An explosion of strong female voices. Balkan Bombshells: Contemporary Women’s Writing from Serbia and Montenegro compiled and translated by Will Firth

First we meet Marijana, the daughter of a farmer who imagines a fantasy encounter with “A Man Worth Waiting For,” someone to sweep her off her feet, knowing well that the first facsimile of a “hard-working young fellow with house, land and cattle”—be that a forester with a cabin in the woods—who asks for her father’s permission to marry her will be sufficient to send her packing. Dreams will be put aside. Then we find ourselves in the midst of a feminist folkloric horror tale, followed by excerpts from an emotionally charged diary. And these three pieces, by Bojana Babić, Marijana Čanak and Marjana Dolić respectively, simply mark the beginning of a journey through some of the rich fictional landscapes envisioned by contemporary Serbian and Montenegrin women writers.

Anthologies can have many points of origin. This collection, Balkan Bombshells is, as compiler and translator Will Firth admits, the “fruit of happenstance.” The idea of an anthology was first suggested during a month-long stay in Belgrade afforded by a travel scholarship. An initial selection of short prose pieces by women from Serbia was made with the support of the KROKODIL Centre for Contemporary Literature and the organizers of the Biber contest for socially engaged short fiction. However, to ensure he’d have sufficient material for a book-length project, the scope was expanded to include the neighbouring, historically linked, country of Montenegro where Firth had many connections. The resulting multi-generational anthology of Serbian-Montenegrin prose is a collection of seventeen powerful pieces from both established and newer authors, many of whom are appearing in English for the first time. All of the writers are working in the language formerly referred to as Serbo-Croat(ian) that is now often described with the acronym BCMS (Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian).

The stories gathered here, several of which are excerpts from longer works, feature a variety of voices and styles, a diversity that is highlighted by the organization by alphabetical order rather than region or theme. Many of the pieces afford snapshots into the lives of women caught in difficult situations, facing the dismal options available to them in working class communities or chafing against the traditional values of their parents. There is humour, Jelena Lengold’s “Do You Remember Me?” being a notable example that also calls attention to the loneliness of middle-aged city dwellers, and tales that are disturbing, strange and sad. As one moves through the collection there is a welcome, often unexpected freshness to each piece, perhaps because most of the authors are, as yet, not widely known outside their home countries. Three, including Lengold have been published by this collection’s publisher, Istros Books, but there are many I would love to see more from.

There are so many strong entries, but I was especially impressed by the metafictional “Zhenya” and the two more explicitly political pieces. Lena Ruth Stefanović’s smart and funny “Zhenya” begins in a backward village in Russia (the author studied Russian literature in Belgrade, Sofia and Moscow) but becomes, in the end, as the narrator/author openly imagines a possible future for her protagonists, as the most decidedly Montenegrin:

First, I’ll send them to my motherland, Montenegro, to warm up after the Russian winter. I’ll ask my parents to welcome Zhenya and Vova and to treat them as guests in our hearty, homey way.

Then I’ll send them on an excursion to Bari to pay homage to the relics of St. Nicholas, and maybe I’ll go along myself.

Along the way, a Russian flavoured fable is transformed into a vibant commentary about the evolving identity and literature of the people of Montenegro.

The most political offering comes, unsurprisingly perhaps, from the most established of the authors, Svetlana Slapšak, a writer, editor, anthropologist and activist with over seventy books to her name. Her story, “I’m Writing to You from Belgrade” is set in Toronto, where an immigrant family learn of the death of Slobodan Milošević. The protagonist and her husband respond to the news:

‘There will be no relief,’ Milica said. ‘But I’m afraid there will be fear because he died without being brought to justice…’

‘What difference does that make to us?’ Goran said after a brief silence. ‘The country we once lived in no longer exists. We have to tend to our memories so they don’t disappear in a puff of smoke, and that’s very hard here. Do you sometimes feel we’ve sailed to a distant shore, from which there’s no return?’

Later, while her daughter and husband debate the news, Milica reads a long email from a friend and former lover who is passing through the altered remains of their former homeland, observing the immediate response to Milošević’s death on the ground. It’s an incredibly effective, well-written approach to the complex emotions of exile raised the distant tremors of history and politics.

