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Be beguiled and bewitched by Dubravka Ugresic’s novel Fox | Calvert Reads

Be beguiled and bewitched by Dubravka Ugresic's novel Fox | Calvert Reads

17 September 2021

True to its title and recurring motif — the fox is a cross-cultural folk symbol of shrewdness — Croatian literary giant Dubravka Ugrešić‘s book, recently published by Tank Magazine in the UK, abounds in surprises and carefully-crafted deception.

The writer resists sticking to one story, one subject, one setting, one tone, or, indeed, one genre. Instead, in her elegant, signature style, Ugrešić blends several forms: essay, memoir, novel, and literary criticism, commenting on current affairs, contemporary culture, and a writer’s life under capitalism. Rather than a flaw, the book’s fluidity is both a conceptual and stylistic strength.

The opening story explores the thorny origins of a tale by 20th century Russian writer, Boris Pilnyak. Pilnyak’s story was supposedly based on the life of a Vladivostok-born woman, who discovered that her Japanese husband had been spying on her and noting down the minute details of her life during the days when he supposedly retreated in his office. According to Pilnyak, the husband then published a bestselling novel based on his observations, without ever sharing it with his spouse: a 1920s kind of Knausgård, in Japan. Pilnyak’s story took this tale and used it to examine how stories get to be written, and the same question is then repeated like a mantra across several chapters of Ugrešić’s book. The Croatian author does her own detective work on the subject across several manuscripts, digging out some unflattering information on Pilnyak himself in the meantime. Later on, the book drifts from story to story, across the world, spanning 20th and 21st century Japan, Russia, Yugoslavia, The Netherlands, and the UK. Playing with readers’ expectations, Fox is rife with plot twists and cliff-hangers. In one of the stories, the narrator — Ugrešić herself — inherits a Croatian countryside cottage from a reader she’d never met, only to learn that the place has an unlikely squatter: a former judge turned de-miner. The budding romance between house’s two occupants develops as movingly and surprisingly as it ends — while also serving as an example of the impact of the Yugoslav wars on everyday lives. Every tale in the book becomes tangled with further characters, plots, and questions.

True to life, and yet breaking storytelling conventions, the stories in Fox don’t necessarily have a clear beginning, middle, or end — but that is no issue; what matters is the company the reader finds themselves in. Despite its genre-bending writing covering stupendous geographical, historical, and thematic ground, the narrator’s voice — crisp, witty, and piercing — holds the tome together, and gets the reader hooked.

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