Literature Review: The Green Crow

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time Kristīne Ulberga's Zaļā vārna,  translated into English as The Green Crow by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini

Coracias garrulous – known in Latvian as Zaļā vārna, which can be translated literally into English the “green crow” — is a light blue and brown colored bird the size of a jackdaw that breeds in Europe and migrates to Africa during the winter months. In Latvia, it is a very rare and protected species. Here in the novel, a gigantic “green crow” is a figment of the imagination, as well as the best friend and the soulmate of a middle-aged woman who is imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for seeing hallucinations. The novel was written by Kristīne Ulberga in 2012, with an English translation by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini published in 2018 by Peter Owen Publishers. The book is about longing for freedom; not the main character’s freedom to leave the hospital or leave boring everyday family duties, but the freedom to truly be herself, a possibility that is as unusual and rare as the green crow itself.

We don’t know much about the main character; her name never gets mentioned, nor do her education or hobbies. All we know is that she is a forty-two-year-old unhappy housewife, mum of twins (a boy and a girl) and a wife of an authoritative, rich and well-schooled husband. In the stories she tells to her psychiatric hospital’s roommates and doctors, the reader can learn some bits and pieces of her past – her traumatizing childhood and miserable family life full of alcohol, unenjoyable sex, feelings of being oppression and years of unhappiness.

I want to throw a stone, hit my husband on the head – you never know what a crazy person will do next, and, anyway, they can’t be held accountable and you can’t take offence at their actions. But I don’t have a stone to hand. They have all already be thrown. Over the past fifteen years stones have rained down like hail. And anyone who tells you that stones never run out on earth, since they were created first, is a liar. First, God created light – so we would do better to throw light at one another, as light is never-ending.[1]

The green crow constantly appears in these narratives as a real person with its own ethical views and knowledge of the world. Sooner or later, the reader is forced to ask themselves the question of what the green crow actually is that the whole book is based around and named after. Is it a construction of imagination the woman needs to get rid of to fall in love with her comfortable and wealthy life, or is it the most important part of the main character’s life that she needs to find to gain strength to leave her jealous and dictatorial husband and indifferent children to become happy again? In my own personal interpretation, the green crow is the main character’s freedom from lies, hypocrisy and cynicism, her chance to once again touch her childhood ideals that got destroyed long time ago when she understood that the world is run by power, money and sex and a person needs to obey to fit in this order. However, Kristīne Ulberga, the author of the novel, claims that:

The green crow is the realest half of a human being. It is not the best half, but the one that is inartificial; the real one. Living among other people, we want to be understood, so we adapt. And the whole life is like that. Harsh.[2]

            Reading The Green Crow, the reader should not expect a clear, logical overview about events and people, neither in the psychiatric hospital nor in the main character’s life. Maybe I was not a careful enough reader, but following the narrator’s observations and stories, I got a feeling at one point that I cannot fully trust anything she was telling because some of the facts did not line up with each other, and some of the dialogs or descriptions would made no sense in real life. For example, a doctor gets drunk listening to his patient’s stories about her mental disorder because they were too crazy to be handled while being sober. There were moments when this mess made me not only confused, but also a bit irritated. However, what the reader can find and enjoy in this novel, and what I also liked, is the main character’s interestingly expressed, subjective understanding of the world and people around her. I have to admit that the stories she tells about her life were pretty interesting.

            Despite the fact that Zaļā vārna by Kristīne Ulberga has got some very respectable awards, I didn’t particularly enjoy the work. I believe it is a good book; however, I have a feeling that I just did not get the main message it was carrying, and there were a lot of details I missed or misunderstood, such as the very regularly used references to Christianity. I couldn’t tell if with mentioning Jesus, God, the parable of turning the other cheek, reflecting on death and life and other Biblical elements, the author wanted to emphasize that there is something more than the material and cynical world that pretends to be the only truth, or the complete opposite – wanting to make fun of a religion that is nothing more than just an invention of people.

In any case, the novel discusses the serious social problem that is violence – physical, emotional, and sexual violence towards women. That’s why it would be interesting for readers who are concerned about women’s rights and issues of gender equality.

Any book that makes a reader think is a good book, and I believe some readers will be able to find answers where I couldn’t find them.

[1] Ulberga-Rubīne Kristīne, and Pasqualini Žanete Vēvere. The Green Crow. Peter Owen Publishers, 2018.
Tā ir kā cilvēka īstākā puse. Nevis labākā, bet tieši nemākslotā, īstā. Dzīvojot starp citiem cilvēkiem, mēs vēlamies, lai mūs saprot, tāpēc mēs pielāgojamies. Un tā visu mūžu. Skarbi.

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