Finally, my favourite piece in Balkan Bombshells is political in a smaller, infinitely human manner. “Smell” by Milica Rošić is a short poetic tale about memory, the pain of war and the spiritual bond between three generations of women, Alma, Almina and Ina, or as the narrator runs her name together with that of her mother and daughter—Almaalminina. Grandmother and granddaughter never knew each other, the former died enroute to the border during the war long before Ina was born. A sudden and natural death, but one that leaves Almina with no option but to ask the soldiers to abandon her mother’s body in the forest. It is an action perfectly aligned with the character of her pragmatic mother, but one with its own lingering pain. “I cried like the rain” is her sorrowful refrain. But there is an unspoken, innate thread binding Ina to Alma without her mother’s direct intervention. Such a beautiful, poignant little tale.

So often anthologies, with all the best intentions, run the risk of collapsing under their own weight. This collection, even with seventeen contributors, only runs to 143 pages, offering just enough to give a reader an entertaining and intriguing introduction to a wide range of Serbian and Montenegrin women writers who will, with luck, reach a broader audience in translation over the years to come.

Balkan Bombshells: Contemporary Women’s Writing from Serbia and Montenegro is compiled and translated by Will Firth and published by Istros Books. More information about the authors included, see the publisher’s website.

Melancholy is what defines us: Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić

The Una is a 212 km long river that winds its way across Bosnia and Herzegovina, forming at times, a natural boundary between that country and Croatia. Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić’s EU Prize winning novel, Quiet Flows the Una, allows the passage of this river – gentle and violent as the seasons turn – to carry the narrative of his burdened protagonist as he seeks to heal his troubled past.

1024px-Una(Bih)

“Here at the beginning, it would make sense for me to go back to our origins: to the water we’re made of and the swirling currents of the underwater epic, where I’ll hearken to the anarchist trout and their fulsome chatter. You’ll find out later why the trout are anarchist. ‘Fulsome chatter’ is Rimbaud, I’ll be a hypnotized boat, and the rivers will carry me wherever I wish.”

UnaAlthough the term is frequently evoked, rightly or wrongly, this is a novel that can truly be called hypnotic in the absolute sense of the term. The narrator has surrendered to the direction and influence of a fakir during a sideshow hypnosis session, allowing his thoughts, reflections and memories to be pulled to the surface and recounted under the hypnotist’s guidance. Our Bosnian protagonist, Mustafa Husar, is a haunted man, his wounds run deep – the war and his role in it have sundered the continuity of his existence. To bridge the rift between the leisurely days of his youth and his new life amid the shattered remnants of a world where he is trying to find his adult footing, he knows that he must uncover and bring to light the dark memories that rest uneasily beneath the scars that mark his face and body. By revisiting the bleak, brutal years of the Balkan wars – facing the crimes he witnessed and those he perpetrated – he hopes to find some measure of redemption.

The progress of this novel is not chronological. The narrative, which reads like an extended prose poem, dips in and out of seasons; moves between scenes of idyllic childhood reverie, accounts of wartime brutality, and images of postwar destruction and loss. The river is a persistent presence, it carries the the story. Its relentless flow and the creatures, both natural and supernatural, that inhabit its green waters form the landscape and the mythology by which the young protagonist learns to understand himself. Along the way, his journey is accented with literary and pop culture references – he is a budding poet, he is an earthbound spaceman. And even when the war takes him away from his hometown and the river on which it is anchored, nature is never far from his imagination. Here, for example, his account captures the fragile coexistence of faint beauty and coarse ugliness:

“The sun shone through the leaves covered with transparent-green aphids. It rarely reached the ground, where brown leaves lay rotting in the mud and puddles. Imprints of soldiers’ boots plotted pastel labyrinths, with our lives and deaths in the centre. Our camp lay between wet, forested hills in two valleys connected by gravel paths like spilled intestines. . . . The wind brought whiffs of shit and piss from the latrines on the sides of the hills, where fat white maggots multiplied in the slush. Mosquitoes slept like brooches pinned to the boards of those outhouses, satiated with our blood. A cow with deformed hips hobbled around in the large clearing where we used to line up for the flag salute in the mornings. Its meat ended up in the goulash we had straight before one raid.”

Quiet Flows the Una is an unapologetic indictment against war. The complexities and atrocities that marked the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia are woven into the narrative, even if the narrator sometimes affects a stance of emotional remoteness when he recounts his own involvement and ambivalence. His emotions are messy and conflicted. In the end, war reduces action to a matter of survival. He is haunted by a phantom self, an evil force that lurks beneath his wounded skin that, when given voice, spews contempt for the past and a life now lying in ruin, leaving his host with a feeling he vividly describes “as if someone is tattooing you on the inside, on the walls of your internal organs.”

