I discovered Danilo Kiš recently and I decided that it was time to read my first Danilo Kiš book. ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘ is the book of his which is easy to find in English translation and so I got that first and read it today.

The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘ has nine short stories. Most of them are are around ten pages long, a couple of them are longer, and one at forty pages is the longest. They are all on different topics, though Kiš himself says that his book has an overall metaphysical theme. My favourite story in the book was the title story, ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘. It is about a woman who ends up in a library in the middle of the night and the amazing things she discovers there. A woman in a library who comes face-to-face with infinity – totally Borgesian isn’t it? 😊 There is another Borgesian story called ‘The Book of Kings and Fools‘ which tries to discover the origin of a mysterious book. It made me think of Borges’ ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius‘. Another of my favourite stories was ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Head‘ (needs a change of title in my opinion). In this story an unknown woman writes a letter to someone explaining some mysteries. It made me think of my favourite Stefan Zweig stories. Other favourite stories were ‘Pro Patria Mori‘ which is beautiful and heartbreaking and ‘Simon Magus‘ which is about a person who does miracles like Jesus, but who preaches against Jesus’ disciples. One of my favourite passages from the book was from a story called ‘The Legend of the Sleepers‘, which is inspired by resurrection legends from Roman times and from the Koran. That passage goes like this.

“Was it a dream? Was it the dream of a sleepwalker, a dream within a dream, and hence more real than a real dream, since it cannot be measured against waking, since it cannot be measured by consciousness, because it is a dream from which one awakens into another dream? Or was it a god-like dream, a dream of time and eternity? A dream without illusions and doubts, a dream with its own language and senses, a dream of both soul and body, a dream of consciousness and corporality both, a dream with clear-cut boundaries, with its own language and sound, a dream that is palpable, that can be explored with taste, smell, and hearing, a dream stronger than waking, a dream such as only the dead perhaps can dream, a dream that cannot be denied by a razor nicking your chin, for blood flows at once, and everything you do is further proof of reality and waking; skin and heart bleed alike in the dream, the body rejoices in the dream a does the soul, the only miracle in this dream is life itself; awakening from this dream means awakening into death.”

The book has an introduction by Danilo Kiš’ biographer Mark Thompson, which tells us more about Danilo Kiš and his work. The introduction is interesting but it has the flaw that most introductions have these days. It summarizes all the stories. So it is better to read the introduction after you read the book. The thing I liked more was the postscript that Danilo Kiš has provided at the end of the book. In that, Kiš describes how each of the stories came about, and it clarifies things that we might not have understood while reading a particular story. After reading the postscript, we are tempted to go back and read some of the stories again in new light.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Encyclopedia of the Dead‘. I am glad I read my first Danilo Kiš book. Hoping to explore more of his work soon.

Have you read this book or other books by Danilo Kiš?

After reading Jelena Lengold’s wonderful short story collection ‘Fairground Magician‘, I wanted to explore more of her work. The only other book of hers available in English translation was her novel ‘Baltimore‘. So I decided to read that.

Baltimore‘ starts with our narrator, who is a forty-something woman living in Belgrade, looking at her computer everyday afternoon. She has somehow managed to hook up to a camera in Baltimore, Maryland. And she waits for a young man, who comes at a specific time everyday, and waits for the bus, and boards it when it arrives. She makes up imaginary stories about him and even has a name for him. The second part of the chapter is about a woman who is of similar age, who meets her therapist and talks about her problems. We are taken deeply into this therapy session during this section. Both these women look like the same person – the voice is similar, their age is similar, their moms look similar. So we conclude, it is the same person. The first section of a chapter sometimes assumes a Dostoevskian shape. Our narrator shares her thoughts on life, which was one of my favourite parts of the book. She then proceeds to describe events from her life which serve as examples which prove the truth of her views on life. I loved this structure. In one of these chapters, the narrator talks about how once she stopped going to work, became silent and refused to talk to anyone, but did the household chores and kept things running, and every morning, after her husband went to work, she took a book and went to a park and read for most of the day (sometimes she went to the park to crochet and watch children play) and how it made her happy, while her family thought that it was strange and she was not well. I loved that chapter and it made me smile, because I did that once. I didn’t go silent, but I quit my job and went to the cafe in the morning and read for the whole day there. I carried this on for a while, and I loved it and it made me happy, but others thought it strange. Towards the end of the book, all the different story strands come together (or do they? You have to read the book to find out 😊) and there is even a surprise (it was a surprise atleast to me), and the ending was interesting.

