Love is at the heart of everything. Everything except for love itself: The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović

“We only know their story as they told it. Like in books. The only way their story can be told is the way they want to tell it. Isn’t that beautiful? Like a fairy tale. The only pictures we’re left with are the ones our minds created, as we listened to their storytelling.”

The back cover of Slovenian writer Goran Vojnović’s award winning novel, The Fig Tree, promises a “multigenerational family saga…spanning three generations”—exactly the type of description that typically has me thinking twice if not turning away altogether. However, trusting on the strength of Vojnović’s Yugoslavia, My Fatherland—a tightly woven tale of a young man who discovers that his father, long thought dead in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, is not only alive, but a fugitive war criminal—I had no hesitation to take on this newer (2016) work, recently released from Istros Books in a translation by Olivia Hellewell.

The Fig Tree is an ambitious undertaking. It is multigenerational in the sense that we all exist within the framework of those who came before us and those who will follow. Here the central concern is that of the narrator, Jadran Dizdar, a man in his 30s who is, it seems, adrift within his own life. His grandfather has just died, perhaps under curious circumstances, his father has been gone for many years, his mother is bitter and resentful, and his wife has just walked out on him and their young son. He is trying to make sense of himself by coming to understand the decisions and actions of those around him. But is he avoiding asking the questions only he can answer?

The story begins in 1955, in Buje, Croatia, close to the Slovenian border where a young Aleksandar Đorđević is due to take up a post as forest warden. Arriving from Ljubljana in Slovenia, the newcomer bears a Serbian name and birthplace, but his heritage is complicated and uncertain. He soon takes a fancy to the nearby village of Momjan where, against the concerns of his pregnant wife, Jana, he decides to build a home—the house where they will raise their two daughters, and where one day the garden will be graced by a huge fig tree. It is also where the very next chapter opens. Moving ahead to the present time, Jana is gone, having faded away in a steady loss of memory, and now Aleksandar, Jadran’s Grandad, has also died. That event and its consequences—his daughters’ differing reactions, his grandson’s suspicion that he may have taken his own life, and his cremation and burial—form the backbone upon which will Jadran flesh out the story of his family’s near and distant history.

As a novel focused on family dynamics, it is natural that relationships—especially those between husbands and wives, parents and children—should be the primary focus of The Fig Tree. And so it is. This is a novel about all the complicated facets of love. Jadran is intent on retracing his parents’ early romance, his own love affair with Anya, and the factors that shaped his grandparents’ final years. But his connection to his father, Safet, who has made himself so strangely absent, is possibly the most nebulous element of all, one that haunts both him and his mother. When Safet disappears to Bosnia in 1992, my immediate thought was that he would get caught up in the war. However, his existence in Otoka where he assumes residence in his grandmother’s empty house, is at once mundane and mildly eccentric. He is perhaps trying to connect with his own family’s past, while escaping the family and life of his present. Five years after his departure, his son comes to visit. In his father’s absence, Jadran had created a Bosnian dad fantasy that Safet could not even begin to live up to. He has to come to terms with the truth of the man who is not an idealized hero but:

just like the person who was waiting for me at the bus station in Bihać: scrawny and greying, oddly dressed, the sort of person who offered his hand and asked how my journey was, and whether I was hungry, the sort who, after I replied that I was, glanced around confusedly, not knowing where to take me to get something to eat; unprepared, lost.

Their brief reunion is awkward and strained, both parties are uncomfortable, but the reader may well wonder if there is discomfort in the son finding an unwelcome reflection of himself in the father.

Some of the most powerful passages of The Fig Tree trace the gradual decline of Jadran’s grandmother Jana following a likely stroke. Aleksandar’s complicated reactions as his wife gradually slips away from him—loss, guilt, frustration, redefined love—is wonderfully imagined. It is also one of the spaces in which the wars which tore apart the Balkans enter the narrative:

I know who that is, she said to him, turning away. It was of no interest to her that the country was collapsing, because that was beyond her comprehension. And what she didn’t understand didn’t interest her. The present became increasingly demanding, and one evening she got up, said that she couldn’t watch any more of it, and left the present behind.

