2017). She has held fellowships at the University in Vienna, University of Texas–Austin, and Trinity College Dublin. To learn more about Kolanović’s work and hear her read from her latest novel, Jamerika: Trip, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlrsW4ZdOM8.