• Winner of the HKW International Literaturpreis
  • Translated from Croatian by Mima Simić

It’s just as well I didn’t sit down on Valentine’s Day to read this novella with expectations of lovey dovey sentiment, flowers and chocolates. Or indeed of love. I did expect to read its 100 pages in one sitting. No. This is uncomfortable reading for this is war, and it is being waged from the very first sentence.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS, he screamed at the top of his lungs; the first thing that came to his mind when he finally managed to cut through her breathless sentences …

Note the reference to HER breathless sentences: ironic in that this, the first sentence from his point-of-view, full of anger, resentment, vitriol, which ends with her “deliberately curled up in the pose of a crushed alarm clock and (with) forced tears to her eyes as if to take revenge on him with this classic scene of domestic violence”, takes up almost 90% of the first page.

Now for her opening gambit:

NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE FOR HER. No one knows because no one bothers to ask, and this creates in her an unhealthy habit of confiding in objects, dirty dishes, wardrobe shelves whatever’s available, and so it’s no wonder she feels misunderstood.

Two (okay three) sentences give us the picture of a wife, who feels invisible, unloved, unheard and a man who feels useless, disrespected and nagged. That there is a newborn, conceived in the initial rush of lust, complicates things. They simply cannot walk away from each other, but as the spirit of truce resides in neither, this toxic relationship persists in an unhealthy state of emergency, exacerbated by, possibly even caused by unemployment and resulting poverty.

That there is a ceasefire when both find work for a brief spell suggests that these external circumstances bear the most of the blame. In her translator’s note, Simic refers to the world of Love Novel being her world, one which repeatedly delivered punches to the gut; memories of living through the breakup of Yugoslavia, playing Poverty Penthathlon with fellow ex-Yugoslavs; “rummaging through their childhoods to come up with the most ridiculous – yet always true! – episodes of growing up in destitution.” That kind of stress can put intolerable pressures on relationships, and the fact that both protagonists and their country are unnamed indicates that Sajko, rather than limiting herself to a portrait of one marriage, is depicting a more wide-ranging experience.

Nevertheless, those lengthy, twisty, emotionally charged sentences pull the reader into the heads of the characters to experience their agonies and their – not ecstasies exactly – but occasional pleasures. It delivers intensity with no respite as the couple continually tear strips off each other. Both sides of the conflict are given an extensive airing, the good and bad behaviours of both witnessed. Yet condemnation is impossible, When it comes to sympathy however, that’s a different story. I reserve all of mine for the neighbour, who really doesn’t deserve the fate that awaits him.

Love Novel is published by V&Q Books, the English-language imprint of Voland & Quist, a German independent publisher. Started in 2020, with translator Katy Derbyshire at its helm, V&Q Books has now published 12 books from Germany, not all originally written in German. Love Novel is the 10th V&Q title I have covered. Do check out the list; it is very varied, or, as Katy would say, remarkable.