Her world no longer extended beyond the walls of their house, and Aleksandar was left alone with the impending times, with a sense of dread, alone with everything that was happening on the outside.

The conflict and its implications are echoed in personal concerns about ethnic identity and nationality. Jadran’s family is rooted in Slovenia, but he and some of the characters have a complicated heritage—something which always matters on some level but holds greater relevance as the former Yugoslavia comes apart and borders take on new importance. The arc of this story may extend beyond the war, before and after, but underlying tensions and repercussions cross into the everyday throughout.

The Fig Tree is a deeply immersive, highly rewarding novel. However, I would suggest that it might take a little time to find one’s footing within the narrative flow. This is, perhaps, because Jadran can be a somewhat difficult narrator to warm to. At times he seems colourless, willing to slip into the background or even slip offstage altogether, allowing accounts drawn from his parents’ and grandparents’ lives to be told from afar. At other times, when he is front and centre, he can get bogged down in his own mix of blame, bitterness, and limited self-awareness, on occasion even falling into unbroken passages of running thoughts, a near stream of consciousness. Early on, shifts in the storyline seem a little odd, characters and situations are often introduced in a sideways fashion, with explanations and clarifications arriving only in time. Yet, once one gets accustomed to the manner of telling, the characters and their stories become increasingly compelling. And if there is a strong current of uncertainty running through Jadran’s account, it is not surprising, there is so much he is trying to resolve, so much that may never be known:

The coffin is no longer visible. The cranking of the mechanism that lowered it down has stopped. The sound of the furnace, however, grows louder. I hear the last of Grandad’s secrets burning, I hear it all disappear. All that remains is doubt, for doubt is the only thing that’s eternal.

Then, as the novel nears a close, Jadran makes a confession that I did not see coming, but one that reveals what I had already sensed. It’s a twist that brilliantly reframes everything—not only the text that has just been read, but the notion of writing a family history at all.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović is translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell and published by Istros Books.

The music of silence: Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar

Charged with a mournful, aching beauty, the opening passages of Slovenian writer Dušan Šarotar’s 2007 novel, Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, clearly set the tone for the story that will follow. The scene is one drenched with misty melancholy. It is late March, 1945. A grey, foggy sky hangs low over the landscape, and a sense of weary dread has settled over the residents of Sóbota, a quiet town, or varaš, nestled on the plains of an otherwise forgotten region of eastern Slovenia, lying between the Mura River and the Raba Valley. The area which had, until the implementation of the Final Solution almost exactly one year earlier, been home to the majority of Slovenia’s small Jewish population, is presently under Hungarian occupation. Now, with rumours that the Russians are advancing and the Germans retreating, no one is certain what to expect next; no one knows what the currents of history are carrying their way.

That night the story of good men and women could barely stand up to the devious wind dispassionately erasing the words on the faded monuments of the law. This mysterious force was stronger than the storms and deeper than the floods that were once talked about here. It came as a vague feeling, or a long, harrowing dream, which burrowed into people’s souls even before they fell asleep or drank themselves into a stupor.

Available in English for the first time in an attentive and sensitive translation by Rawley Grau who also translated Šarotar’s Sebaldian-styled  epic Panorama, this earlier novel is a tale of remembrance, told from a distinctly cinematic perspective, that of a timeless all-seeing eye hovering above the earth, capable of taking in good and evil alluded to in the brief prologue. Not unlike the lens of a camera.

The result is a simple, painfully human story that revolves around two key dates in 1944 and 1945. Touching on critical moments in the lives of a handful of characters — an Auschwitz survivor and former shopkeeper’s return in search of some semblance of home, a young girl’s first infatuation, the secret an aging prostitute has kept from the only other woman still left at the Hotel Dobray, the complicated emotions of the arrogant but ill-prepared leader of a sorry group of fatigued Hungarian soldiers awaiting certain defeat, and an ambitious and prosperous businessman’s unlikely twist of fate – it is a narrative that glances into hearts but never settles for long. The effect is a slowly simmering evocation of the impact of war on a community ground down, torn apart and ultimately upended by events orchestrated from afar. Inevitable because, in the end, we all know how this story ends, the sleepy varaš is ever altered, its Jewish population is all but decimated, and its national identity rewritten. However, unwinding the story as he does, employing careful repetition, connecting events and characters forward and back in time, and gradually revealing a little more with each passage, Šarotar creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of poetic tension.

