A Collection by Miljenko Jergovic
Translated from the Croatian by David Williams
(1999) 2012 / 352 Pages
Mama Leone is the name of a hit 70s Italian pop song by Bino and is also the title of a collection of short stories by Croatian author Miljenko Jergovic. The volume was originally published in the 1999 and finally found its way to English translation in 2012 thanks to Archipelago Books. It is currently long listed for the Best Translated Book Award.
In the collection’s first section, Jergovic weaves fact with fiction to retell tales from his youth as narrated by his reimaged younger self. As a child, he finds himself the product of divorce, bouncing between mother and father, the cities of Drvenik and Sarajevo, and the maternal grandparents who do the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to raising him. The resulting efforts are a bit mixed.
While the situations presented in the stories themselves border on the mundane, the clever use of language and the striking childlike innocence that radiates from nearly every selection serves to elevate the pieces to a level above what one would expect to find from this limited viewpoint.
How could a young child ever hope to comprehend the true nature of everything that is occurring around them? They can’t of course, and Jergovic does a wonderful job filling in the gaps of worldly knowledge in his younger self’s narration with delightful misinterpretations, sometimes shocking, sometimes humorous misunderstandings and some lessons that are learned hard way.
Below is an excerpt from the story What Will Allende’s Mom Say, which finds the young Jergovic playing revolution with a toy gun after hearing the news of Pinochet’s rise to power in Chile:
Saturday came around, Mom was vacuuming the house and I was playing with a plastic pistol. I don’t know who I was playing war against, probably against Pinochet. Mom bent down and tried to vacuum the dust under the couch. I went up to her, pressed the pistol on her temple, and pulled the trigger. She dropped the vacuum cleaner house, stood ramrod straight, her face in horror. I thought she was going to hit me, she didn’t, tears were streaming down her face, she ran out of the living room yelling Mom, Mom. Grandma was sitting on the terrace reading the newspaper. I knew that I’d done something terrible, but that I wasn’t going to get a hiding. I slunk into the hallway, tiptoed to the terrace door, and peeked out. Mom was sobbing convulsively, her head in Grandma’s lap, Grandma was caressing her and saying it’s all right, it’ll be all right, calm down, it’s nothing . . . How is it nothing, I gave birth to a monster. I went back to the living room, opened the encyclopedia to the page with the circus, but I didn’t see anything. It was hard for me to look at anything. If I’m a monster, something scary is going to happen.
The collection’s second section finds Jergovic exploring the lives of a series of unconnected, displaced adults whose have all been affected in some way by the war that ravaged their homeland. It’s here where things get really interesting. This shift in perspective from the eternal optimism contained in youth to the fractured realities of adulthood is welcome, as is the shift in tone from youthful ignorance to hard-earned wisdom. Arguably the strongest story of the bunch, A Death of the President’s Dog can be downloaded and read in its entirety from Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.
Mama Leone isn’t a perfect collection, but it is a highly charged, universally relatable selection of stories that highlight the pains of youth along with the joys that arise from family life, love and possessing a strong sense of self. The characters that populate Jergovic’s stories never feel defeated, even when it’s obvious that they are, and their eternal sense of optimism in the face of even the most daunting of circumstances is delicately expressed by way of their actions rather than their words.