:: Article

Marina Šur Puhllovski’s Wild Woman: An Excerpt

By Marina Šur Puhllovski.

Marina Šur Puhllovski, Wild Woman, translated by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić (Istros Books, 2019)


Finally something I can wear, I say to my mother seven years earlier, meaning the latest fashion pictured in the women’s magazine Zena, aimed at women of all ages, but especially mine – an age group that doesn’t know any- thing yet, that has just an inkling, an idea – offering fashion trends and advice on how to catch a man and keep him, nothing about how to get rid of him, I notice now but don’t then, no I don’t – my mind then is on the craze for maxis, as compared to minis, which I can’t wear … I’m a bit chunky for a girl of nineteen, with narrow hips and broad shoulders, but strong thighs and calves, and legs that are neither short nor long, but definitely not made for mini skirts, which is what all the girls are wearing when I’m in secondary school … The vogue is for willowy girls with no curves, for girls built like boys, something I will never be unless I starve myself, and not even then. Because even when I starve myself, the curves remain, I am still chubby, I’d have to starve myself to death for my flesh to melt down to the bone, I’d have to waste away, I realised later, when I lost a drastic amount of weight, though still not enough to wear a mini, with all its damned demands.

In school, it never occurs to me to lose weight, I have no idea that you can lose weight, not even theoretically, for some things I am just stupid, even when they are obvious, I just schlep around in dresses and knee-length skirts like some old bag. The boys in my class give me a “C” for my legs, those little idiots graded us, a “B” for my face, and an “A” for my body, so my average is a “B” and I feel doomed and unhappy; I drag myself through life like a downtrodden cat, casting morose looks at people right and left, which nobody finds attractive, and if somebody does, then I don’t find them attractive. Whatever happened to that attractive thirteen-year-old girl, I wonder miserably, when three love-lorn boys used to stand under my balcony, the fourth pining for me in the school corridors, tossing me little packets of foreign chocolates and sweets, hoping to impress me … I ate the sweets with the brazenness of a vamp who takes but gives nothing in return, and even laughs at him. So now you try being the one who is invisible when she walks by, despised in advance, looking enviously at the other girls’ long, slim legs, because even trousers don’t look good on you, watching them you smile at the magic encircling them but that locks you out a hundred times over. So you stop even smiling and all you can do is nurse your contempt for the girls who leaf through fashion magazines that offer pointers about clothes and make-up, colour-coordinated brand-name shoes and handbags, and, to make matters worse, the sluts are rich, which you are not, and they revel in the luxury of all that fashionable plumage whereas you have already opted for black, dark blue and dark brown, colours that make you look thinner and taller because they hide your shortcomings. Your superiority comes from the inside, you tell yourself, because you see how shallow it is to view fashion as fundamental to life, to prattle about hairstyles and eye shadow and mascara and shaping your brows to look arched, to admire skeletal women who five foot ten inches tall and weigh less than eight stone but since everybody is crazy about them then you have to be, too, and how much it will cost you to work on your body instead of your mind, which is the only thing worth the effort.

And then I start uni, and the fashion changed, not by ditching the mini but by introducing the maxi, the skirt that goes down almost to your ankles; maxis had been in, then they disappeared, and then they had a comeback just at the right moment, as if somebody heard me secretly calling out for something that those of us with fuller figures could wear, and so I ran to my mother’s cousin Julia, a dressmaker who made all our clothes for us, with a fabric that I loved – dark brown, studded with details in the same colour – my eyebrows already plucked and pencilled into an arch, my mousy brown hair bleached, I just need that maxi to be trendy, too, rather than one of the herd taking the early morning tram to work, I think to myself, overjoyed.

