Long stretches of introspective narrative are punctuated by lively travelogues that span from Italy to England, alongside picaresque anecdotes of real icons of the Russian canon. For example, Ugrešić chronicles butterfly-hunting journeys taken by Nabokov, his wife, and their largely unknown driver (Dorothy, a Russian-language student of the master who volunteered to take them cross-country in the trip that was precursor to Lolita), and whose embarrassing self-exposure at the Grand Canyon resulted in one of Nabokov’s greatest discoveries. Ugrešić also writes about the complicated histories of revolutionary minds like Boris Pilnyak and Doivber Levin and their connections to her own ancestry. If these figures’ names do not ring even the faintest of bells from your literature classes, you’re not alone—'footnotes' to literary history they are, and Ugrešić (and her narrator) are on a quest in Fox to exhume them from their historical catacombs and understand their forgotten legacies. These stories are inherently fox-y in disposition, for much of the chaos and suffering endured by the narrator on her escapades is the result of deceit and betrayal, both political and artistic ... By the end of Fox, Ugrešić has convinced us that the act of navel-gazing can be universe-gazing; the stories she presents with such uncanny self-awareness are not a curse on her tribe, but rather the thing that allows us to better see the ur-story of our collective tribe, wherein the chronicles of our deceitful ways can be both unnerving and enlightening.
Translators Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams have succeeded in carrying over this writer’s pokerfaced humor and love of irony. The book’s episodic chapters follow the rootless narrator on expeditions (sometimes to attend writing conferences) to Japan, Moscow, Naples, rural Croatia and all across England. Her voyages mingle with sketches of writers like Boris Pilnyak and Vladimir Nabokov, which explore these artists’ lifelong work of self-mythologizing. Ms. Ugrešić's self-portrait is equally elusive. At one point she discusses the foxes who haunt the streets of London, and in the image of that contradictory creature—a lover of solitude who lives in the thick of a big city—we have a glimpse of this rare and inimitable author.
Like Borges’s forking paths, the narrator’s tale meanders, its six parts marked by digression, disruption, and footnotes. Conflating the real and the imagined to problematize both, drawing epigraphs from Brodsky, Bulgakov, Nabokov, a fictional author, a Hollywood movie, and a Bulgarian folk song, Ugrešić’s globe-trotting novel investigates many of her trademark issues: the migrant’s plight, cultural commodification, the curse of nationalism, and the whitewashing of history ... In her story about how stories come to be written, Ugrešić, another fox, has shaped a 'truthfulness' that embodies the power of art.
Rising action, climax, and such plainly don’t interest Ugrešić, no more than they did W.G. Sebald, an obvious model for these accumulating drifts of meditation. The displaced Croatian, however, has a more spritely feel than the displaced German; she allows for more dialog, some of it crackling ... it shows the care taken by translators Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams. The novel’s feminist jabs all deliver a decent poke, and at times I thought of Dorothy Parker with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature ... clever as the reiterations can be, their consistency can wear you out. How many times do we need to be shown that the artist’s lot is moil and that the powerful would rather see her or him dead? Thus a crucial element to this text’s success—it’s a startling and seductive piece of work, overall—is the one section that refrains from constantly refracting experience through the prism of high culture.
Even at her most straightforward, Ugrešić is a sly storyteller, and here she is using every trick in the postmodernist playbook. Indeed, there are moments when it seems like she’s pulling a fast one even when she isn’t ... Brilliant and laugh-out-loud funny.