A House In Istria

Richard Swartz

translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson
New Directions 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012 http://dannyreviews.com/
The stream-of-consciousness narrator of A House in Istria is an Istrian woman married to a foreigner — nationality never specified but perhaps Swedish — who becomes obsessed with buying the large unoccupied house next door. This obsession leads the couple, neither of whom are named, into a series of encounters, set against the backdrop of a sweltering north Adriatic summer.

First there is Dmitriji, the poor neighbour who takes pride in being a Borejko, with a portrait of his grandfather the major on his wall, but ekes out a living farming mushrooms on the social periphery of the village. With him the narrator's husband doesn't deign even the basic social niceties, while she tries to smooth over the awkwardness.

In the nearby town they seek advice from the overweight, aging advocate Franjo, fallen from former glories. He seems to have some interest in the house himself, but is mostly preoccupied with his own ideas, which contrast vividly with his corporeality.

In Trieste they visit the Italian couple Antonio and Nina, from whom they hope to buy the house. Here the narrator has to translate for her husband, who doesn't understand Italian, and linguistic barriers make explicit what were previously psychological and social failures to communicate.

And finally the local priest, Father Sjerko, makes an appearance, distracting everyone with a toad in the well.

At a first glance these figures seem comic, and perhaps not entirely all there, but on reflection the strangeness of their lives is only apparent: they are entirely ordinary people, with obsessions and foibles that are all too plausibly realistic.

In many ways not much happens in A House in Istria, which consists of splendidly rambling conversations in which the participants talk past one another: couples who have become accustomed to ignoring one another and strangers whose concerns intersect only in occasionally overlapping obsessions. And of course these conversations are filtered through the understanding of the narrator.

The result is a mesmerising, bubbling confusion, a revealing if indiscriminate dredging of some of the backwaters of the psyche.

Note: the original Swedish title was Ett hus i Istrien.

November 2012

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%T A House In Istria
%A Swartz, Richard
%M Swedish
%F Paterson, Anna
%I New Directions
%D 2002 [1999]
%O hardcover
%G ISBN 0811215016
%P 215pp