Baltimore‘ had everything that Jelena Lengold’s readers look forward to, in her stories – a little dreamy surrealism, the occasional erotica, a kick-ass main character who speaks her mind (the book starts with these lines – “Let’s get something clear first : If this is going to be one of those stories in which everyone is nice and polite, then we’d better stop now. I would like to tell you everything about everything, and there is so much to say. You get that, don’t you? When you want to say it all, not everyone can be pleasant and polite. Least of all me.” How can we not fall in love with the narrator after reading that?), the profound commentary on contemporary life which is almost Dostoevskian in depth, and lots of quotable passages. I enjoyed reading it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“I don’t know exactly when I made the decision not to have children. Or if it even was a decision or just one of those things you keep putting off indefinitely, knowing full well the time that you have is limited. Maybe only fifteen, twenty years at the most. And then, you suddenly realize that the decision is no longer up to you. You definitely can’t have them, even if you wanted to. Stories like: A woman in India gave birth at the age of sixty! Both mother and infant are healthy and doing fine…. You somehow know this doesn’t apply to you and that this is just a newspaper article. Was this another one of those decisions I tend to make for the sole purpose of making myself feel bad? Either way, that’s how it turned out. It’s not that bad for now. We have our time. And time is one of the rare things a person can actually have. We have our afternoons and our weekends. We have order in our kitchen and neatly stacked shelves. We never had to use the washing machine twice a day because of dirty diapers. Nor did we have to get out of bed ten times during the night. You don’t think that’s really a plus? Okay. Maybe you’re right. I’m just presenting my arguments. Your family and friends resign themselves to the idea when you reach your late thirties. This is when they definitely lose all hope. But, there are always those times when you need to get your hair done. In hair salons, most of the talk is about children. Photographs are taken out. Pregnant women get their hair done out of turn. There’s mention of C-sections, pelvic births, measles, baby-teeth are shown around, and sometimes even the children are brought in to get their hair cut with their mothers, at which time we all have to sigh and cry oh, he’s so cute and swear the child is the spitting image of its mother. I’ve yet to see a woman who comes into a salon and talks about her ill mannered, full-grown child. I’ve never heard a woman talk about how her son had to repeat a grade, as she was getting a perm. Or how he robbed a corner store. Or how he started taking drugs. Or how he beat up a neighbor. Or how he can’t get into college. Or how he moved to another continent and calls only once a year, just to ask for money. In a hair salon, children exist solely in their angelic form. A form that only gives rise to plain, unadulterated envy. A form which makes you want to get out of there, with the curlers still in your hair, but not before you apologize to everyone for being there, even though you’re not worthy of their company. Because they, these women, know something that you don’t. And they have felt something you never will. They are a family. You are a couple, at the most.”

Have you read ‘Baltimore‘? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read T.H.White’sThe Goshawk‘ ever since I discovered that Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’ was inspired by it. I finally got to read it today.

Sometime in the 1930s, T.H.White quits his job as a schoolteacher, moves to the countryside, and gets a goshawk, which is a type of hawk, and tries to train it. As a guide, he uses a hawk training manual written in 1619, which is clearly outdated. He describes this experience in this book. There are two parts to the book. One part is about how White trains the hawk. The second part is the one in which he describes the personality of the hawk, his relationship to the hawk, and delves into the history of hawk training, and takes digressions into literature, like when he describes how falconry / hawk training is embedded in some of Shakespeare’s plays. The first part was filled with a deluge of details which would be of interest to a fan of falconry. I was lukewarm towards it. I loved the second part. It was beautiful. Of course, the two parts are not clearly split, but are interwoven together like the warp and weft which make a fabric. So White will be talking about how he is training his hawk and I’ll find that hard to read and will be wondering when it will end and whether I should continue reading the book, when suddenly, there will be a page on the history of falconry or on how his hawk regarded him with contempt and he couldn’t do anything about it, and I’ll smile and will continue reading.

