Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Family, Free Spirits and 3 Winters

 © Jagoda Kaloper-Tajder
In true Renaissance woman style, I'm worried  I'm over-intellectualising my new found enjoyment of a foreign culture. As I ponder the consonants of an unfamiliar language and struggle with the concept of strong family connections, Slavic myths and fairy-tales, and bloody wars, I can't help thinking I'm falling into some kind of mental short circuit.

I've never had the urge to create a family environment. Continuity of lines and names mean nothing to me. Familial loyalty is limited to three people who I love unconditionally but they are long distance relationships. We are who we are; and perhaps we desire that which we've never known. This goes part way to explain my fascination with the Croatian language with its multiple words for nephew, niece etc., depending on whether it's your father's or mother's family. This is such an alien concept that the rigours of cases and word endings come as intellectual relief.

It's against this bemusement that I immersed myself in the new play by Tena Štivičić. It's apt that the words familiar/family etymologically belong together because the unfamiliar family tale of 3 Winters highlights the difficulties I have with the Croatian tongue. The obitelji Kos span four generations of women; from the 'fallen' matriarch determined to educate her daughter Rose; to Rose's difficult relationship with Masha; and then from Masha's efforts to instill fading socialist values in her two ambitious and clever daughters, whilst being there for her domestically abused sister. 

The backdrop is an ivy clad Zagreb mansion, split up into different flats after 1945, and home to these determined women. The constant is the painting of the previous aristocratic owner who plays a central part to the story. Her imperious determination of the 1990's story is mere potential in 1945, when she is alone and recently escaped from an institution. Her memory lives on in the final story when virtually aristocratic values around property ownership return to contemporary Croatia of the EU.

The men in this play remain perhaps the least interesting characters in that they are either weak or bullies on stage; or influential and wealthy off stage. A powerful man is the reason they have the flat in the first place; and by the end of the play, it is Lucia's wealthy but shady husband-to-be who enables them to make the house truly theirs by evicting their neighbours. Like the world/national events which flick past during scene changes, the men make their mark on the women, and the women deal with everything with grace and fortitude.

The inspiration for the play was taken from womens' writing in the National Library of Croatian. Štivičić specifically mentions this from 1911, 'Two genders, two people, two enemies. Since the beginning of the world we stand in enmity and cause each other harm. You stand before us in this firm phalanx you have created, and you prevent us from breaking through to the foreground. You are our goal and our border.'

And yet as these borders are broken and women take on the glass ceiling in our modern world, the final section is as meaningful to me as anything I have ever read, the writer continues,
The strongest of us realise it is not available to us to reconcile aspirations of a free spirit with a family life. So they tear themselves away from it and somewhere in solitude, they work and work and create.
When life comes to an end they say, like Alica Glyczinska: I have been everything, I have given everything. But I myself have no husband and no child. And they die with a question still burning in their heart: What is it about us that drives us on as if we were wild and frightened beasts, so that we may never find peace?’
And Mephisto replies, laughing: It is the fault of your society and your social order.’
However, to return to my opening ramblings, although I have been everything and been given everything, I do not create in solitude. I create within and because of my circle of friends and long distance family, I find peace in that creation, and the wild beasts are not insistent. Therefore the free spirit is strong and reconciled with my 'family of friends', which keep me inherently rooted and comforted. 

The play may ultimately be foreign to me but no longer is it unfamiliar. I should not be so baffled by the Croatian obsession with family; that is a mere red herring. The women within the play - and the real women they represent - are ultimately not defined by their name (or lack thereof) but their arguments, differences, strength, and 'togetherness'. And that is something with which I can identify and perhaps we can have the last laugh on Mephisto after all.  

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