Novel Review - GAVRAN'S MOST EXTENSIVE AND INTRICATE NOVEL
October 29, 2023
Miro Gavran thoroughly enjoyed himself, as the popular saying goes, in creating his most extensive and complex novel in his rich 40-year literary career (he made his debut in 1983 with the brilliant play “Creon's Antigone”). Over these four decades, Gavran has built a library of notable literary works in various genres and styles, becoming one of the most translated and internationally recognized Croatian writers. With such achievements, he could have rested on his laurels, but instead, in recent years, Gavran has worked perhaps more than ever. One of the exceptionally impressive results of his dedication to literary creation is undoubtedly his eleventh novel, “Portrait of a Soul”, which unquestionably ranks among the top works in his already rich and highly esteemed literary oeuvre.
In “Portrait of a Soul”, Gavran playfully and effortlessly, over nearly 400 pages, arranged various forms of literary and non-literary expression (narrative, poetry, a screenplay, letters, war reporting, email correspondence, and memoirs). Through these diverse forms of expression, he tells us the life story of the successful painter Benjamin, from birth to death, spanning a period of sixty years, up to the beginning of the third decade of our twenty-first century.
The story of Benjamin is not narrated by himself, but by seven women who were, in various ways, a part of his life. They offer the reader personal perspectives on different periods of Benjamin's life and the formation and development of his personality. Naturally, the story encompasses the various political and societal changes that accompanied anyone living in Croatia over these six decades. However, at the forefront are interpersonal relationships, especially those between men and women, and the depiction of family life, andeverything within its framework that influences the formation of one's character, in this case, a brilliant artist and intellectual, Benjamin.
The plot begins in 1961 with medical student Karolina, who, after becoming pregnant, decides to have an abortion, partly due to her sister Danica's pressure. Unfortunately, the abortion results in major complications, after which it becomes clear to Karolina that she will never be able to have children. She isolates herself and begins to live solely for her medical career. A significant change occurs after the tragic death of her sister Danica; Karolina takes on the care of Danica's seven-year-old son, Benjamin, encourages his interest in painting, and greatly assists him during his early formative years. Karolina shares her part of the story in a traditional narrative style, followed by a poem written by Benjamin's girlfriend Hana, accompanied by a story about their relationship.
The third narrator is Vera, Benjamin's high school teacher, from whose perspective we learn how she helped him during his high school days and further developed his inclination for art, especially painting.
Next comes a screenplay in which we meet 34-year-old widow Marta, with whom Benjamin lives as an art student. He forms a romantic love relationship with her, and the result of this love, as he will find out only some twenty years later, is their daughter Julijana.
The fifth woman connected to Benjamin's life is the journalist Iva, who was briefly his lover in the early '90s. The sixth narrator, who conveys her story to us through email correspondence, is his daughter.
The novel concludes with Benjamin's wife, Ena, who, as she herself states, writes a memoir-like text about the ordeal and her relationship with Benjamin, not for publication but for her soul. She acknowledges making a tragic mistake by wrongly accusing him of infidelity in their relationship.
The seven female characters, each with their unique narrative styles, convey their part of the story related to Benjamin, and of course, in each of these stories, Benjamin himself is notably present. This complexly conceived structure is successfully executed, and despite the differences in narrative style and the distinct characterizations of the narrators, the storytelling is precise, comprehensible, and engaging. In doing so, Gavran reaffirms his high level of literary skill. For example, Karolina's narrative is in the style of a young woman who, in the early '60s, came to study in Zagreb with a strong Catholic heritage. Hana's poem is naive, awkward, and unfinished, which is logical since it was written by an eighteen-year-old.
Iva's war report from Osijek has a somewhat propagandistic tone, and even her husband deems it a poor text. All of this is later corrected in a section called the epilogue, which each of the narrators has, offering an objective view of the events presented. This certainly contributes to the harmony and the fact that, despite all the differences, the novel is a smooth and uninterrupted read.
“Portrait of a Soul” is undoubtedly a novel about painting and literature, as evidenced by numerous interesting discussions and analyses. However, above all, it is a novel about human emotions and everything that accompanies them in family or solitary life. Examples of heartlessness and insufficient or completely wrong communication are evident in each of the stories conveyed by the seven female characters, and we are also witnesses to the constraints of a patriarchal social framework and the harsh fates of women. The author also addresses the position of people with disabilities and the attitudes toward them, the distant days of the Croatian spring, a significant political movement in Croatia during the 1970s and the repressive political apparatus of the former communist system. Nevertheless, the majority of the pages in this novel are still related to Gavran's favorite subject – the dynamics of male-female relationships. Marriage, marital infidelity, the emotional and psychological turmoil that wrong decisions based on superficiality and selfishness can lead to – all of this is part of this novel that will undoubtedly captivate many fans of Gavran's work.
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