The book had these legendary lines –

“But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird.”

To train a person who was not human, but a bird” – how beautiful is that?

I loved the places in which White describes how his hawk regarded him with contempt, refused to listen to him, and he couldn’t do anything about it, because you can’t tame a hawk or make the hawk listen to you by force, and only patience, kindness and gentleness will work, while the hawk continues to treat you with contempt 😊 That passage goes like this –

“I could never make up my mind whether I was the master. Gos regarded me with tolerant contempt. He had no doubts about who was the slave, the ridiculous and subservient one who stood and waited. For himself, he had the whole day to fill in.” 😊

I also loved the passages where White describes how his hawk regards his love or kindness with suspicion, because the hawk knows instinctively that humans show kindness to it because they want to conquer its will and enslave it. It was amazing to discover how much wisdom was encoded in the hawk’s wild instinct. I also loved the part where White talks about how a hawk which grows up in the wild is sleek and cool and an accomplished hunter, because it was trained by its hawk parents and then learnt more by experience, while the hawk which is trained by humans is clumsy and a poor imitation of the wild version. Of course, this leads to the natural question on why train a wild bird like a hawk, when it can do better on its own, why reduce this magnificent wild being to a human pet. Well, that is a discussion for another day.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Goshawk‘. Marie Winn says in her introduction that it is a cult book now. At the time it was published in the 1950s, it must have been a unique book. I don’t know any other mainstream writer from that time trying to train a hawk or a wild animal and writing about it. T.H.White seems to have been an interesting, fascinating person.

Have you read ‘The Goshawk‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Jelena Lengold’sFairground Magician‘ by pure accident. It was in the list of titles mentioned in the back of another book, with a brief description. I like discovering new books like this and as this was a collection of short stories, I thought I’ll give it a try. I’m glad I did.

Fairground Magician‘ has thirteen short stories. There are different kinds of short stories in it – there are stories about love, loss, family. There is also fantasy and science fiction. There are a couple of erotic stories. There is also one story about a cat which is very beautiful. Most of the stories have brilliant first paragraphs which pull you into the story and never let you go. There were beautiful passages in every story, even in stories which were not necessarily my favourites. In one story called ‘Nosedive‘ there is a description of domestic intimacy which is one of the most beautiful descriptions I’ve ever read. It even made me smile. In another story ‘Wanderings‘, which is a cat story, there is a beautiful description about the narrator and her cat. These were two of my favourite passages from the book. I’m sharing them below. Do tell me if you like them. I enjoyed reading most of the stories in the book. One of the erotic stories didn’t work for me, but readers who enjoy literary erotic stories might love it. It was beautifully written with just one long sentence. Atleast half of the stories were absolute favourites for me – they gave me pleasure and joy from the first sentence, and gave me lots of goosebumps till the end. One of the stories ‘Senka‘ even made me happy at the end and I’m thankful to the author for that.

I loved Jelena Lengold’s short story collection. It is one of my favourites of the year. One of the great things about the past one-and-a-half months has been discovering great short story writers from the ex-Yugoslavia region, most of them women. First it was Asja Bakić, and then it was Miljenko Jergović, and then it was Alma Lazarevska. And now I’ve discovered Jelena Jengold, and I am amazed by the richness of these short stories. Alma Lazarevska said in an interview that she prefers writing and reading short stories. I’m wondering whether the writing part is true for many of the writers from the region. It appears that the concentration of short story talent here is mind boggling. I’ve never discovered so many favourite short story writers in such a short span of time. Short stories are a tricky literary form and pulling it off with one great short story after another (like Jelena Lengold has done in this collection and others have done in the other collections I’ve read) is extremely hard. But these writers seem to have pulled off the impossible.

