Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Death of the Little Match Girl (A Review)

Zoran Ferić’s The Death of the Little Match Girl is one of those books that is difficult to explain or even summarize. Set on the Yugoslavian island of Rab in the summer of 1992, this Croation novella, 196 pages long and translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović, is perhaps best described as a sequence of bizarre and unsettling events played out against the ominous backdrop of an impending war that taints everything in shades of fear, suspicion, and paranoia. From the mysterious death of a transgendered prostitute to the mystifying appearance of large metal figures outside various buildings, to brief glimpses of unknown children in the dark of night and the “satanic” desecration of graves, the only thing clear is that something very odd is occurring in sleepy, idyllic Rab. To local medical examiner Fero and police chief Mungos falls the winding task of getting to the bottom of all the perplexity surrounding the untimely demise of the Little Match Girl, and, in the process, perhaps making sense of both the town and times in which they live.

The book opens on the dissonant note of both shattered innocence and increasing absurdity. The funeral of a little girl is simultaneously surreal and awkward: one speaker reads the wrong speech, another launches into a rant about children being sawed in half. Things go slowly down the proverbial hill from there – Fero is then summoned to examine the anatomically incorrect body of a dead woman and his childhood town starts to take on an alien and sinister air. As the plot escalates and the unexplained events proliferate, the only assumption left is that menacing forces are at work, behind the scenes, orchestrating some nefarious scheme. The book takes on the form of an Escher print: lots of stairs and passages leading nowhere. Lurking forebodingly in the background, is, of course, the recent Balkans war, which, despite its threatening nature, soon fades to white noise, very nearly evaporating from the story itself. Yet in the end, The Death of Little Match Girl is more than plot: it is about ambiance, atmosphere, and what elements compose and color the world in which we live. The ending is therefore appropriately anticlimactic, leaving the reader somewhat confounded. So – that’s what it was? That’s it??? . . . !

I think what truly makes Ferić’s work here so intriguing is precisely this exploration of paranoia and the insidious encroachment of mounting fear into an everyday setting. That is also what makes it pertinent to the recent conflict in the region: the war saw long-time neighbors turn on one another with a seemingly sudden ferocity. The Death of the Little Match Girl is therefore recommended for anyone interested in the psychological dimensions of deep-rooted sociopolitical anxiety and its swelling potential to detonate.


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