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Balkan literature: the best contemporary fiction to add to your reading list

Balkan literature: the best contemporary fiction to add to your reading list
Carturesti Carusel bookshop, Romania. Image: Cosmic Dragomir

The breakup of Yugoslavia caused a tectonic shift in Balkan identity, giving birth to a rich array of new literature that sought to grapple with a new reality. From pagan myths and tales of emigration, to science fiction and Kosovan elegies, here are 10 of the best recent novels from the Balkans you need to read

13 February 2017

The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresić, 2004 (Croatia)

Translated by Michael Heim (2005)

“What can they know about us?” asks our protagonist, tongue-in-cheek. Tanja is a professor of ex-Yugoslavian literature at a Dutch university, teaching a class of fellow exiles who are enrolled primarily to maintain their refugee status. Abandoning her syllabus, she encourages her students to indulge in their Yugonostalgia, unwittingly leading them into a tangle of difficult questions surrounding exile, guilt, and victimhood. As a writer whose stance culminated in persecution in her native Croatia during the 1990s, Dubravka Ugrešić has crafted an argument for the banality of nationalism and the brutality of language into a genre-bending book that pays homage to the narrative style of Milan Kundera. Her most recent work, Europe in Sepia (2014), is a non-fiction exploration of the same themes.

Hansen’s Children by Ognjen Spahić, 2004 (Montenegro)

Translated by Will Firth (2011)

The Economist recently called Ognjen Spahić one of a handful of writers inciting a “literary awakening” in his small Adriatic country. Like many of the emerging talents from the region, Spahić came of age just as Yugoslavia broke apart. Set in the last remaining European leper colony, the cast of characters in Hansen’s Children come to life in a quarantined corner of Romania, a microcosm with its own power struggles, corruption and stubborn memories. The novel is an experiment in metaphor for the futility of resistance under the extravagant dictatorship of the Ceauşescu family in the twilight years of communism. Tense and troubling, the parallels in Spahić’s prose to the deteriorating political situation are obvious but never forced, even as the haunting fable spirals into uprising and reprisal.

Life Begins on Friday by Ioana Pârvulescu, 2009 (Romania)

Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth (2009)

Bucharest, Romania. Image: Dani Gherca under a CC license

As a historian and academic with a knack for the minutiae of city life, Ioana Pârvulescu paints a Dickensian winter’s tale in warmer hues. A journalist from the present day has been inexplicably transported to snowy Bucharest in final days of the year 1897, where a sprightly cast captures the essence of the Romania’s belle époque. Although riddled with nostalgia, the novel avoids casting judgement on the dark century which followed and focuses instead on teasing out the curiosities of a city preparing for a bright future. Part mystery and all charm, this literary delight asks how we might recapture that hopeful feeling today in a world where the future is increasingly opaque. Her latest work, Viitorul începe luni (The Future Begins on Monday), awaits an English translation that can live up to its dazzling precursor.

Three Elegies for Kosovo by Ismail Kadare, 1998 (Albania)

Translated by Peter Constantine (2010)

This slim volume tells the tale of a band of singers on the infamous Field of Blackbirds as the medieval Serbian state is defeated by the Ottoman army. On the same field 600 years later, Slobodan Milošević delivers a speech invariably said to presage or even incite the violence between ethnic Serbs and Albanians during the decade which followed. Playful in form but mournful in content, Kadare’s brief take on history and tension in Europe’s youngest nation leaves a disproportionately profound impact. As the leading literary figure in Albania since the 1960s, his increasingly controversial reputation in the region lends these “elegies” both their weight and urgency.

The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergović, 2003 (Croatia/Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Translated by Stephen M. Dickey and Janja Pavetic-Dickey (2015)

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Image: Marcus Saul under a CC licence

Best known for his 1994 short story collection Sarajevo Marlboro, Miljenko Jergović’s latest work is a multi-generational saga spanning the entire turbulent twentieth-century. We begin at the end of Regina Delavale’s life in Dubrovnik and hurtle towards her childhood in a retrospective which mirrors the arduous life of Yugoslavia. “It’s born in blood and dies in the realisation that it was born for no reason,” he writes, leaving little ambiguity in the providence of family, state, and the relation between them. With a rich cast of affable characters, Jergović emerges as a grand negotiator of meaning and beauty in the most treacherous circumstances.

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov, 2016 (Bulgaria)

In this ambitious debut novel written in English, a young American student returns to his native Bulgaria to seek out an aging grandfather and sell his share of the inherited farmland. The journey leads him to a remote village clinging to the Strandja Mounatins, a stone’s throw away from Turkey and Greece. The novel paces between pagan myths and a secular present, unfolding into a passionate defence of faith, family, and the fight for lost causes. Penkov’s delicate assessment of the borders which have served to bind and separate the neighbouring nations is cheekily undercut by a brooding young protagonist that could rival Holden Caulfield.

Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik, 2011 (Slovenia)

Translated by Rawley Grau (2015)

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Image: Guillaume Colin and Pauline Peno under a CC license

In a novel which defies convention, elderly Ana abandons her life as a wife and mother in Ljubljana and becomes the lover of 27-year-old Ismael in Burkina Faso. Having left the post-Yugoslav world and its promise of westernisation behind, the currents which bring Ana to seek renewal through her young lover are the cracking pistol warnings of colonialism and fetishisation. As the story progresses, we come to recognise that what separates the lovers is neither age nor race, but the gulf between the concepts of east and west. By alternating between both characters’ viewpoints, Babnik succeeds in opening up dialogue, debate and self-examination in real time.

The Russian Window by Dragan Velikić, 2007 (Serbia)

Translated by Randall A. Major (2008)

An omnibus novel in three parts, The Russian Window juxtaposes each character’s missed opportunities with the paths they choose, providing the reader with an understanding of the diverse and countless lives of others. Through careful irony and sparse humour, we begin to discover the aching but inevitable gap between one’s expectations and how one lives. The title of the book lends itself to a beautiful metaphor: a fortochka is a small window inset in a larger one, used for ventilation in cold climates. As Velikić writes, it is “an attempt to inhale the outer world without losing our inner warmth”. His latest novel, Islednik (2015), eagerly awaits translation.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, 2008 (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Chicago. Image: Matt B under a CC license

Much like the author, the protagonist of The Lazarus Project grew up in Sarajevo and migrated to Chicago as an adult. Unable to adjust to life in his adopted home, Vladimir Brik withdraws and begins obsessively researching the real life of an eastern European Jew who was shot and killed on a policeman’s doorstep in Chicago a century earlier. Hemon does not shy away from brutality, instead confronting it with a courageous poetic voice, eager to describe even the most disturbing detail with his signature precision. Having received an unprecedented invitation to be the United Nations’ first writer-in-residence, he is set to release Behind the Glass Wall in July 2017.

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller, 2009 (Romania)

Translated by Philip Boehm (2012)

Doubly condemned as an ethnic German and a gay man, Leo Auberg is sent to a gulag in the Soviet Union during their occupation of Romania in 1945. Every object packed into his suitcase is some version of Chekov’s gun — like a rifle hanging on the wall in the first act, they are all fired before the finale. Closer to a prose poem than a novel, The Hunger Angel, written in German before being translated into Romanian in 2010, develops an internal rhythm which guides the reader through minefield circumstances. As the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Müller has already established herself as a literary grandmaster — she makes poetry out of ugliness and terror, but in doing so articulates something which could not otherwise be articulated.

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