I’m sharing three of my favourite excerpts from the book below. Hope you like them.

From ‘Nosedive

“My husband insisted on having his own towel. I do not know whether this fact explains anything. Sometimes I would try to substitute my own towel, by using various little subterfuges. For instance, I would say that I had washed all the towels and there was only one left. Or that we were just about to go away and there was no point in dirtying so much clean laundry. Sometimes I would even hang my towel, which I had only used once, on the hook where he usually put his. But none of that helped. Quietly, without a word of protest, without expressing his wishes or displeasure out loud, he would find a clean towel and when I followed him into the bathroom later I would always find that same, definitive sign of the separation of our bodies. I was not able to understand this. There are countless places on our bodies where we touch one another, kiss and lick, but after all of that we went to wash it all off ourselves, he would always need to prevent one single dead cell from my skin from crossing onto his. I do not know exactly how to say at what moment, after so many years of shared life, I began to believe that I would fall in love, irrevocably and headlong, with the first person who would want to rub himself dry with my towel. The towel that had just wiped my stomach and my arse; that had been drawn between my legs and, possibly, still had a moist hair on it. Someone for whom something like that would be quite natural.”

From ‘Wanderings

“…she looked back at Lola, who was now lying perfectly peacefully on his shabby blanket, blinking at her with his yellow eyes. She knew he would soon fall asleep and that he would then sleep for hours. That is how it always was. People never sleep so tranquilly, she thought with a hint of envy. Not even as children. Even then, all kinds of monsters come to them in their sleep. But Lola slept without a care in the world. You could just make out his breathing, the rhythmic rising and falling of his stomach. Sometimes an ear would twitch, at a fly or bug. Sometimes, without opening his eyes, he would get up, stretch his back, change his position and carry on sleeping. And that was all. He had no worries. He did not think about what had happened the previous day, he had no plans of any kind, he was not tormented by envy, he had no ambitions, he did not know anxiety. But who knows, she thought, perhaps I am wrong; perhaps he too has his feline worries? But still, this idea seemed hardly likely. Lola, asleep like this, seemed the very picture of absolute tranquillity. Sated, washed and carefree. Perfectly safe in his garden. She wondered whether he had any conception of what safety was. Or did he know only fear, the moment he felt it. Watching the cat always soothed her in some strange way. She liked sitting beside him, sleeping beside him, watching a film beside him, eating when he ate, reading a book while he dozed with his head on her slippers, in a word – she liked it when the cat was here, in her field of vision.”

From ‘Aurora Borealis

“…with his elbows on the table, he tried to think what would be more sensible: to have a shower or make a coffee. The coffee was essential to give him the energy for a shower, but equally, a shower was an essential precondition for making coffee. How can I decide, he wondered. What if I never decide and stay forever at the table, immobilised by my dilemma? What if I never do summon up the energy to do either of these two things? Then he thought that it wasn’t all that important, after all. He had already made all the important wrong decisions. He had made them with incredible ease. With an absolute lack of awareness that every detail, even the slightest, had its own weight.”

Have you read ‘Fairground Magician‘? What do you think about it?

Marija Knežević is a Serbian poet and writer and ‘Ekaterini‘ is the only book of hers which has been translated into English.

