As a translator, I often find myself trying to find suitable images to describe what translation exactly entails. When it comes to authors from relatively unknown countries, such as Croatia, translation is indeed a form of irregular and unpredictable treasure hunting. Thanks to the strange combination of my academic interest in European women writers, and the personal connection with the country where I have lived for over ten years, I discovered Zagreb-born author Slavenka Drakulić and her short novel Mramorna koža (Marble Skin), published in 1989. There is a first English translation dating back to 1993 by London-based publisher Hutchinson, and two American editions published in 1994 and 1995, by Norton and Harper Perennial respectively. All these three editions have been translated from the French version of the text, published in 1991. Therefore a translation from the original Croatian is long overdue.
A journalist of opposition, a writer and a sociologist, Drakulić is an author who triggers fairly radicalized reactions: either you love her writings or you despise them. Along with her works, her personal and political stands have often been the object of sharp criticism and hostility among her fellow Croats. She has become an iconic intellectual figure whose writing stems from an engaged and utterly critical stance towards society.
I read the original Croatian text of Marble Skin and subsequently the Italian translation which also presents some inadequacies that may constitute the subject of a thorough review. While it is crucial to highlight the objective difficulties of translating the ambiguity of Croatian – especially the rendering of grammatical cases and personal subject nouns – a close reading of this short psychological novel reveals an extraordinary closeness with several topics that inform contemporary women’s literature: the confrontation with one’s psychological ordeals, the burden of family and social constraints, the unspeakability of violence against women, and the solitude of the artist.
Much like a theatrical monologue, Mramorna koža stands as a formidable prequel to many female-authored narrations that, especially over the last thirty years, epitomize motherhood by plunging into its least agreeable, least utterable symbolic landscapes. It is also a story that deals uncompromisingly with rape, incest and child abuse, while intertwining a mother-daughter bond with the search for a transformed female subjectivity. A woman sculptor returns to the city of her childhood to be at her mother’s side after the mother has tried to commit suicide and is now confined to bed. The first few pages exhaust the reason behind this extreme gesture: the daughter had exhibited a “scandalous” sculpture of her mother’s naked body with one of her hands between her legs, in a sensuous and abandoned state of absent pleasure. The reason behind the choice of sculpting the mother’s body derives from the urgency to explain what a woman’s body is, while being aware that words – being part of a symbolic system owned by patriarchy – cannot suffice, nor can they possibly express the totality of other non-verbal components (in this, Drakulić shows her debt to the French philosophers of écriture feminine).
Once at her mother’s bedside, the daughter spends a night reminiscing about her own childhood and adolescence. She remembers her own morbid, unrequited love towards a too-perfect mother who paid excessive attention to details and was obsessed with the perfection of the body and the tidiness of their house. The breaking point of these memories is a man who had come between them, officially as the mother’s new boyfriend, but also as someone who had taken advantage of the young girl’s desiring innocence by ultimately entertaining a sexual relationship with her. The memory of this violation makes the daughter recall all her sufferings and desperate attempts to give a voice to her abused body. Nevertheless, the sculptor’s interior monologue gradually opens to a possibly renewed relationship between verbal and visual dimensions, thanks to the artistic translation that she has been able to perform of her mother’s body.
The statue – though only featured in the first few pages of the text – triggers a descent into a deeply buried and constrained self, as it helps answering the initial question “How could I tell her, how could I make her understand with words, what a woman’s body is?” (3). The protagonist provides a possible answer by crossing a symbolic threshold, according to which a woman’s body can only be the object of a male desiring gaze. By claiming that gaze for herself, the sculptor has used her own hands over a marble version of her mother’s body as an attempt to retrace those features in an autonomous way and to appropriate a language of her own. Art therefore becomes a way of negotiating the trauma: the protagonist is able to subvert the original power structure that caused the violence by directly confronting her own shy and ambivalent self, as well as the exorbitant and performative identity of a sensual, non-maternal mother.
With several blank spaces and syntactic interruptions – which in Croatian are much more visible than in English – the novel stylistically epitomizes a female silence that has enabled the trauma to go unpunished for years. In contrast, the narrative crescendo of the text shows how the sculptor is facing her own violated self as she adopts the language of art, translated by a series of short chapters mainly characterized by the protagonist’s stream of consciousness. While direct dialogues are almost entirely absent from the text, the daughter’s narration sometimes channels the mother’s perspective on the past, thus creating an unusual effect of dialogic accumulation between two distinct female voices chasing each other as they dig up long-buried painful memories from the past.
The novel combines two very different aspects in a woman’s life – the consciousness of daughterhood and the relationship with both the mother’s and one’s own body – with an important third element: the protagonist’s search for personal autonomy following a long-buried trauma. Drakulić enters a long twentieth-century female literary path inaugurated with Virginia Woolf’s reinvention of a female creativity in dealing with patriarchal violence. She indeed juxtaposes the question of an ambivalent female corporeal subjectivity with the need to give voice to a transformation that starts precisely from the body, the very place that, as Foucault has taught us, appears as most exposed to forms of epistemic violation and fragmentation.
Though Mramorna koža is not among Drakulić’s most studied works of fiction, it offers an ideal introduction to the world of her feminine words. I use the term “feminine” here because, throughout her literary career, the writer has progressively constructed and diversified a poetics around the body and the mind of women, whether the protagonists of wartime novels, historical biographies or contemporary short stories. Moreover, the very plot of Marble Skin directly shows a continuity with the need for inquiry into the precarious condition of female artistry, a theme that also inspires her novels dedicated to Frida Kahlo and Dora Maar.
It is indeed significant that in 1989, in the wake of the Yugoslav war – when many apparently stable identities would crumble – Drakulić presented a story of trauma, daughterhood and female transformation. This tendency is today confirmed by a wide number of female narrators, from Elizabeth Strout to Elena Ferrante, from Annie Ernaux to Toni Morrison, thus placing Drakulić’s text within a global, rather than national, narrativization of femininity. Moreover, it is possible to identify a parallel between a collective and an individual dimension: just like Yugoslavia had proven to be a far-from-reliable federal “mother” to many Croatian, Serbian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Bosnian or Macedonian citizens, here there is a personal tragedy of motherhood and daughterhood asking to be unburied and renegotiated, in order to break the millennial silence on patriarchal violence over women’s bodies.
Drakulić, Slavenka. Mramorna koža. 1989.
Slavenka Drakulić (b. 1949) began her career as a journalist and feminist thinker in Yugoslavia in the 1970s. Contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, The Guardian, Eurozine, Dagens Nyheter, Süddeutsche Zeitung and Internazionale, she is internationally known for her intellectual stance on the ambivalent nature of identity politics both inside and outside ex-Yugoslavian countries, as demonstrated by a number of collection of essays published in English: How we Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992), Balkan Express (1993) and Café Europa (1996). She is also the author of novels in which she intertwines political and personal questions: body and illness (Holograms of Fear 1987, English trans. 1992), postwar traumas, violence and social collective and individual fragmentation (As if I am not there, published simultaneously in Croatian and English in 1999) and, more recently, the need to give voice to women’s autonomy and creativity, as shown by two biographical reconstructions of marginalized female personalities, painters Frida Kahlo and Dora Maar (Frida’s Bed, 2007, and Dora and the Minotaur, 2014), or scientist Mileva Marić (Mileva Einstein. Theory of Sadness, 2016).
Serena Todesco is a literary translator and independent researcher in Italian literature and gender studies who lives between Zagreb and Sicily.