A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls

A Handful of Sand

A Handful of Sand
by Marinko Koščec
translated from Croatian by Will Firth

I ordered this book after Tony of Tony’s Reading List blogged about new publisher Istros Books, who specialise in fiction translated from Eastern Europe. They have lots of authors who have won big literary prizes in the Balkans but somehow have not previously been translated into English, so I am glad that they exist. However, I must admit I was not entirely won over.

The writing is very lyrical. The story is about two lonely people (narrated by them alternately) who are heading towards romance, and how all-consuming and overwhelming passion can be. It takes its time, examining more than a decade of their lives and how they come to be the people they are with the attitudes to love that they have. But it’s not just a love story, it’s also a story about parents and children and how that relationship changes as the children become adults and the parents are the ones who need support.

“A thick, pulsating silence gushed from the walls, filling the whole space and burning my throat. I went to bed around midnight; Mother lay directly below, down on the ground floor. Needles stabbed from the depths of the night. At around four, the birds began to call with their inexhaustible joy at the breaking of a new day.”

I learned a lot about the atmosphere of modern Croatia, from this book. And while it’s a simple story, it felt very real, with people and emotions brought completely alive. Sometimes it verged on heartbreaking, and it certainly delved thoroughly and believably into different types of loneliness.

There were some passages that felt almost like set pieces – a mini rant on a given topic. But this is forgiveable because they tended to be well written and often funny.

“I came to hate that house with which we lived in symbiosis. We were vitally addicted to it, and it mirrored our inner states and limitations, never hesitating to show its disdain for all our efforts to retard its ageing. As restless as it was thankless, it added fresh cracks to the collection on the walls, rescrawled its mouldy graffiti in corners only just repainted, left rust on metal, and heralded each spring with clogged drains, peeling woodwork and a leaking roof. Selfish and ungrateful like a pre-pubescent child, it demanded constant attention to restrain even just the outward signs of decay.”

However, the two narrative voices were very similar, in fact two very different fonts had been used to distinguish between them, which is not a sign of faith in the writing or the readers. And I was not hugely impressed with the technical quality of this book – the paper and print quality, design, typesetting and proof-reading could all have done with more care. In the final chapter at least half a dozen times a sentence didn’t make any sense – I’m not sure if words were missing or lines transposed, but it jolted me out of the book at a critical juncture. I hope Ipsos Books is able to invest a little more in the production of future books so that good writing isn’t let down by such mundane and yet very important matters.

To malo pijeska na dlanu published 2005 by Profil International.
This translation published 2013 by Ipsos Books.

Source: Waterstones.com. (I tried to order direct from the publisher but their online store didn’t seem to want to sell me anything!)

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 Translation Challenge.