Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh
By Slobodan Novak
Translated by Cecilia Hawkesworth
Autumn Hill Books
October 1, 2007
My hands had been joined in prayer, my hands had been weapons, they had been a machine for applauding - now they are slaves. . . I know everything now, how to wash and powder the sore back of a crippled old woman I do not care for, I know how to do it tenderly, more humanely than any sister of mercy. Only now, when my hands have become slaves, only now do I also know that I am a fool. That is just why I am what I now know myself to be. Others do not have to pray, others do not have to shoot, others do not have to applaud or be enslaved to know the little it is worth knowing about all of this. I had to push my hands under her rickety shoulder-blades, to learn so little. Rags of lifeless fabric flap, slimy and bloodless, over my fingers. What am I doing here? This creature is rotting alive! Who is it I am tending? Who am I talking to? Who is putting me through this? She is a corpse!
Slobodan Novak is one of twentieth-century Europe's most renowned authors of prose works. Born in 1924 in Split, Yugoslavia, Novak was raised on the island of Rab, located in Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia. His career as one of Yugoslavia's leading writers took off in the 1960s. Since then, he has won all major Croatian and Yugoslav literary awards and was presented with the Vladimir Nazor prize for Lifetime Achievement in 1990. His 1968 novel Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, translated from Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth, has received every honor available in its homeland, subsequently going through nine Croatian editions and appearing in seven languages. Its premise is very basic: it is nearing Christmas, and a middle-aged man sits in an ancient, closed-off mansion on Rab, reluctantly caring for its owner, a centenarian named Madonna, formerly a great patrician whose vast holdings have since been seized by Yugoslavia's communist government.
For a 260-page book, the premise is too basic.
Narrator Mali, out of some vague sense of obligation, has spent the past ten years stuck with Madonna, essentially a living corpse who yet, perversely, will not die. His wife Celia has departed back to the mainland to spend the holidays with the couple's two children in Zagreb. The ensuing story is Mali at Madonna's bedside, wandering around town a bit, lusting after an underaged girl from a local convent, generally mistreating a mentally impaired neighbor, and thinking about . . . stuff. The neighbor in question, Hermione, is an exceptionally well-drawn character whose stuttering, stammering dialogue is pure brilliance on Novak's part. ("She had a pain, hada had apain!" "No, signora Madonna, now there's an execra execru excecutivecommittee, believe me! A repuplic.") Mali's isolation and psychologically parasitical relationship with Madonna, as he comes to feel that she validates his very existence and wonders at the sheer stupidity of his predicament, is real and vivid, earning sympathy for an at times unsympathetic individual.
And yet. . .
Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh is certainly full of beautiful passages that are a genuine pleasure to read. And yet, those passages are also embedded in an overall narrative that is just too long and tedious. I am not one of those types who demand that a book read like a Hollywood blockbuster: straightforward plot, outrageous twists, suspense, action, with everything falling neatly into place and tied with a bow. Vassilis Alexakis's Foreign Words is also a "quiet," down-to-earth novel that is wholly realistic in its leisurely pace and natural unfolding of events. But its protagonist was nevertheless working towards something: the study of Sango and new concepts of language and culture, which gave Alexakis's work both a pleasantly contemplative quality and a palpable sense of moving forward. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, on the other hand, simply meanders and all too often loses itself under layers of symbolism and the drone of endless philosophizing. As the Publisher's Weekly review aptly critiques, it's two hundred pages spent at Madonna's deathbed. After awhile, reading simply becomes a chore. (Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring had the same difficulties, but it was also only about half as long.) Of course, the jacket copy compares Novak's style to Beckett, whose work I could never get into, which leads me to wonder if I am even the right person to be reviewing this.
In short, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh left me with mixed feelings. Slobodan Novak is a master lyricist, no denying that. His prose is brilliantly crafted: lush and descriptive without losing the straight way and finding itself lost in the dark purple wood. That's a feat few writers can manage, although unfortunate numbers certainly try (yes, Dean Koontz, I'm looking at you). Like Virginia Woolf, Novak has the rare ability to transform a mundane moment or hidden emotion into something resembling the poetry of life. At the same time, however, Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh is just too long for its own minimal plot and for all its beautiful prose, it got to where I just wanted it to end.