I even found a pattern for a dress, with an A-line skirt and a long-sleeved button-up top – I’ll have the buttons covered in the same brown fabric – and with a belt to emphasise the waist, I chatter away, telling poor Julia what I want. She does her sewing in the kitchen, which is crammed with all sorts of things, and where all six of them congregate – her husband, three daughters and son, the neighbours often joining them, all of them sitting around, huddling like birds, filling the room with their warmth. There is always a pot of coffee on the stove, not the real thing, chicory, a coffee substitute, with everybody helping out, chatting, joking, laughing, even the two older sisters’ boyfriends join in, and miraculously, with all the comings and goings, everyone manages to fit into that kitchen; I love all the babble, which I don’t have at home because I am an only child, always alone.

I ask Julia when I can have the first fitting and she says the following week, but that is too long for me to wait because I want to wear the dress that minute, on the catwalk, in the street, at uni, my lectures have just started, and so has the flirting, and I want to present myself in the best possible light as soon as possible, because first impressions are crucial. So I ask for the fitting to be on Thursday, in two days’ time, and I want to be able to wear the dress on Monday, because tomorrow I’m going to have the buttons covered. And I can come for the dress on Sunday, even if it’s in the evening, I say, pestering her, I don’t care that I’m making the woman work on a Sunday, not giving her a moment’s rest, even though I know she suffers from constant headaches because of all the pressure she has, from her family, from her clients, and that she always has a little packet of headache powder in her pocket, which she takes whenever she feels she needs it, as she’s doing now, while I’m pestering her; her childlike little hand dips into her pocket, takes out the packet, opens it and, using the paper like a funnel, she pours the powder into her mouth, while her son, already well trained in these matters, brings her a glass of water.

Julia is almost a midget, she’s always been grey, with a face like a raisin, round and soft like a puff of cotton, placed on this earth as if she’s always been crushed, though maybe she hasn’t, maybe that’s just how I saw her; mind you, I would be crushed, too, if I had to deal with the pressure of the five of them, no matter how much I loved them. And when you are crushed you don’t know how to defend yourself, not even from a squirt who is barely nineteen, who is breathing down your neck, who is young and big and on your back – two of you can fit into one of her – because all she can see is Monday when she’ll be fitted into that brown fabric, the one she brought, and it will shape her figure, highlighting the difference between her and the rest of the world, launching her into the starry heights of beauty, or at least attractiveness, making her feel important, feel like somebody, because in her mind she is nobody. Who am I, nothing and nobody, the words keep reverberating in her head; she has no idea that she will remain nothing even when he tells her that she is something, because in his mind he is nothing as well, but she is supposed to reassure him that he is something; what a farce …

We don’t live far from one another, our parents and us, it is a ten-minute leisurely walk under the autumn chestnut trees whose fruits, when they fall to the ground, burst open and little, shiny brown conkers roll out, inedible though, because these are wild chestnuts, but nice to look at, to hold in your hand, to make patterns with and then attach with toothpicks, or at least imagine what you can do with them if you keep them, since they are so lovely.

It is Sunday, early evening, and I am running to pick up my maxi dress, I’m prepared to wait for it until midnight if it turns out it isn’t finished yet, even if it means Julia dropping dead; I’d soften up by the age of twenty-six, but at nineteen I am still hard-nosed, the only thing I’ve experienced is my father’s illness, with no tragic outcome so far, and though I can sense my own selfishness, I’m not fighting it because I haven’t yet dug myself a well into which I can toss in the truth and leave it there to die a slow death.

Luckily, the dress is ready, there are just the buttons to sew on, and I’ve brought them, along with a pair of suede high heels, a nice brown to go with the dress, so that I can have a dress rehearsal in front of witnesses before my debut to the universe the next day, which is how I see this snippet of life I’ve plunged into. As soon as the buttons are sewn on, I disappear into Julia’s bedroom, where the fittings are done, and dive into the dress as if into a new life, which this remake will give me, because even Cinderella found her prince and became a queen only after she had her dress (and shoes and carriage), not before, that’s what the fairy tale taught me.