As he grapples with the demons he carries, our protagonist occasionally slips briefly in and out of his hypnotic trance. His persistent efforts to articulate the dark, chaotic details of his experiences during the years of the Balkan War are accompanied by dreamlike, fantastic threads that meander like tributaries off the main narrative flow and by the whimsical illustrations of Aleksandra Nina Knežević that offer a striking visual commentary. The result is an insistent, engaging tale – a celebration of the simple pleasures of childhood, a memorial to the many towns of the region that have been reduced to rubble twice over, and an intimate portrait of a war that pitted neighbour against neighbour, divided along ethnic and religious lines. If there is meaning to be found once the dust of the destroyed buildings has settled, if redemption is to be achieved, Mustafa realizes that it will be found through words:

“I secluded myself among books and other beloved fetishes, and dust collected on them to warn me of the fragility of matter. As soon as you make a world, a house or a hut of sticks, it is doomed to failure; it was already doomed back when it was a black and white sketch in your head. That’s why I began to believe in words. They cannot be destroyed. If you erase them, they come back. Words float in front of your eyes and won’t retreat from the front line. If you set fire to them, they will burn with even greater ardour in your memory, and no memory-wipers like alcohol or narcotics will get rid of them. Words are above destruction. If you erase them, they’re right back on the tip of your tongue again.”

Faruk Šehić was born in Bihac in 1970, and grew up in Bosanska Krupa, a town straddling the Una in what was, at the time, still part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He was studying veterinary medicine in Zagreb when war broke out in 1992. He voluntarily joined the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina in which he led a unit of 130 men. After the war, he turned his attention to the study of literature, publishing his first collection of poems in 2000. He has frequently drawn on his wartime experiences to inform his poetry and short fiction. Šehić lives and works in Sarajevo. His debut novel, Quiet Flows the Una (Knjiga o Uni), originally released in 2011, is now available from Istros Books in a crisp, lyrical translation by Will Firth.

An official launch featuring a discussion with the author will be held at the Headquarters of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, UK on March 31, 2016.

Time, space, and truth: Till Kingdom Come by Andrej Nikolaidis

“Windows, even those with heavy shutters, were no help against the rain. It came with a wild westerly one moment and with a sirocco the next, constantly changed the angle at which it fell, attacking now frontally, now from the side, until it had crept through every invisible opening in the walls and woodwork. In their rooms, people made barriers of towels and babies’ nappies beneath the windows. When they were sodden they would be wrung out in the bathroom and quickly returned to the improvised dykes.

Roofs let through water like a poorly controlled national border. Like in a bizarre game of chess, families pulled out pots and pans across the floor: Casserole to f3, frying pan to d2.”

till-kingdom-come_5595626c38d7b_250x800rAs befits its title, Till Kingdom Come – the latest novel by Montenegrin author Andrej Nikolaidis’, his third to be released in English by London based indie publisher Istros Books – opens with a deluge of Biblical proportions. The heavens above the historically rich tourist town of Ulcinj have unleashed an extended season of torrential and relentless rain. As water rushes down the streets and seeps through walls and floorboards, the reader is quickly introduced to the narrator, a freelance journalist, a man who faces the world with reserved and stoic humour. Or so it seems. But then nothing is what it seems, and for our poor narrator most of all.

It soon becomes apparent that our hero has long suffered from periodic lapses in temporal/spatial reality. He has been known to just drift off, seeming to have lost consciousness to those around him, while he finds himself in some distant country or city previously strange to him that he suddenly knows intimately, until he wakes up back where he started. This dissociative tendency which has haunted him for years has left him with a rather slippery sense of self that, more than anything, seems to engender an abiding sense of ambivalence. That is, until the arrival of a man claiming to be his uncle causes him to have reason to doubt the veracity of his entire existence. He had believed that his mother was dead and he was raised by his grandmother, a belief supported with stories, photographs, a history and an unusual Jewish name. Discovering that his past was faked, sets him off on a passionate journey of speculation and self discovery, assistsed by a police inspector, directed by an anonymous email source and fueled by an obsessive fascination with serial killers and conspiracy theories.

Biting in intensity, taking broad political and historical swipes at medieval and modern history – poking the bones of Oliver Cromwell and stirring up the horrors of the Balkan War – Nikolaidis is in fine form, building upon and expanding the canvases he painted in his previously translated works, The Coming and The Son. Ah yes, Thomas Bernhard would be proud. Yet, for its sarcastic humour, metafictional wanderings through Red Lion Square in London and up the stairs of Conway Hall to the tiny second story office of Istros Books, and the endless speculations about the role of the black arts in the exceptional acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by mankind that have littered history; Till Kingdom Come is a starkly serious book. The narrator exists on a plane of his own, while his friends succumb to pressure of feeling too much, of being unable to cope with a world that is fundamentally uncaring. As he muses at one point:

“Alas, there is only one happy ending – the Apocalypse – even if it is only a promise. Everything else is just an open ending, a continuous series of open endings, whose resolution not only resolves nothing but further complicates already unbearably complicated things.”

