In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of a million other colourless men before him, Flaubert uses italics to lift the expression up from the page in order to highlight the character’s paucity of creative expression. Here, Flaubert acknowledges, is a very boring man. And thus: Emma begins to dream of a life better lived.
Jovanka Živanović’s novella, Fragile Travelers, also contains a dreamer. Her name is Emilija, or Ema, which is surely not a coincidence. In her waking life she is a high-school teacher. In her dreams she is much more: philosophical, introspective, able to fly, carrying a serpent baby in her womb. Dream things. And she has, perhaps accidentally, captured a man within her dreams.
Petar Naumov, an architect, lucky with the ladies, and bored at home, is this man. The opening chapter, which is narrated with a cool detachment that juxtaposes pleasingly with the later chapters which are told almost entirely in first-person, has Petar’s wife return home to discover that he might have been burned up in a house-fire, although the evidence for this is more than a touch sketchy. On the fourth page of the novella we are told, “On his way to buy some coffee, Petar ended up in a woman’s dream—and got stuck there.” So has he died, or is he missing, or has something else entirely occurred?
Lest this concept frighten the less intrepid reader, Živanović takes pains to assure us that this novella, though it may explore difficult themes in a challenging manner, will remain, in terms of style, light and welcoming. Here is Petar’s wife Anđelija reflecting on her life immediately upon discovering that her husband has likely burned to death:
She’d just come back from a seminar organized by a well-respected, globally renowned insurance company where she had recently secured herself a job. She’d learned how to convince people that there was nothing more urgent or more important than insurance.
This playfulness continues in chapter titles, which includes such examples as Chapter 8, “Association Games are for Experienced Players Only,” or Chapter 7, “The Importance of Hydro Potential in Maintaining Mental Hygiene.”
These chapters alternate relatively smoothly between Petar and Ema as they explore these dreams and attempt to come to terms with the people they have ended up becoming, and how that reflects on the man or woman they wish to be. Such introspection runs the risk of coming across as maudlin and self-indulgent, akin to the plaintive musings of a sullen sixteen year old, but by using the idea of the dreamer and the dreams, these traps are almost entirely avoided, and instead Živanović is able to dig deep to discover the true yearnings of her characters while retaining a light tone. Consider:
I admired everything about him because of my idiotic enthusiasm for people who could do everything that I couldn’t: pilots, parachutists, divers, surgeons, high-rise window washers, professional prostitutes, jugglers, and practitioners of other marvelous crafts.
It is hard not to smile at the phrase ‘idiotic enthusiasm.” Živanović’s writing reminds one of Gonçalo Manuel Tavares habit of blending the clever with the witty or, perhaps closer to home, the writing of Svetislav Basara, particularly the funnier parts of The Cyclist Conspiracy, or the entirety of Chinese Letter. Živanović remains aware, however, that a character thinking a thought is not sufficient to elevate it to the profound. Again borrowing from Flaubert, when characters think with humdrum thoughts, a similar technique of italicisation is utilised. For example: “My accomplishment was really something to take my hat off to.” Instantly the text elevates the banal by drawing attention to it.
Petar and Ema, as the novella progresses, become bound closer together as Petar begins to understand the dream world in which he has found himself, and Ema comes to terms with her inner and outer fragility. Wanting—or needing—a protector isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness, and being able to protect another person doesn’t always mean that you are strong.
It’s worth noting that, although the word “dream,” or some variation thereof, has been used ten times in this review, Fragile Travelers is, in fact, a readable, concrete, tangible piece of work. Yes, there are times when a character’s brain will (metaphorically) jump from his head and frolic in the grass like a sheep, but more often the novella is written to be understood—it is well anchored in reality. This is a novella about dreams that refrains from being dreamlike. The occasional use of an omniscient narrator further anchors the text, which provides the reader with the comfort that, no matter how far the text may roam, there is always a light shining the way home.