A review of Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic, translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
It’s been a downright brilliant year for Charco Press titles, a feeling that can only be compounded by the Edinburgh-based press’s final publication of 2020. Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War is a firecracker of a novel, structurally ambitious and tightly written, not to mention available to the English-speaking world in a knockout translation by Frances Riddle. Though not always the easiest read, this is a blistering debut by a highly talented Chilean author who is without doubt one to keep an eye on.
Set in an unnamed South American country, Theatre of War is the story of Tamara, youngest child of an Eastern European family who fled conflict in the Balkans to seek a new and safer life on a far continent. As war continues to rage back home and they find themselves ‘without a country, condemned to perpetual emigration’, the past returns to haunt Tamara’s traumatised parents, and our narrator and her older half-siblings experience a childhood that is unstable to say the least. With the continual procession of emotional and physical violence, an ever-present past and acts of betrayal and forgetting, Tamara herself becomes damaged by inherited trauma – her family’s collective memory has far-reaching consequences for her own ability to interact with friends, relatives and lovers, not to mention the way she views herself. Jeftanovic offers here a searing exploration of a refugee experience, transmitting as she does so a powerful dose of this second-hand trauma to the reader herself.
While Theatre of War is vivid in its imagery and compelling in terms of storyline, what really makes this novel stand out is the innovative concept around which it has been structured. Tamara presents her life to us as scenes from a play: the characters are actors engaged in rehearsals, the settings merely staged. The chapters are short – most just two or three pages – and delivered as a series of vignettes, scenes from a life that at first appear to have been arranged with a somewhat scatter-gun approach, but gradually develop a cohesiveness. As Tamara starts to grasp what has happened to her family and how it has affected her, the structure becomes easier, beginning to flow more smoothly. In another good metaphor for the shape of the novel, she tells us near the beginning that her aim is ‘to put together the puzzle of my past’. As these individual, scattered pieces gradually slot into place, the reader too begins to see the bigger picture.
The idea of a novel’s plot being delivered as a play takes on additional weight when we consider how Tamara herself is both actor and audience member, engaged in but also observing her life. The instructions for her part describe her as ‘melancholic and distant; supporting actor’ and this is very much the tone that the narrative adopts – although Tamara is our sole narrator, the main protagonist, she seems somehow subsumed by other characters and events, forced to step aside from playing the main role in her own life. This emotional distancing is mirrored by the physical space between stage and seating, home country and adopted country, and appears again and again in dreamlike scenes, grotesque incidents (such as Tamara’s mother forgetting she has a third child following a prolonged stay in hospital), and the lack of intimacy Tamara experiences in her foreshortened relationship with fellow student Franz. As Tamara says: ‘As I write about my life, I cease to be a part of it.’ The novel may be the result of a creative process, but in many ways Theatre of War feels more like an act of erasure.
Where there is little danger of erasure is in the passages that focus on the human body, of which there are many. In Frances Riddle’s translation, its language sharp and laced with almost uncomfortable precision, Jeftanovic’s prose is visceral and intense, her sentences dripping with bodily fluids – blood and excrement in particular. Though by no means the most graphic writing I have encountered in fiction – the novel may be founded on violence, but this violence is muted, distant – there is a certain kind of horror that comes from its straightforwardness, from its conjuring up of the filth and frailty of the human body and, beyond this, the mind.
The language Jeftanovic has chosen as the vehicle for her story is extremely important: while Tamara may feel a sense of distance from her own life, and struggles to understand the pain by which her family has been paralysed, the words on the pages of Theatre of War are anything but detached. Referring to her city, Tamara describes how ‘every space is contaminated by incessant clamour,’ but for me this depiction felt more akin to the experience of reading the novel. They may be bundled into relatively short sections, but the pace and fluidity of the writing is such that Jeftanovic seems to be throwing her words at us: biting, bitter, pain-filled words from which we simply can’t escape. Much like Tamara’s father’s nightmares – ‘barbed wire surrounds his dreams’ – Theatre of War has a restless, relentless quality that proves hugely effective, keeping readers wholly ensnared whilst wishing, perhaps, that they were able to look away. To read this book is to be immersed in conflict and the terrifying effects of its aftermath.
As with many Charco Press titles, Theatre of War is not terribly long, but it is a work of fiction that punches well above its weight. Brave, scarring and visually powerful, this is a novel – and an author – to read and remember.
Theatre of War by Andrea Jeftanovic, translated by Frances Riddle, is published by Charco Press in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.