Central to the story is Franz Schwartz whom we first meet on the road to Sóbota. It has been almost exactly a year since he and his fellow Jewish citizens had been rounded up and sent off, the men to work themselves to death in camps, the women and children to more immediate termination. He knows he will never see his wife and son again, but having escaped the camp he has no place on earth to return to than the town where he was once a proud and successful retailer.

The cold, gaseous sphere hung motionless over the town. The houses, the plane trees and poplars that lined the streets, the bell towers, the man – all were left without shadow. The sharp, blinding light had painfully imprinted an image of the morning on the consciousness of Franz Schwartz. In a succession of short exposures, one after the other as if he was blinking his eyes, the pages of a large photo album were being turned inside him. He stood in the middle of the intersection, entirely alone.

Images of all the familiar streets, buildings and structures return to him, but he carries neither joy nor despair at the prospect of being back. The town has changed and he knows he cannot risk being seen until he gets his bearings.

Meanwhile, Budapest has recently fallen and the Hungarian occupation is on borrowed time. The small military unit presently housed at the Hotel Dobray, under the incompetent command of József Sárdy, secretary of the Office of the Special Military Tribunal, is despondent and all but defeated. They await the advancing Red Army with apprehension. About the only townsperson holding out optimism for the future is Josip Benko, the owner of the local meat factory, former mayor and indefatigable entrepreneur.

As the story unwinds, evidence of a network of complex emotions, complicated loyalties and chronological connections begins to emerge. When the narrative eventually slips back to April of 1944, Franz’s family background and the heartbreaking magnitude of his loss is illuminated. Piece by piece a portrait of the slow motion tragedy that spread over this part of central Europe is brought to life. It is, at once, part of a much larger story and yet distinct and, to the author, inherently personal.

The power of this tale lies in the telling. The somber but lyrical narrative is allowed, when needed, to “creep along like a low-flowing river.” Words are chosen carefully, emotions are numbed, stifled sounds speak volumes. The strains of a song that can no longer be sung or performed permeates the memories of a number of the characters. The music of silence is a recurring motif.

The omniscient, distanced third person perspective of the all-seeing eye only serves to heighten the emotional intensity. Šarotar masterfully maintains this intensity, letting it reverberate like the a violin strung too tight, right through to the end, as all the threads and stories are wound together but ultimately left unresolved, hanging in the air. He ends his narrative with a timeless, unanswerable question. One that, as nationalism is making a resurgence, we would do well to attend to.

Billiards at the Hotel Dobray by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau, is published by Istros Books.

Innocence betrayed: My Father’s Dreams by Evald Flisar

Adolescence is, at the best of times, a period of turbulence. Hormones take over, driving hopes, desires and emotions. For Adam, the fourteen year-old narrator of My Father’s Dreams puberty becomes a twisted, surreal experience as he finds himself swept up in a world in which the line between dreams and reality becomes dangerously blurred. In this dark multi-faceted tale, Slovenian author Evald Flisar sets the stage for a story that is oddly out of time and place—a contemporary novel that evokes, in its backward rural setting and naive tone, a feeling of gothic horror or psychological drama that would be perfectly at home in the literature of the early twentieth century. But themes running through the narrative that are distinctly modern in their context and execution create an atmosphere that is eerily discordant and profoundly disturbing.

fathersdreamsAdam is a loner. He lives with his parents in a small rural village in an unnamed country. He describes his mother as shrill, over emotional and unduly concerned with social appearances. But he adores his father, the local doctor, unreservedly. He is the centre of his universe and he cannot imagine that he would ever cause him any harm. Adam spends his free time devouring books borrowed from his father’s library, a wide range of classic literature that runs the gamut from Zane Grey to Goethe to de Sade and Kafka and more. Not one to make friends easily, his sole confidant is his assumed brother Abortus, a jarred fetus who “lives” in his father’s secret laboratory in the basement of the health centre.

