|Translators||Celia Hawkesworth, Michael Henry Heim, Ellen Elias-Bursac|
Reviewed by Allie Rigby
Dubravka Ugrešić’s Lend Me Your Character is a kaleidoscopic amalgamation featuring one novella, seven short stories, and several sections of author’s notes. In classic Ugrešić form, fairy tale elements abound–magic, crass humor, textile allusions to sewing, grotesque imagery, repetition, and warnings fill the pages. Ugrešić is not shy about her reference to fairy tales: many of these stories were originally published in Zagreb as part the collection, Life is a Fairy Tale, in 1983.
With translations as recent as 2022 (from Croatian into English) and author’s notes that feel like behind-the-scenes bonuses, this collection from Open Letter Books is both humorous and serious. The stories often center hyperaware narrators interjecting themselves into the text, trying to do best for ordinary characters amid absurd situations. Ugrešić’s opening work, the novella “Štefica Cvek in the Jaws of Life” that was translated by Celia Hawkesworth, plays with the idea of storyteller as clothier and clothier as storyteller. Chapter titles like “Key to Symbols,” “The Pattern,” and “Designing the Garment” make this connection clear, as do various symbols dissecting sections of the story, which can be decoded if readers refer to the “Key to Symbols” chapter. These visual cues implore the reader to “Cut the text along the dotted line,” or “Make a metatextual knot and pull tight as needed,” thus giving readers a more active role as recipients of the story (12).
Breaking the fourth wall is one of Ugrešić’s signature moves and while these directional symbols give the novella a choppy feel, it does blur the line between fiction and reality, which the author does throughout her fiction. Sadly, we can no longer ask Ugrešić about her fascination with textile fairy tale motifs–the buttons, the sewing, and the like–she died in Amsterdam on March 17, 2023. Only one month before her story collection debuted from Open Letter Books, Ugrešić passed, reportedly surrounded by “family and friends.”
Now readers are left with this last and most recent collection of Ugrešić, unless something comes out of the woodwork from her literary estate. After her novella, Ugrešić offers her first set of author’s notes under “Finishing Touches,” translated by Celia Hawkesworth, followed by “How to Ruin Your Own Heroine,” translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać. Finally, we have seven short stories. “The Kharms Case” and “A Hot Dog in a Warm Bun” may stir the most conversation for their hilarity. “Who Am I?” and “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” carry Ugrešić’s curiosity for textile objects and their symbolic potential.
What next, for characters and for readers of Ugrešić? “I have to keep sewing, Štefica, your loose ends can’t be tied up just yet,” Ugrešić writes in her novella (58). For now, assemble the fabrics and find a proper place for each button.
Allie Rigby is a poet, editor, and educator with roots in Orange County. In 2023, she completed a year-long Fulbright fellowship in Romania where she taught creative writing at Universitatea Ovidius din Constanța. She holds a master’s degree in English: Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Allie loves connecting with people to develop and share impactful stories that generate cross-cultural dialogue. For her most recent book of poetry and other writing, please visit www.allierigby.com or @allie.j.rigby.