This book tells the story of Ekaterini, the title character, and is narrated by Ekaterini’s granddaughter. The story starts at around the beginning of the twentieth century and ends at the dawn of the twenty-first. Ekaterini is a greek girl. The story starts when she is young and how during the First World War her family falls into bad times. Ekaterini goes to work and it looks like she might get a measure of independence, but things don’t work that way. Soon a young man falls in love with her, and Ekaterini’s family likes him, but when they discover that he is not Orthodox Christian but Catholic, they distance themselves from him. When the young man discovers that this is the reason for his proposal being rejected, he feels that this is a minor thing, and he changes his religion and becomes an Orthodox Christian. Ekaterini gets married to him, and later because of another war, she has to move out of Greece and move to Yugoslavia, where her husband is from. The place is new, the people are new, she doesn’t know the language. What happens to her as she navigates these big changes in her life, and how it mirrors the history of her adopted country is told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ekaterini‘. How a Greek woman moves to a new country and becomes Yugoslavian is very beautifully told in the book. The story made me think of Miljenko Jergović’sKin‘, because in that book Miljenko Jergović talks about his great grandfather who was German and lived in Bosnia. I also loved the way the book describes how historical happenings impact Ekaterini’s life and the life of her children and grandchildren. There are beautiful scenes which describe the relationship between a mother and her daughters and later a grandmother and her granddaughter. It made me smile to read how a woman who was tough on her own daughters, loves her granddaughter unconditionally and inspires her granddaughter to be a free spirit and even encourages rebellion 😊 There is also a beautiful scene which describes a father’s love for his daughters which I loved.

Marija Knežević’s prose is pleasant to read and there are many beautiful passages. I’m sharing some of them below.

“Lucija adored her father. For her, he was all-powerful and yet tender; he’d sit her on his knee and sing her songs, and he also taught her to read and write. She remembers well the big box he brought home after one of his wholesale shopping days. He put it in the children’s room, called Lucija and Ljubica and, beaming with joy, full of that anticipation which is the greatest pleasure for those who like to please others, watched their astonished reactions when he lifted the lid. The box was full to the top with stationery. The girls were speechless with amazement. They saw all these things for the first time. They didn’t know if they were enchanted by the exercise books, rubbers, pencils and rulers per se, or by the sheer quantity of stationery, which would surely last them into their high-school days.”

“Various things can give us a sense of security: family, a beloved being or beings, customs whose repetition is reassuring. Some find calm in a comfortable life with possessions and a full house, others in the opportunity to roam and wander free. Peace can certainly play that role too, in the long or short pauses between wars. As can hard times which could easily have been the end of us, but which we survived, and become the strongest foundations of all to have been invented. They’re like wisdom after a shipwreck for the survivors, in a life which in Serbian we’d call ‘a gift’. For some, it’s enough to hear just one ‘I love you’, se agapo.”

“The sun shone in through the freshly cleaned windows and she was delighted with the day’s efforts. As if there was no glass; not a fleck to be seen! But the rays wandered around the room and played with the specks of dust, those irrepressible thousands of particles which eluded both mop and rag. She blew out smoke and began to get annoyed. This blasted dust! You go to so much effort and the room still isn’t immaculate.”

“Our first and very major limitation is that we don’t know what it was like to be born. From that very first moment on, we depend on other people’s versions and have no way of learning the truth. Everyone talks about how they felt; no one even thinks that we might have felt something at the time too, let alone what, although we were the cause of all those manifestations of happiness, excitement, fear, inebriation and sobering-up because of the birth of a child.”

“Ekaterini sat peacefully, looking at the potted basil for a while, or the cat slinking around the house, or the kids with beach balls and underwater goggles; she heard their chirpy little voices saying thalassa, the sea, and gazed with the same calm at her toenails as at her memories which rose and ebbed away again like gentle tides. She engaged with every instant of the scenes around her and inside her. She spoke to a butterfly, the dripping tap in the courtyard, aeroplanes in the sky, or Lucija. Once again she was able to hear several voices at the same time – precisely because she didn’t have to. She didn’t have to do anything. There’s no word for that individual feeling of existence in its totality, when you have the good fortune of feeling everything and all at once. Just as living abroad is impossible to explain. Foreigners just hope they will live to experience this some day, and in this way they really reconcile themselves; all their life they reconcile themselves with the truth that home now only exists in their jumbled, nomadic memory: a memory maintained by fantasy – often an outright invention – and succoured by the sweetness of victory greater than that of any battle when we manage to convince friends and family that things were exactly as we said. Nomads live on stories. Only in stories do they feel they exist. Ekaterini was finally able to abandon herself to her senses. And she listened to the language like a cherished melody, near and dear but hummed by someone else.”