As puberty hits, Adam is increasingly beset by vivid dreams. He is unaware of just how odd and unnerving the content is until he allows it to fuel a school assignment. His teachers and his mother respond with shock. However, his rich dream life quickly becomes an object of fascination—or perhaps manipulation—for his father. Before long Adam finds that he is losing the ability to define the intersection of dreams and ordinary life:

. . . soon I was having too many dreams, and they began to suffocate me. Daily hallucinations merged with nightmares so imperceptibly that I was finding it harder and harder to draw the line between them. Afraid that I would sink in the burgeoning swamp of my own imagination, I began to flee in the direction of hard reality, grasping at anything that could be seen, felt, heard, or smelled. Soon I became so oversensitive that I registered the slightest rustle, the tiniest change in light, the least noticeable smell.

Over the course of the summer, the content of his dreams continue to haunt his days and nights. They regularly feature a familiar theme. Time after time he finds himself observing his father engaged in sexual activity with Eve, an attractive young teenaged girl from the city who is staying with her grandfather for the school holidays.

His father had warned him not to discuss his dreams, but encouraged him to record them. In his journals, Adam documents his thoughts and dreams which, with the blurring of his sense of reality, he has come to understand as being one and the same… the dream context granting immunity from the content of his thoughts which are peppered with images of sexual arousal and a desire for revenge against his parents. He quickly learns that these diaries are better kept hidden. And he has the perfect location—behind his jarred little brother, with whom he shares all of his secrets without reservation. With adults he is cautious to edit his responses to their queries about his dreams which are then subjected to Freudian and Jungian inspired debates. The only adult with whom he dares to approach an honest account is Eve’s kindly grandfather, who listens with a sharp concern that Adam notices but fails to appreciate.

During his strange dreams, Adam sometimes questions his ability to fall in and out of a hallucinatory state as well as his peculiar ability to exercise some agency, but he invariably seems to be able to assure himself that he is dreaming and, as a result, safe from any real danger. He continues to trust his father implicitly even when during an intentional “shared dream” proposed as a potential cure, he finds himself abandoned in a strange town with two young women:

The mist is now all around us, I can feel it on my cheeks; it is cold. The church clock delivers eleven strikes. There is no sign of Father. They are closing the inn, we have to leave. Like shadows we slink off along the the road leading into the centre of the town. It’s a very small town, almost a village. I am tired and sleepy. I am beginning to worry that Father might not return. Where will I sleep? It’s a strange thought, asking oneself where one will sleep in a dream, but the night is cold, and my worry is almost real. We roam around, passing houses, shuttered shops, and silent buildings. The church clock announces the time: half past midnight. And still there is no sign of Father.

Curiously (or not), the dreams involving his father and Eve cease as soon as the latter returns to the city in September. With autumn’s arrival his mother makes increased efforts to salvage the family, while his father’s behaviour becomes more erratic and threatening. Adam’s “dreams” begin to seem more like a protective psychological suggestion or even a defense mechanism evoked to cloud his perception of the events he observes or experiences. But again, he never openly contemplates this. His narrative, offered from a future perspective, looking back, belies a folkloric sense of innocence that cannot entirely be trusted. It casts a strange shadow across the work contributing to the odd tone. Dark topics such as addiction, suicide and pedophilia lurk at the heart of this tale amid the supernatural, surreal and grotesque elements. As a result the reader is left to navigate a slippery substrate that, even as tensions build to to a horrifying conclusion, refuses to yield to clear interpretation. The result is a complex, unnerving, unforgettable novel.

Novelist, playwright, essayist, and world traveler, Evald Flisar is one of Slovenia’s best known writers. Translated from the Slovene by the author and Alan McConnell-Duff, My Father’s Dreams is published by Istros Books. In their new collaboration with Peter Owen Publishers, they will be releasing Flisar’s Three Loves, One Death in November.

Twenty-first century flâneur in the German capital: Berlin by Aleš Šteger

‘Berlin separated me from my body. I searched for it as for a torn-off calendar page while scenes, streets, faces slowly migrated into me. Time doesn’t exist outside these streets, scenes and faces. Only in their lavish self-obliteration in space do hours acquire some meaning.’

