In her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf takes literature to task for neglecting illness in favor of themes such as jealousy, love, and battle. How is it, she wonders, that matters of the mind—as she understands them—are taken up so fervently, often exclusively, when “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colors or discolors, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.” She ascribes this oversight to a language problem, a shortage of words to describe pain. In Woolf’s account, the arena of illness is the body; the mind suffers only in consequence.
Not so in Tatjana Gromača’s short novel The Divine Child (2021), an English-language debut translated from Croatian by Will Firth and published by Sandorf Passage. The Divine Child—or Božanska dječica in its 2012 publication by Fraktura—tells the story of a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder as Croatian politicians violently endorse nationalism in the 1990s. It asks how a community reestablishes what passes for “normal” when every social agreement previously made has crumbled. Narrated by her oldest daughter, who calls herself “Mother’s certified interpreter,” the novel entangles personal health and family life with this thinning social fabric and upheaval caused by war. Everything is suddenly blanketed in pretense. Lies, strengthening in number and force, circulate as truth. This foundational reversal threads the story’s disparate parts. “In the end, or actually before the end, Mother ended up in the madhouse” (21):
They pretended everything was normal, but nothing was normal, although it turned out that everyone was normal apart from Mother, who went to a hospital for the abnormal. This was not because she was abnormal but because she was excessively normal, which of course was abnormal, worthy of condemnation and contempt of the highest order, so therefore it was certainly necessary for her regularly to be removed from the environment so she would not have too much of an abnormal impact on it with her excessively abnormal ideas. (Gromača tr. Firth 54)
Pravili su se kao da je sve normalno, a ništa nije bilo normalno, iako je ispadalo da su svi normalni osim majke, koja je svako toliko odlazila u bolnicu za nenormalne, ali ne zato jer je bila nenormalna, već zato jer je bila suviše normalna, što je, dakako, bilo nenormalno, vrijedno osude i prezira najviše vrste, pa je stoga svakako bilo nužno da bude povremeno udaljena iz okoline, kako ne bi svojim suviše normalnim idejama previše nenormalno utjecala na nju. (Gromača 44-45)
“Mother,” as the narrator refers to her, periodically admits herself into the hospital, “where everyone could be what they were” (45)—until they couldn’t: the mother is revealed to be from the “East,” referring to her Eastern Orthodox/Serb background. The rendering of “Eastern,” with its double meaning in BCMS, is one of the translation challenges Firth elaborates on in Asymptote. In the hospital, the other women begin to avoid her. The town, too, comes to reflect the politicized, racialized, and nationalized differences manufactured along “ethnic” lines. Mother’s own “mixed” marriage is choked with suspicion: Her husband—Catholic/Croatian—“was meant to hate and despise his own wife, which seemed almost impossible, especially because he did not hate and despise her, quite the opposite” (53).
For a book on mental illness in war—especially one set in the Balkans, one of the urtexts of so-called “ancient ethnic hatreds”—it’s a feat to avoid pathologizing the perpetration of violence and sanitizing war through “madness.” And it’s a feat that Gromača and Firth achieve with Divine Child by skirting sentimentality and theorizing the virulent allure of lies.
Everything was so simply ordered in facile opposites that there was no room for nuance and for people who reflected subtly and viewed reality and themselves in many different ways, and not only no room but also no need, and therefore anyone who viewed things in a slightly more complex way was free to pack their bags and hit the road—good riddance—or simply languish with the other bugs swept under the dusty rug. (Gromača tr. Firth 94)
Sve je bilo tako jednostavno posloženo u grubim opozicijama da za nijanse i za onoga koji razmišlja suptilno i na mnogo različitih načina sagledava stvarnost i sebe, naprosto nije bilo mjesta, i ne samo mjesta nego ni potrebe, i zato je svatko tko je na malo složeniji način sagledavao stvari mogao slobodno pokupiti prtljagu i zaputiti se kamo ga put odnese, ili naprosto samo venuti s drugim bubama gurnutim ispod prašnjava tepiha. (Gromača 73)
Without naming names, Gromača unambiguously accounts for Croatian forms of racism. As Firth argues, “It is reflective of Gromača’s craft that she refers to toxic Croatian nationalism with such minimalistic clarity that she was able to win two major literary prizes in Croatia without being perceived as unpatriotic.” The major structural changes in Firth’s translation—introduced by the editor of the English edition, Buzz Poole—allows Gromača’s critique of pretense to thicken, tighten, and take center stage from the very beginning. (In contrast, the source text kicks off with a reflection on the seemingly endless array of knife designs.) Firth’s English executes Gromača’s poetic sarcasm with an added punch to the accompaniment, in his words, of “a symphony of associations.”
From childhood trauma, obsessive compulsive behavior, and gender politics, to the pharmaceutical industry and the pageantry of the postwar “peace” economy, The Divine Child moves between the overt violence of war and the often-unexamined violence of everyday transgressions. It is through its engagement with the latter that this forthright novel makes its most nuanced contributions, lending clarity to the mutually constitutive relationships that illness stages between once seemingly disparate entities—of body and mind (or “soulbody”; “bodymind”), individual and community, health and illness.
Tatjana Gromača, The Divine Child. Translated by Will Firth. Sandorf Passage, 2021.
Ena Selimović is a Yugoslav-born writer, editor, and translator who works from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian into English. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and an MPhil in Comparative Literature from Trinity College Dublin. Her research on multilingualism and the racialization of language brings a relational approach to the study of contemporary North American and Southeast European literatures. With Mirgul Kali and Sabrina Jaszi, she co-founded Turkoslavia, a collective of translators working with Turkic and Slavic languages.