Mrs. Black (an excerpt)

October 19, 2018
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A teacup sits, out of focus, next to a book on a table.
Photo courtesy of freestocks.org

In this opening to Montenegrin writer Olja Knežević’s novel Gospođa Black, a group of migrant friends drink tea together in London. An antilove story, Mrs. Black parodies the old genre and suggests how wholesome it can be for women to cease leading lives whose central purpose is to “be there” for men

For migrant women with a secret—the women of our age.

That Friday lunchtime, five or six of us Grasshoppers were drinking strong, “colonial” teas and eating dunked limoncello biscuits at the Poetry Café in London’s Covent Garden.

The Grasshoppers are permanently part-time-employed, subtenant migrants. They flit from one place to another, leaving no trace, responsible for themselves alone.

And, as usually happens when the Grasshoppers gather in poetry cafés, we recalled that all of us had graduated from tough universities back before Bologna, read entire libraries, split into stoics and epicureans, and made plans to bring Al Pacino to the hall of the defunct Radoje Dakić factory in Podgorica, turned into a theater, so Al could play Willy Loman, the traveling salesman—but all that was before our own country asked us to forget everything and leave, us naïfs, whose lives were fouled up by the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. First it just voiced a request, but if we didn’t obey it was quick to kick us out into the world. Still, we landed on our feet.

All that was before our own country asked us to forget everything and leave, us naïfs, whose lives were fouled up by the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. First it just voiced a request, but if we didn’t obey it was quick to kick us out into the world. Still, we landed on our feet.

One of those at the gathering will always start talking politics, and the conversation then turns into a bitter dispute, before drifting off-topic, crossing the ocean, via doubt in all media and all systems, and arriving at Eliot and Prufrock, and ultimately mellowing when it touches Emily Dickinson, her white dresses, sexual orientation, and scribbled verses on napkins; the discussion moves on to agoraphobia and to whether, despite the fear of leaving her parents’ home, she wrote with seductive intent; and to her premature death, and, finally, to her poems—like crisply cut slices of apple:

The Soul selects her own Society
Then – shuts the door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –.

“For me, that’s pretty much the perfect description of love,” said Millie, one of the group and originally from my country. “Everything pales in comparison,” she added, and with moist eyes raised solemnly to the low, blackwashed ceiling of the café she pronounced softly, as if praying: “The Soul selects her own Society. Then – shuts the door.” She sighed and shook her head.

“I know of a great love just like that,” she continued. “I know a story where the soul chose its own society and, click, shut the door to the rest of the world. Unfortunately it didn’t happen to me . . .”

But the circle had already moved on to the next topic: someone was moving house and giving away their old furniture. The time devoted to love poetry had expired.

I was the only one who still wanted to hear Millie’s story about true love. Of all those present, I had lived in London the shortest, had the most free time, and didn’t need furniture; I needed material for writing. Millie appreciated that.

“I heard it just recently myself—” she said and turned toward me, “directly from the woman concerned. She’s one of us, and lives here. Until a little while ago, she wasn’t in touch with any of us. She avoided all contact with anyone from back home. I understand that phase. I’ve been here for a while myself.”

She paused and dipped a limoncello biscuit in her tea.

“So now she mixes with our people?” I asked.

“Her husband is in a wheelchair now, you see. He had a cerebral . . . Oh, what’s it called? A stroke, that’s it. And since he’s much older than her, he won’t recover. And just when the complications from the stroke were passing, he developed Alzheimer’s. Now she has to return her husband’s favor and look after him, as well as earning an income. Her daughter is in America—a costly business—and the woman is lonely, she feels the depth of her roots, although she still lives and works here, of course, making good use of her English name, Val Black. Val is quite a big fish in PR waters here, you know: gallery owners, artists, the Prince of Wales’s charitable foundation, and other big names. Her husband was a mover and shaker in the city, but now it seems his illness and the care he needs make him rather more of a cost factor. Their pretty packet of money is running low. So now we fellow country people are her psychologists, her outlet, and her consolation.”

“I want to hear it,” I said. “Let me hear the story of Val Black.”

Millie, too, uses her “English name,” as she calls it—Millie Corrado. Her real name is Milena. She works as a casual guide for tourists visiting London. She also goes to the London airports and translates the lies and/or nonsense of our people who come to the Isles but don’t speak English. I get the impression that she works a bit on the side for the British security agencies. That’s her attitude: she wants to know as much as she can about everyone, but she doesn’t reveal much about herself. I don’t blame her. Everyone lives by selling something. You have to pay for the freedom that this big city offers; you have to survive in London.

You have to pay for the freedom that this big city offers; you have to survive in London.

So she told me about Val and her great love. She began with a lot of details, élan, and enthusiasm, but she quickly got bored: too small an audience for her. Soon she was just tacking on haphazard snippets of information, like a child making a compulsory collage in art class. She yawned, looked around to see if anyone was going to order a drink for us, something stronger than tea. I persisted and asked questions. I had already fitted together the skeleton of a story, a framework I’d later fill in with flesh and blood—and hopefully get to speak.

And here you have it. This is a book about Val Black, and probably also about Millie Corrado and many other women with “English names.” Perhaps I’ll soon become one of them: Olly K.

This story is partly true; fantasy and intuition have filled in the gaps between the facts, which are almost always unreliable.

Translation from the Montenegrin

Born in Podgorica, Montenegro, Olja Knežević graduated from Capistrano Valley High school in California. She has a BA in English language and literature from the University of Belgrade and an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck College in London. She lived in London for ten years before moving to Zagreb, Croatia, where she currently lives with her family. She is the author of two novels and one book of autobiographical short stories.

Will Firth (www.willfirth.dewas born in 1965 in Newcastle, Australia. He studied German and Slavic languages in Canberra, Zagreb, and Moscow. Since 1991 he has lived in Berlin, where he works as a translator of literature and the humanities (from Russian, Macedonian, and all variants of Serbo-Croat). His translations of Montenegrin writers Slađana Kavarić, Brano Mandić, and Milovan Radojević appear in WLT’s March 2017 issue.

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