Yesterday I spent a year in Berlin. I didn’t mean for the year to pass so swiftly, I intended, as has been suggested, to linger a little, take time to reflect, to let the sense of place sink in. But I could not refrain from inhaling the city in one fevered sitting. I walked, for a few hours, in the company of Aleš Šteger, a modern day flâneur, shadowing Walter Benjamin, through the German capital, experiencing it with an outsider’s eye and a poet’s soul – at once filtered and enhanced – emerging at the end, altered as only one can be, from the chance not just to visit but to inhabit a foreign space for a period of time.

2016-04-16 18.26.37Berlin is a collection of short stories, very short in fact, that emerged from a year that the Slovenian writer spent in the city. Illustrated with Šteger’s own black and white photographs, these stories, two to three page single-paragraph pieces, tread the blurred line between fiction and essay, prose and poetry, and contain some of the most arresting urban imagery I have ever encountered in such a tight and concise format. With themes that run from the extravagant, to the insightful, to the mundane; this collection holds fast to the spirit of the epigraph from the German poet Durs Grünbein that opens the book:

‘Essentially every city is merely an extension of your own room, you are never entirely homeless/ . . . /The ideal city, which I see in all cities, is nothing but the brain turned inside out.’

Thus it is a book explicitly about Berlin, but implicitly about every city. Native son Walter Benjamin is a clear and present inspiration, and Bertolt Brecht figures, but a range of literary ghosts from antiquity through to the present day, visit the city through Šteger’s imagination. Their voices slide through German, into Slovenian, and back, in the book at hand, into English. The play of language is critical, it marks the experience of the outsider who not only shifts meanings but translates currencies, cultures and habits as he or she dwells in a strange place. In “Crack Berlin”, a story whose title refers to the map-like system of cracks running across the ceiling of an apartment bedroom, the narrator rests in the poetic arms of Ingeborg Bachmann to sketch out his space in this, his temporary home:

‘Translating words, I carry them from German into Slovenian, break them, spin them, just like I spin the map of Berlin, it turns me, searches me, moves me from place to place. The words of someone who died the year when I was born. Words of despair in some city, which has the same name as the city in which I am now alone. Words of despair and loss, which could also be mine, which could be from everyone.’

Berlin is as much a book about a city as it is a book about the language of being. Placing oneself in a foreign place, be it for a week or a year, and finding in the resulting otherness an ability to be present to the moment away from the routine demands of family, responsibility and commitments that pile up around us in those places we come to think of as home, can be an opportunity to open up to the small details, the sounds, the angle of light, and, yes, the people we might otherwise overlook.

Šteger, whose poetry collection The Book of Things, won the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) for poetry in 2011, is a sensitive observer of objects and emotions, and of the relation between the two. Items that he (or his narrators, though the two seem indistinguishable) covet beckon with the allure of a lover – he looks, he resists, he panics and purchases the moment it appears that his beloved might have another serious suitor. The anxiety that wells up when it appears that he has tarried too long is captured deliciously in “Flea Markets”: ‘I looked at the spot where the object of my desire had stood before and didn’t see it. I dawdled and glanced around me like an abandoned bride, melted butter, a cracked bell. And finally I spied a pair of its elegant legs jutting from beneath a pile of old records.’ His pride is beyond him when he rides the subway home seated on his precious purchase, an antique chair/chamber pot.

For those seeking stories with more conventional style and narrative arc, this collection may bemuse, even disappoint. However, the compulsive appeal of the pieces in Berlin, for this reader at least, is largely a function of form. The single paragraph first person narratives unfold with the rhythm and restless energy of incantations, whether Šteger’s alter ego is observing animals in the zoo, describing an infestation of ladybugs in his apartment, or speculating about the potential, in a city of museums, for the creation of a museum of museum guards. His Berlin is a city marked by the wounds of war, bearing the scars and the monuments of its divided history. As a visitor from a land more recently ravaged by war, Šteger is acutely sensitive to this element, but he resists dwelling there. His Berlin is more importantly a city of infinite detail, a play of light and shadows, an intersection of bakeries and kebab sellers, a point bound by countless threads to the rest of Europe and beyond – a central hub, a beating heart.

