Žarko Milenić, review of “Lovers” and “Confessions of a Foreigner” by Ksenija Premur


Ksenija Premur (Zagreb, 1962) graduated Philosophy and Russian language and literature from The Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, in 1986, and received her Masters degree in philosophy at The Faculty of Philosophy in Ljubljana in 1997. In the same year she also received the same degree in philology at The Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb. At first she lectured “Oriental Philosophy” at The Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb, and now she is a lecturer at Croatian Studies, University of Zagreb. She translates from English, Russian and Slovenian languages, and publishes texts about Asian philosophies and about the theory of translating. She has published several books, “Theory of Translating”, “Bergson and Buddha”, “The Thought of Zen” and a novel “Lovers”. Even without having a closer look at her bio-bibliography and without reading her scientific papers, it is obvious Ms Premur is an erudite author. From her first published novel “Lovers” we can learn, among other things, that in Japan “there are special kinds of haiku poems dedicated to frog croaking”, a little about Lafcadi Hern, the author will retell a story by Akutagawin where he makes references to Buddha (the author herself often makes references to Buddha), find out something more about Zen and “The Land of the Rising Sun”. Apparently, Oriental philosophy, or rather Oriental culture in general, is very close to Ms Premur. Ksenija Premur translated “Gods & Heroes: Myths & Epics of Ancient Greece” by Gustav Schwab. She is also incredibly knowledgeable in mythology, particularly of Ancient Greece. In the novel there are many references to one-eyed giant Cyclopes, Zeus, Olympus,… Of course, there is also the inevitable Bible. She also loves fairytales; for example she makes a reference to “Cinderella”. She quite often mentions “Gulliver” by Swift, “Little Prince” by Exupery, and so on. Ms Premur’s writing clearly shows her love of Hispano-American writers, such as Garcia Marques (references to “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are frequent), Borges (often alluding to blindness of this great Argentinean author) and Pablo Neruda (many references to his love affair with Matilda Uruttia). Russian authors are close to her as well, particularly Dostoevsky (primarily a reference to Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment”), Leo Tolstoy (“Ana Karenina”) and Marina Cvetaeva. When mentioning Cvetaeva, Irena Vrkljan comes immediately to my mind. She is the author of a remarkable novel “Marina or of Autobiography” which was inspired by the life of the famous Russian poetess. In Croatian literature Ksenija Premur is the closest to Irena Vrkljan. In terms of world literature, she is close to Proust, Broch and Marguerite Yourcenar. However, her novel “Lovers” is intended for a smaller circle of readers. It is hard to imagine a big break of a novel beginning “You should imagine hermeneutics of a being where deep, structural directions are given which actually make its essence.” Ksenija Premur, just like Irena Vrkljan in her book “Marina or of Autobiography”, sometimes wishes to identify with a famous poetess – “And above all, my most ardent desire is to be a simple lover, to transform into a simple country girl with a pure heart, into Svetlana, into Marina Cvetaeva.” The novel also comprises captivating travelling observations on Moscow, Kiev, but most of all, on Venice. I would like to emphasise a subtle poetic dimension of the novel “Lover”. Ms Premur occasionally inserts verses into the prose texture of her novel and she does it with great mastery. This poetic prose reminds of, for example, Slovenian author Rudi Selig. Ms Premur mentions his short novel “Shall I sprinkle you with leaves?” a few times. The novel “Lovers” is in epistolary form. We are faced with a row of rather lengthy poetic letters written to an A. In her preface the author tells us “her lines were written in misty sultriness of the summer of 1995, as journal entries having emerged from an event of that summer, the one worth mentioning.” The author dedicated plenty of poetic lines to summer, but even more to autumn, for example “Marques autumn, Andalusian rains over terraced, sloping bunchy slopes of bunchy sediments of red earth.” However, the other novel, “Confessions of a Foreigner”, shows a certain detachment. It is a prose that might appeal to a wider circle of readers for more reasons. We encounter a biography of a foreigner who happened to have come to Croatia, “a land ravaged by the war”. Thus, the story is from the real life, the story is appealing and still on-going. Although the story takes place during the civil war in Croatia, it is however universal and refers to all time. The foreigner, whose name or the country of origin the author does not reveal, “weaves his litanies before its own embodied Alter Ego”. It is about a man “who has treaded down rough roads, through thorns and nettles”. A short outline of his life and his stay in Zagreb during the civil war interweaves with a life story of a woman called Ana. Ana is a refugee from Bosnia whose husband was killed and who was then put into an asylum. Now she is merely a shadow of a woman she used to be. At the end of the novel they meet, and their meeting will reveal the utter low-down foreigner who perceives everything through gain, through money (dollars or any other currency he bows down to) and who has no conscious, especially in regard of women. He is only interested in pleasing his own lust, only in Ana’s body, not even remotely realising if she has any feelings for him. A very powerful and lively image of his broken-up marriage supports the idea of his low-life character. At the end the Voice of the Spirit listening to his confession will bring about his sentence in a finale taking up imaginary shapes. Already in her first novel Ksenija Premur shows she nourishes poetic writing. Whereas her first novel may turn out to be too tiring to an undemanding reader, in the second one her lyric passages do not seem that way at all. The novel “Confessions of a Foreigner” has a curious structure. Foreigner’s words are being uttered in the first person, while the comments by the Voice of the Spirit are in the third person. Chapters about Ana are all in the third person. None of this will, however, confuse a single reader, and it really seems to be serving its purpose. Apart from philosophy, Ksenija Premur also studied Russian language and literature. We can feel influences of three Russian Classics – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov – in her second novel, as well as the influence of the 20 century authors, especially Cvetaeva. We can also distinguish authors who were inclined to fantasy, like Maupassant, Hoffman and Poe. If we want to find her raw models in Croatian literature, the first who come to our mind are Matos, Djalski and Sudeta. In terms of contemporary authors, authors who are quite close to Ms Premur are Irena Vrkljan and Julijana Matanovic. Along with the aforementioned, as well as some other Croatian women writers, Ms Premur has joined a very successful group of women’s confessioning prose. Her immense knowledge, so unmistakenly obvious in her novel “Lovers”, is not as outstanding here, which is no disadvantage whatsoever. Quite the opposite. Her novel “Confessions of a Foreigner” is an appealing piece of literature, easy to read in a single breath, but by no means shallow or frivolous but rather inviting to be re-read again and again.