Winters in the South, Norbert Gstrein, tr. Anthea Bell and Julian Evans, MacLehose, 2012.
Winters in the South is set in the former Yugoslavia and Argentina, just as the ethnic conflicts that saw the break up of Yugoslavia began, in 1991. Marija has recently turned fifty and has lived in Vienna since she was five, having fled there from Dalmatia with her mother at the end of World War II. Her father, who fought on the losing side in that war as an anti-Communist, had escaped to Argentina and made a new life for himself, but Marija and her mother never knew what happened to him, and he told people that his wife and child were dead.
Marija is a university lecturer married to a high-flying journalist who used to be a well-known Communist supporter in Austria. Their marriage is on the rocks and Marija does not seem to like him much at all any more, especially since she found out about his latest affair. Once, he used to think she was special because she came from the former Dalmatian coast and he prized her as his ‘Mediterranean beauty’, but now they have lapsed into squabbling and are bored with one another. So, just as it looks like war will break out in Yugoslavia, Marija decides to leave safe Vienna and travel to dangerous Zagreb and stay there for a while. Her husband is not too happy about this but offers to drive her, and off they go.
Meanwhile, a Viennese policeman named Ludwig has been having a holiday in Argentina. He has recently suffered a personal trauma and needed to get away for a while. On his last day there he meets a beautiful woman who offers him a job as a family bodyguard, and not really wanting to go home – he has nothing there except his ex-wife and their young daughter – Ludwig agrees to meet the woman’s husband and learn more about the job offer. The husband turns out to have escaped from Yugoslavia after World War II, for unspecified reasons, and he is now rich and married to his third wife and has young twin daughters, two snarling German Shepherds, and a firing range in the basement of his house.
Back in Zagreb, Marija picks up a young soldier who is in town for a few days of R&R before heading off to the fighting again and they have a tawdry sex thing. I guess this is where I completely lost interest in the book, because Marija’s character reads like a man’s fantasy of how a woman might act, and I did not buy it. The man in Argentina’s young wife is another male fantasy of ‘the feminine’, with her bleached hair, layers of makeup, rampant sexuality and monetary greed. I am the last person to play the gender card when it comes to fiction, but I just did not buy these two characters as anything more than stereotypes that have been written a million times before. The two main male characters, Ludwig and his unnamed employer, are equally as unoriginal – the escaped war criminal (depending on which side you fought) and the traumatised cop – and Gstrein’s treatment of them was entirely predictable.
Anyway, when it looks like war will break out, the man in Argentina hies back to his old country, eager to be of relevance once again. He thinks he might find his lost daughter via an ad in the newspaper, and lo and behold! she just happens to be there in Zagreb and reads it. What happens next? Well it is probably not what you expect, or maybe it is. The soldier brings a mate with him the next time he visits – oh joy! – and then the narrative plods to an end that is not in the least surprising. By this stage, I just wanted the book to be over because I was tired of the lack of light and shade in the text, and I was really tired of the three main characters. It is not a matter of ‘liking’ them or ‘not liking’ them, but more a matter of them being dull stereotypes that I did not find in the least interesting.
The prose is nice and the translators have done a good job with the English version. Obviously, this was not my kind of book. I read it because I am interested in Balkan politics and hoped to gain some further insight into the conflict there. I have never been able to get a precise picture in my head about who was at war with whom and why, and I am none the wiser after reading this book.