For my money, Till Kingdom Come is a more mature and demanding work than The Coming and The Son, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Nikolaidis is a highly political journalist and here he is clearly intent to skewer politics and economics with more direct, at times shocking, barbs. The Bernhard inspired intensity of The Son is dialed back a little while the historical diversions that provided an intriguing counter commentary to The Coming have been worked back into the narrative. As in these first two Istros releases, translator Will Firth captures the mood and intensity seamlessly. And, on an entirely personal note, it was a delight to see Red Lion Square and the Istros Books office worked into the text. However when I visited this summer I did not magically find myself strolling down Oxford Street. I got hopelessly lost and had to be rescued from the Tube Station by the editor herself, but then London on a map and London on the ground for someone who has never been there is, well, a metaphysical rather than metafictional experience to say the least!

Red Lion Square, London UK Copyright JM Schreiber 2015
Red Lion Square, London UK
Copyright JM Schreiber 2015

The detective and the end of the world: The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis

If you are a bit of a news junkie like I am, there is a lot of bad news on our TV screens and computers each day. Violent political upheaval, deadly viruses, floods and fires. But it is scattered and for so many of us our complaints are relatively minor, isolated. What if the signs suddenly started to rapidly multiply and spread across continents and communities. Would it herald the end of the world? Would we know or even agree on the meaning of the signs? Assign them to God, reduce them to science?

Translated by Will Firth Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America
Translated by Will Firth
Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America

The Coming, a wonderful novella by Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis explores such questions from a rather unconventional perspective. Our hero is a private detective, a small town Philip Marlowe based in the ancient city of Ulcinj. He finds himself most comfortable providing his clients with the answers they want, regardless of whether or not he even manages to find the truth behind a crime or infidelity. This approach makes him popular with the locals who prefer to approach him  rather than the authorities. Consequently the quiet life he seems to desire tends to allude him. As the book opens he has become obsessed with the particularly brutal murder of an entire family which appears to have coincided with the burning of the local library.

Yet even stranger phenomena begin to threaten his routine. Snow starts to fall in June and does not let up. Around the world catastrophes – earthquakes, floods, raining amphibians – are reported with alarming intensity. Is this the Apocalypse, is the Second Coming finally at hand?

For our poor detective who faces this most peculiar string of circumstances with cynical humour and frustration, there is an added factor. Emmanuel, a child he fathered during a brief affair with an irresistible client, is now grown and has tracked him down from an asylum in the Alps where he has been confined after some serious mental breakdown. Through a series of emails Emmanuel shares details of his childhood with the father he has never met and offers his curious knowledge of messianic mystics, millennial cults and numerous attempts to calculate the date of the end of the world throughout western history. Perhaps because he himself has a mental illness, Emmanuel interprets the reported behaviours of many cult members or their charismatic, wildly erratic leaders in reference to what would be probable modern psychiatric diagnoses.

For myself, personally, in the months that followed my diagnosis with bipolar, I struggled to make sense of the role of my illness in the intensely spiritual experiences that I had periodically encountered growing up. During full blown psychosis, I could imagine that the frantic notions that I had the answer to the meaning of life were indeed in keeping with mania. I had the cramped and panicked nonsensical documents to prove it. But what about the earlier visions and spiritual experiences? Far less dramatic, frequently beautiful, these moments had filled me with such an assurance of the existence of God that I completed an honours degree in philosophy without once being troubled by any ontological questions. I could argue for or against the existence or nature of God while my own personal spirituality remained intact.

However, as I started to read about psychotic symptoms, I began to recognize similar features in the visions of Biblical prophets, the martyrdom of saints, the trance states of mystics and other ostensibly spiritual experiences. I could not divorce my own experiences from an underlying framework of biochemistry. My sense of personal faith crumbled.

Over the years as I have watched good people of faith rejected by their churches following mental breakdowns, I have been increasingly concerned by the double standard. After all who draws the line between mystical vision and clinical madness?

The Coming sees no need to draw those distinctions. I loved the way the pragmatic emails from the detective’s estranged son reach out to a world that may well be facing its final hours with the observation that the human desire for an Apocalypse can be compared to our urge to fast forward through a detective movie because we can’t wait to see how it ends.

We want answers – but we those answers to come from God or from science, not from the visions of those who are determined to be not in their right minds.