“I felt immeasurable pain, she – emptiness. The former is bearable but the latter cannot be compensated for, like the deaths of people close to us, which the poet Marina Tsvetayeva speaks of after the poignant word ‘Be!’. When someone dies with whom your life has been fulfilled, she says, you miss them, but they’re still there; they’re not sundered from you because you feel their presence. But when someone dies with whom your life was unfulfilled, there remains only inconsolable sadness.”

I’m glad I discovered ‘Ekaterini‘. Hoping to read more of Marija Knežević’s work.

Have you read ‘Ekaterini‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘ recently and decided to read it today.

When the story starts, the narrator Tamara describes a play which is being staged in which she is one of the performers. Soon we realize that the play might be the story of her life, as the narrator describes her childhood, her life with her siblings and her parents, how her dad moved from his war-torn country to a new one, but still has nightmares about it, how her mom is nearly always unhappy, how her brother and sister look different compared to her and the secret behind that. The story starts with this and continues as it charts Tamara’s life as she grows up, goes to college, falls in love and has interesting and challenging life experiences.The story starts with a war and it ends with a war and its aftermath. In between, it is the story of a family which navigates these troubled waters called life.

The descriptions in the book on how Tamara’s family goes through hard times because of financial circumstances is very moving. Reading about how they frequently get evicted from their house because they couldn’t pay the bills and how their personal possessions are all auctioned off (once the TV is plugged off and taken away while they are watching a programme) before they are evicted is heartbreaking to read. Being poor and being an immigrant is always hard and the book depicts that movingly. How Tamara’s dad continues to be a nine year old boy who has nightmares of war and how Tamara’s mom loves her family but hates responsibility and yearns to be a free spirit is beautifully depicted in the book.

Andrea Jeftanovic’s prose is beautiful and a pleasure to read. In some places she decides to be playful and toys with the reader. I remember reading one passage at the end of which I felt something strange – there was a dissonance there and it didn’t make sense overall. I felt the passage was hiding a secret and it refused to reveal it to me, because I wasn’t giving it the attention and love it deserved. I decided to read it again more slowly pausing after every sentence and taking it in, and this time, the passage opened its heart and spoke to me and revealed its secret to me. Every sentence in the passage changed the point of view – the first sentence was about Tamara and the second sentence was about her dad and it continued like this. When I discovered this, the whole passage glowed with its beauty and music. In music, there is a form called contrapuntal, in which two are more independent melodic parts are connected together by a common harmony. This passage was like that. It was brilliant and beautiful.

When we reach the end of the book, an interesting question arises. Is the whole book the narrator Tamara’s story? Or is the book just the story told in the play in which Tamara plays one of the parts? Or is it both? It is a fascinating thought to ponder on. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you get to read this book.

I loved ‘Theatre of War‘. Andrea Jeftanovic is clearly a talented writer and this is a brilliant debut. This book was first published around twenty years back (so it has been around for a while), though it has been translated into English only recently (it was originally written in Spanish. Andrea Jeftanovic is from Chile.) She has published more books since then – I spotted atleast one more novel, three collections of short stories and one collection of essays. I hope they get translated into English soon.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Mum prepares breakfast for two kids every morning. She kisses Adela and Davor on the forehead as they leave the house. She makes two beds, fills the tub two times. She hugs one child with each arm. From the balcony her eyes follow two shapes as they walk away. She holds out one hand to cross the street, then the other. I’m left at the end of the line, clutching at my sister. She whispers a little secret to the right, another to the left. Her two legs guide two paths. Two tears roll down her face as she watches her children sleeping. She doesn’t know the little girl who lies beside her and follows her around the house, snatching at her dress and repeating her name. She is incapable of including me in her twofold affection.
      I don’t want to hear her ask again : Who’s that girl lying there naked with her hair all tangled? Mum never reaches my centre, just brushes around my edges, grazes my surface. I spread out before her like an incomprehensible atlas. A pair of steaming bowls are waiting for us when we get home from school. My brother and sister don’t say anything, just silently serve a third portion on the bread plate. I have lunch at the corner of the table. And for a moment I want to drive it into my abdomen.
      Another day my sister and brother and I all come home together and I stop to tie my shoes. As I reach the door, mere steps behind them, it slams in my face and I’m locked outside. I watch Mum, her welcoming smile, her wrist turning the key in the lock. Her world is a perfect triangle, not an awkward square. I’m the edge that doesn’t fit into that geometric shape. For Mum I’m nothing more than an empty space in her brain, a black hole that swallows up all memory of me.”