2016-04-17 20.51.08This is a slim volume. It can easily be read in one sitting. I found it impossible to tear myself away and reread several pieces along the way, simply to immerse myself in the flow of words, to marvel at the imagery. I read much of it aloud. It would, on the other hand, be suitable for a slower, contemplative read. Steger’s grainy black and white photographs capture the ordinary, the every day – the buildings, streets and, of course, things – that complement the view of the city that he, through his twenty-first century flâneur, experiences and brings to life. It is also worth noting that the thrity-one stories that comprise this book are translated by three translators, Brian Henry, and the team of Aljaž Kovać and Forrest Gander. Although an index at the end lists the stories and the translators, it is not evident in the reading a shift from one translator (or pair) to another.
This book is, deservedly, one of the longlisted nominees for the 2016 BTBA for fiction, standing, if nothing else, as an indication of the rich diversity of that list. This is a special and unique collection.

I would be remiss though, to end this review without offering a taste of “About Temples”, one the most unabashedly romantic entries in Berlin. It would be a cold booklovers heart that could not at least smile at this evocation of that most sacred of spaces granted the full force of Šteger’s playful fondness for religious metaphor:

‘After the tinkling of the front door, the entrant is delivered to the grace and disgrace of fallen literary demons smuggled back into heaven. He climbs humbly like some pilgrim, only two steps and he is already in the highest spheres. The air is pregnant with the smell of myrtle, bookbinding glue and dust, and before he realizes it, a shadow of an angel’s wing of one of the classics printed in small letters has stroked him. Whoever enters must leave his reading, his literary snobbery, yes, even the power of credit, outside. Two spaces, two houses of prayer, from hell to heaven, nothing but books, books, books.’

What no love can heal: Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

Harmattan: A cold-dry trade wind that blows across the West African subcontinent from the Sahara to the Gulf of Guinea during the winter months bringing dust storms, low humidity and an increased risk of fire outbreaks. This is the trademark wind of the dry season.

dry-season-cover_54aff6fb99d92_250x800rAs Gabriela Babnik’s novel Dry Season opens, we find a 62 year-old Slovenian woman, Ana, lying in bed with a 27 year-old Bukinabé man, and it is immediately clear that her path to reclaim herself will defy conventions. But then, as we come to know her, we realize that she has long been resistant to the constraints of convention. Ana and the young man, Ismael, are not yet lovers, despite the fact that they awake in the same bed. Their first encounter is uncertain, tentative. Across the boundaries of age, race, class, and culture, they have been drawn to each other with their own dark histories lying twisted inside. As these two disparate individuals take turns addressing the reader – that is the most accurate way of describing the manner in which their stories are uncoiled – we gradually begin to learn more about their pasts and their feelings toward one another.

Ismael and his friend are targeting tourists to rob when he first spots Ana. He is drawn to her but does not see her as a potential mark; he does not sense that she is carrying much of monetary value. It is something else, though he is not entirely certain what that is. For Ana, her attraction to black men is rooted in an earlier time in her life: a chance encounter and subsequent affair with a Sudanese man that has left an unfilled and aching space in her memory. It is not clear that she knows, or is ready to confront, what she truly hopes this young man can heal in her:

“But this sleeping man in front of me was from another time. He had a god drawn on his face. I wanted to say that earlier but it slipped my mind. As I was walking toward him from the other side of the avenue, I felt a strong desire for him to touch the secret territory inside me. Ever since I gave birth thirty years ago, I knew I had to put it aside for a while. I mean touching the silky surface of blades of grass with my palm or licking honey slowly from a metal spoon and then looking at my face in it.”

Ana admits that she has literally walked out on her life in Ljubljana, a life she sees as reduced to the design of illustrated throw pillows, trapped an inherited house with a view of the garden. She is haunted by the suicide of her distant mother, the decline and end of her marriage, the return of her long absent father, and the descent into madness of her only child. Behind all of this is a persistent pain, a bitter groundlessness borne of the fact that she was adopted from an orphanage. It colours, perhaps even distorts, a sense of abandonment that no person, place or career can fill. Her escape to Africa is a deliberate attempt to fill this void.