Ah, that bedroom of Julia’s, with its jumble of fabrics, double beds and eiderdowns, all puffed up and white as if one sleeps in the clouds, and on the walls souvenirs of by-gone faces in ornate gilded frames, ribbons, threads, fashion magazines and dress patterns tossed on the table and chairs, clothes hanging from the wardrobes waiting for fittings, skirts, blouses, dresses, coats, and then the dressing table with its triple mirror in which clients can look at themselves from all angles, from the front, in profile, left and right, and over their shoulder at the back.

I put on the shoes and twirl in front of the mirror, posing like a model, fixing the expression on my face as soon as I catch sight of myself in the mirror, something I do even in shop windows, I am always so surprised that what I see in the reflection is me, I mean you don’t live with your face, a face you can’t see, so of course it comes as a surprise. And I decide that I’m satisfied with what I see there, the dress is exactly what I wanted, striking, unique, because maxis are still new on the street, they aren’t seen everywhere and never will be because women like to show off their legs, as I’ll come to understand soon enough. I still have to try it out on the people behind that door, in the kitchen, especially on my younger and middle cousins and their brother, whose response to everything is to joke, so that when I’m with him I always feel I’ve been pecked by parrots – my eldest cousin left to meet up with her fiancé as soon as I walked in, because they are about to get married – so I throw open the door, stop, and say, What do you think?

Oh, beautiful, it looks great on you, my cousins say in unison, both carbon copies of their mother, but prettier, in fact the younger one is gorgeous, they wanted her in the movies, but she wasn’t interested, their brother makes some crack that I’ve forgotten because it isn’t worth remembering, and laughs to himself; the middle cousin says I remind her of Marilyn Monroe, she’s exaggerating, of course, because I’m not pretty, I have an ordinary face,with a jutting chin and suspicious dip to my nose, thin hair, I have to tease it to give it volume, I have charm, not beauty, the only thing that breaks the mold of this perfect mediocrity are my eyes, big, heavy-lidded, piercing, I’m all about the eyes. But I enjoy being Marilyn Monroe for a second in that dingy kitchen with its Singer sewing machine and smell of chicory coffee; the whole point of that dress is to be who you’re not, to create an image, not be a person.

Standing by the bed with the eiderdowns, I take off the dress, so that it doesn’t age by the time I get home, and can hardly wait for daybreak to put it back on again and walk to uni in my heels, my maxi billowing around my legs, straight-backed, fast, with a magnificent walk, as some people later said, my skirt probably carrying the smell of my little dog which was in heat. And what I want to happen happens, the skirt does its job, it sweeps, it collects, it drags some thoughts underneath it, adopts them, imprisons them. I have no idea that from then on I will be imprisoned myself, that the game is over.

Marina Šur Puhlovski was born in Zagreb where she graduated with a degree in comparative literature and philosophy. In her youth she was a journalist and a literary critic, but later turned to writing prose exclusively. She writes stories, novels, travelogues, essays and literary diaries. She has won several awards for her short stories (such as the “Večernji list” award and the “Književni krug Karlovac” award) and the “Zvane Črnja” award for best book of essays in 2015. She has written six novels: Trojanska kobila (Trojan horse, 1991), Ništarija (The Good-for-Nothing, 1999), Nesanica (Insomnia, 2007), Ljubav (Love, 2010), Igrač (The Player, 2017) and Divljakuša (Wild Woman, 2018).ćććld Woman, which was unanimously praised by critics in both Croatia and the wider region, was awarded the “V.B.Z. Best Unpublished Novel” award in 2018. Šur Puhlovski lives and works in Zagreb.

Christina Pribichevich Zorić has translated more than thirty novels and short-story collections from Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian and French. Her translations include the award-winning Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić and the international best-seller Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipović. She has worked as a broadcaster for the English Service of Radio Yugoslavia in Belgrade and the BBC in London and was the Chief of Conference and Language Services for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 26th, 2019.