Have you read Andrea Jeftanovic’sTheatre of War‘? What do you think about it?

Tea Tulić is a Croatian writer and ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is her first book.

The narrator of ‘Hair Everywhere‘ is a young girl. The book has short chapters which are mostly just a paragraph long, in which the narrator describes her everyday life, her mother, her grandmother, her father, her sister, her neighbours, her pets, and shares her thoughts on things that she finds interesting. One day her mother is unwell and is admitted at the hospital. She stays there for a while. It turns out that her mother has cancer. While her mother’s health declines, we see how our narrator’s life changes and how she reacts to it through her writing.

Hair Everywhere‘ is a beautiful, poignant book. We see the unfolding tragedy through a young girl’s voice, which is beautiful, charming, unique, honest and candid, like only a young person’s voice can be. The title comes from this passage, in which the narrator describes her mother after the situation has worsened.

“Hair is everywhere. On the pillow. On the floor. In her hands and mine. We talk about coloured Indian scarves. About thick soup. Bad weather. Discipline. We talk about dry skin. We talk about everything, but still we feel sad because of the hair. It is a symbol of the greedy animal in her head. Her skin is flaking off her too. When she changes her vest, tiny flakes waft through the air.”

It is heartbreaking to read.

I loved ‘Hair Everywhere‘. It gives literary shape to a nightmare that every child has about their mother. It also shows how in the middle of big personal tragedies, everyday life just keeps flowing along. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to read. ‘Hair Everywhere’ won wide praise and literary awards when it was first published in Croatian ten years back.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The next snapshot shows an aeroplane dropping bombs that are falling somewhere down below, into a thick forest. In the picture you can’t see that the forest hides squirrels, owls, foxes, people and our vision. When the bomb reaches the ground, it won’t matter whether the man down there was a good teacher. Or that he exchanged his coat for a sack of potatoes. Or that the slaughter of the squirrels caused God-knows what disruption in Nature. The green trees survived.”

“In the big market place, stuffed with people and different kinds of yoghurts, I buy cheese. Only people, of all the mammals in the world, consume milk and milk products after they grow up. And all those people are here, in the queue in front of me…”

“My brother is angry because the doctors say they cannot help Mum. I tell him Patrick Swayze had lots of money but he still died of cancer.”

“Once in the newspaper it said that three Japanese fishermen had been fishing in the middle of the ocean and that a cow fell from the sky and killed them. The cow had been dropped from a plane flying directly above them. And two more the same way! They were too heavy for the plane to fly properly. The unfortunate Japanese drowned, and the bizarre ugly fish continued to circle around, down there in the darkness.”

Have you read ‘Hair Everywhere‘? What do you think about it?

Alma Lazarevska’sDeath in the Museum of Modern Art‘ is a collection of short stories. It has six stories. They are all set during the siege of Sarajevo, though the stories don’t mention the city by name. Most of the stories are narrated in the first person, and the narrator seems to be a literary version of the author.