As Ismael takes up his side of the narrative in turn, it becomes evident that these two unlikely lovers share some common demons. His father is unknown to him and this status defines him and his mother in the village in which they live. They are subject to open shaming and abuse until the day when they are finally rescued and removed to a longed for but equally uncertain life in the big city. They take up residence for a while with a man he calls Baba, and who becomes, over time, a sort of surrogate father whose albino son, Malik, will grow to be both a friend and a recklessly dangerous influence. But in the meantime, Ismael’s increasingly unstable mother will flee to the streets. Together they beg on the roadside and sleep under a bridge until his mother is suddenly killed when he is seven years old.

“Not long before they told me that a lorry had run her over – that it was really her, and not one of the night women or morning women – we had grown apart. Or maybe she had grown apart from me, I am not sure. It is possible that I was a burden to her. In our village seven-year-old boys are already responsible for themselves. They bite into green fruit, never meet their mama except in dreams, and eventually get used to her not being around and start paying attention to the things that are around.”

Suspended between an aborted childhood and a tenuous adulthood, Ismael seeks to fill the mother-shaped hole in his life through several women who look after him for a time. He is eager, hungry to learn to read and write, but his opportunities are limited by his circumstances. He drifts back to the street scene, takes on odd jobs, works for a while fixing up old cars, and eventually falls into the pattern of robbing tourists with his friend Malik. Ana is, for him, a respite, possibly even a path out of a life marked by poverty, loneliness, neglect, and extreme brutality.

Dry Season is, in no small way, a sharp break from what one might expect from the literature of a small central European country. Eschewing a linear narrative and conventional storytelling, we are confronted with an unusual blend of metafictional devices – the fact that the action is occurring within the context of a novel is evoked repeatedly, as is a magical realism common in so much African literature, as a way of seeing and accepting ghosts and magic in the world. It is not the Balkan Wars but the tumultuous recent history of Burkina Faso that forms the critical political backdrop. Sex and sexuality are presented with an overt frankness, from the innocent masturbatory explorations of a young boy to the full fleshed desires and needs of a mature woman. Loneliness drives both Ana and Ismael to seek refuge in one another’s bodies, where they find, for a time at least, an intensely passionate release.

The open relationship between a white woman and a black man less than half her age does not go unnoticed on the streets of Ouagadougou. Ana, as the outsider, is forced to confront the reality of the African society against the mythology that has drawn her to the continent and into Ismael’s arms. Once the veil begins to drop in the aftermath of an attack on a cab in which they were riding, she says:

“I was wrong about you, Ismael. I thought you were a quiet, withdrawn fellow, who still walks in a world of timelessness, of gods, of moral certainties and natural laws, and even such constraints as religion and gender, but now I see you are one of them, one of the bandits.”

He counters:

“I am not what you think. I am a man who walks on a reddish road, the man you saw from the cab. I saw you seeing him. You thought, how backward they are, poor things, they learn on the ground, make love on the ground, eat off the ground, but that ground, that earth, which you take in your hand and let crumble through your fingers, it is all we have.”

She finds herself relying on the assistance of street children, who in turn taunt and mock her. She depends so closely on Ismael to be her guide and protector that she easily loses her way in his absence. The risks that they both ultimately face are significant and potentially devastating. There is no escape to a magical wonderland. Especially when the true trauma, the denied reality, lies inside rather than outside of the person longing to escape.

This novel is a demanding and startlingly rewarding read. Both Ana and Ismael have stories that they urgently need to share, that are weighing them down. Both stories contain hidden corners that must be turned, secrets that are difficult to bear. The narrative threads move back and forth in time, building on past experiences repeatedly to flesh out more detail. The novel that is being created in the present moment, if you will, becomes a space of self-examination and revelation for the two narrators. The separate strands become entwined, creating the effect of a tightly braided cord that then begins to fray as the relationship falls apart. The magic fades but the telling grows increasingly surreal, leading up to an exhilarating and shocking revelation in the final pages.

Another stunning release from UK-based Istros Books, Dry Season will be released on November 16, 2015.

This review has been posted on the blog of the Free Word Centre in London.

In partnership with Istros Books, the Free Word Centre is hosting an evening with Gabriela Babnik and translator Rawley Grau on Monday, November 9, 2015. See details here.

