Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2013

A Handful of Sand (2005), by Marinko Koscec, translated by Will Firth

A Handful of SandA Handful of Sand by Marinko Koščec and translated from the Croatian by Will Firth, is billed on its blurb as an ‘ode to lost opportunity’ but I think it’s more than that.  I think it asks, is it ever possible for psychologically damaged people to love?  Or is it that they can only ‘sample’ what others have, only to lose it like sand slipping through their fingers?

The story is told as a ‘duet for two narrators’ who are never named.  To keep track of them in my notes as I read, I christened them by the font that was used.  He became TNR (Times New Roman) and she became Ariel (although that’s not how the font is spelt, I know).  What was just a device to keep track of the alternating perspectives became emblematic of how I felt about them: although she shares few of the qualities of her Shakespearean namesake she is ethereal, imaginative and irritated by moral ties.  TNR’s blunt initials became representative of the sense of alienation I felt from him, a sense confirmed by his loathsome behaviour as the relationship soured.  (Those words ‘You belong to me’ are always a portent of dangerous possessiveness, IMO).

For most of the book the characters explain their background, but I was never sure who their ‘audience’ was.  Both slip easily into anecdotes that are like the stories couples tell each other as they get to know one another, but at times these stray into absurdity.  At one stage he tells the story of a breakup, with a girl he’d lost interest in anyway, and how he rampaged about, tearing windscreen wipers off cars and biting the ears of the hapless drivers, until a butcher takes an axe to him.  Is this a fantasy?  A guilt trip? A metaphor for something?  On the other hand, often these narratives seem like intensely private thoughts, reflections on the past which are not shared with the lover.

What’s striking is how often these anecdotes are gruesome.  A schoolmate reads a tribute to his dead rabbit in class, only to reveal later that it was he who killed it.  A mother who incinerates kittens.  Friends, relations and acquaintances are described by a catalogue of disasters to have befallen them: illness, psychiatric disorders, injury, death, suicide, the Holocaust.  Both have dubious parentage, and the dreary parents of both are damaged people too, incapable of forming relationships themselves and making psychological demands on their children that cannot be fulfilled.

There are comic moments in this novel.  The mocking description of the publishing industry he works for is an amusing satire, and The Holiday From Hell is full of black humour.  There’s a droll scene where he has to abandon his car to pursue her on the tram and comes back to find it impounded.   But overall, this novel is a portrait of a doomed relationship, charting the depression beforehand, the brief rapture and the bitterness of loss.  For Koščec, it seems, the life experiences that make us who we are, are not merely scars, but wounds so deep that recovery isn’t really possible.

Stu from Winston’s Dad reviewed A Handful of Sand too and noticed its debt to French existentialism.   It was interesting to see that he identified more with the male narrator than I did!

Update 20/10/13

Will Firth, Aussie-born translator of this novel has written a guest-post for ANZ LitLovers about ‘the perils of translation’ and you can also read more about the process of translating A Handful of Sand. See it here.

Author: Marinko Koščec
Title: A Handful of Sand (To malo pijeska na dlanu)
Translated from the Croatian by Will Firth
Publisher: Istros Books, 2013, first published 2005
ISBN: 9781908236074
Source: Review copy courtesy of Istros Books.

direct from Istros Books


  1. Not for the first time do I lament your status as a reviewer and blogger rather than a novelist. Don’t get me wrong, the blogosphere would be a poorer place without your reviews and wonderful insights but I can’t help think how much richer the world of stories would be if you were one of its authors. “TNR’s blunt initials became representative of the sense of alienation I felt from him.” Delightful.
    I really enjoyed this review but I don’t know that a relationship story “charting the depression beforehand, the brief rapture and the bitterness of loss” appeals to me.
    I am always interested in the hand that the translator plays. I wonder if there are numerous review processes between publishers, translators, editors and authors to ensure the integrity of the work. Do you know if there are cases where poor translation has had a negative impact?


    • I think that the art of translation is vastly under-rated. It involves numerous readings and re-readings and clarifications between author and translator, and often the translator doesn’t even get recognition on the front cover. You only have to read a couple that are a bit clunky to see just how good most translations are.


      • Might be a good idea for a post sometime. The good, the bad and the ugly translations.


        • I think I’d have to read a lot more in translation to be able to do that. Stu from Winston’s Dad would be the expert, I reckon.


  2. I do wish I had said parts of his life now ,I agree with the comic bits which make me wonder about the title being very similar to waughs book ,,I agree with your comment about how little reignition translators get they should have more especially when they do a good job ,all the best stu


  3. The translator is eavesdropping if you want to ask him any of your questions directly, Karenlee. :-)


    • Hi Will, can I tempt you to write a guest post about The Perils of Translation?


  4. It would be a first for me to read a Croatian novel. I do find that Eastern Europe does produce some very original writers and this sounds no exception. It sounds like a good read although not perhaps totally satisfying


    • Hi Tom, I find it so interesting that when we were young, places like Croatia were all subsumed into Yugoslavia, and Russia and its former republics were all just the USSR. If we ever read any contemporary literature from those places, and I certainly didn’t, I had no access to it, it wouldn’t have occurred to most of us to differentiate between all these places that we now perceive as having a distinctive identity. How the world has changed!


  5. […] this blog was called ‘The Perils of Translation’ and it came about because I had read A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koscel which Will had translated and we had got into conversation behind the […]


  6. […]  Now based in Germany, Will is the translator of A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koščec, which I reviewed back in 2013.  He has the distinction of having his own Wikipedia page which includes an impressive list of […]


  7. […] week in the course of my review of A Handful of Sand by Marinko Koscec, I had the pleasure of ‘meeting’ his translator in the conversation […]


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