Caught in a vicious circle: Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnović

As Yugoslavia, My Fatherland, the intensely powerful new release from Istros Books opens, it is the summer of 1991 and 11 year-old Vladan Borojević has, to date, enjoyed an almost idyllic existence in the seaside town of Pula. He and his young friends view the realm of adults as something separate, of interest only if someone is missing an arm or leg, or sports a long beard, excessive tattoos or some other particular curiosity. None of them are aware of the deep seated tensions within their native Yugoslavia that are about to start to fracture and begin a long, bloody period of unrest that will ultimately tear the uneasy Socialist state apart. On the day that he and his friends find the local men gathered around the TV set shouting at the politicians on the screen with an intensity normally reserved only for critical sports matches, Vladan senses something is amiss. His anxiety increases when his father arrives home looking empty and distracted:

“My father never drank at work, and I heard him say, countless times, that only in Yugoslavia would people drink more while at work than after work, and that this would send the country to an early grave. But that day he held me so powerfully in his muscled arms that I thought, in all seriousness, that he must be drunk.”

Vladan’s father Nedelko, of Serbian background, is a proud member of the Yugoslav People’s Army. His mother is a strong willed Slovenian woman, who, against her parents’ wishes, left her homeland and married her young soldier. The stirrings of political insurgency put an immediate end to their happy domestic life in Pula as Nedelko is seconded and the family is moved to a hotel in Belgrade. When it becomes clear that this little trouble is not about to just blow over, Vladan’s father disappears from his life. He and his mother will eventually end up in Slovenia, and within a few years news will come that his father, now a General, has died. Or so he is led to believe.

yugoslavia-my-fatherland_5595627fccf62_250x800rSeventeen years on, Vladan is still living in Ljubljana, Slovenia, but restless and unable to find his footing. He tosses his father’s name into Google. What he discovers turns his fragile world upside down. General Borojević is not dead, but rather he is a fugitive, wanted for war crimes. Rattled by this news Vladan sets out to find his father tracing a trail that links figures from his father’s past, a relative, an assumed identity, and clues to where he lived or may yet be. When his search leads him back close to home, the bits and pieces he gathers raise even more questions, and force him to look deeply inside himself to determine if he even wants the answers he had craved.

This is one of the most impassioned novels I have read in a long time. The author, Goran Vojnović, is a Slovenian poet, screen writer, and film director. He draws on this background to roll out a complex story that deftly weaves back and forth in time, negotiating the highly charged ethnic and geographic divisions that have long defined and divided the Balkan region. With Vladan he has created a recognizable, contemporary narrator who welcomes the reader into his journey with a mixture of vulnerability and wry humour. Traveling on the cheap in a car that just barely manages to cough from point A to point B, his descriptions are often priceless, like this stop at a roadside café:

“I sat at a table covered in a white cloth, as well as aged coffee stains, which lay over an even dirtier red tablecloth. A plastic ashtray sat in the middle, alongside a vase containing plastic flowers from the Yugoslav Mesozoic period. I had to wait, of course, to earn the right to pay for a sour coffee, hand-mixed with a disposable thin plastic spoon, amidst this particular ambience. It was my first time in such a setting.”

Whether he is looking back to his troubled childhood and adolescent years and his increased alienation from his mother, or looking forward to what truths may or may not lie ahead; his emotions are painfully open and honest. Even if he sometimes leans toward the melodramatic, it is hard to resist being pulled into his account of a life torn apart twice over and the pain of the very difficult dilemma he will ultimately face.

Yugoslavia, My Fatherland tells a multi-layered tale. The tragic dissolution of the Borojević family is traced out against the trauma and conflict that would rend the states of the Balkan region apart and still threatens further division in certain areas. He encounters many who bear wounds too deep to heal. But it is much more than that. Questions of personal and national identity are central. Vladan is not only seeking an understanding of himself and his relationship to his ethnic heritage, but he is striving to reconcile his memory of a loving father with a fugitive war criminal. A very human longing for closure and healing drives him to seek out and confront the man who used to be his father, whoever he is. However, somewhere along the way he will have to stop to measure the costs and decide what he is willing to risk.

Translated from the Slovene by Noah Charney, Yugoslavia, My Fatherland is original, ambitious in scope, and another welcome addition to the catalogue of independent UK publisher Istros Books.