I loved most of the stories in the collection. In most of the stories the narrator describes everyday scenes in her life and how they change suddenly after the siege starts and the first shells start falling in the city, and things like sugar, matches, bread and even water become hard to get. Alma Lazarevska’s prose is soft and gentle and reading the narrator telling her story is like listening to our favourite aunt sharing her experiences while sipping a cup of hot tea, while we are sitting in front of the fire in winter listening to her. I loved listening to Alma Lazarevska’s voice through the voice of the narrator. At some point, I stopped thinking about the story (the stories were beautiful, poetic, and haunting) but just continued reading for the narrator’s gentle and wise voice. Someone said this about Alma Lazarevska’s books – “There are books about which one talks and there are books with which one talks—Alma Lazarevska’s book is of the latter kind.” I felt exactly that, when I read this book.

I loved Alma Lazarevska’s ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘. Her work is hard to come by in English translation. There are one or two stories by her in online literary journals. None of her other works have been translated. She has a slim backlist – just one more short story collection, a novel and a collection of essays. Hope they get translated into English. I wish she had written more. There is an interview with her online in which she talks about how she started writing, her literary influences, her favourite writers, her city of Sarajevo, about Bosnian literature and other things. When we read the interview, we feel that we are in the presence of a gentle soul. There was one particular thing she said in the interview, which went like this –

“In my tongue Ivo Andrić is the undisputed master of language. The precision and the beauty of Andrić’s language are fascinating. In a biographical note for my English-language publisher I pointed out that I was born on the 9th of March, the same day as Bobby Fischer. To use chess terminology, I would like to be at least a pawn in a language in which Andrić is the king.”

This is the kind of thing that a contemporary writer will rarely say. Alma Lazarevska’s humility is inspiring and her love for Ivo Andrić’s prose is infectious.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘The Secret of Kasper Hauser

“But, life was still order that had not yet begun to disintegrate. It lay in drawers with folded white bed linen and little bags of dried lavender. It was still all-of-a-piece, even if it was sometimes disrupted in the morning by the disagreeable sound of the alarm-clock. On one such morning the north-facing room acquired a new secret. I woke up before dawn in order to take an antibiotic. Replacing the bottle from which I had tipped a red and yellow tablet onto my hand, I caught sight of a bright, swaying blot that I had never seen in this room before. It was trembling on the spine of the large book I had been reading the previous evening. That is how I discovered that in the early morning a little ray of sunlight manages to penetrate into the room that faces north…We wake up too late or else that rare ray of sunlight penetrates into our room too early…The green book with silver letters was lying over there, and on its spine was that trembling blot of light I had seen once before. If I was quick and quiet, perhaps I’d catch it. I know that light is not sensitive to touch or sound. But still, I edged towards it as though it were a live butterfly. I lowered my hand onto the spine of the green book and now the blot was trembling on the back of my hand, like a transparent, asymmetric butterfly.”

From ‘How We Killed the Sailor

“The room had lost its box-shape. The light of the thin candle didn’t reach its corners. It created a dim, uneven oval that shifted lazily if an unexpected current of air happened to touch its tiny wick. There was a transparent, trembling film over us. The few objects that were bathed in dim light, and the two of us, made up the inside of a giant amoeba. We were its organs, pulsating in the same rhythm, but not touching.”

I loved Alma Lazarevska’s short story collection. Hope more of her work gets translated into English. I’d love to read them.

You can find Marina Sofia’s review of the book here.

Have you read ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘? What do you think about it?

I loved John Cox’s translation of Biljana Jovanović’s book, especially his introductory essay on Yugoslavian / Serbian literature and on Jovanović’s work. So I did some research on which other books he has translated and that is how I discovered Ajla Terzić’sThis Could Have Been a Simple Story’. Ajla Terzić is a Bosnian writer and this book was originally published in Bosnian.

Esma works in an organization which helps people. She is single. She doesn’t have any near family – her dad moved away when she was young, and her mom has passed. She has an aunt and uncle and cousins and they invite her home during festival times. Once her office sends her to Vienna for a seminar. She meets a woman in the train compartment and sparks fly. But later the woman disappears. After a couple of days, this woman, called Roza, calls up Esma and they meet again. The sparks become a fire. And that is the end of life, as Esma knows it. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘ is a beautiful lesbian love story. The first meeting, the attraction, the love, and the relationship between Esma and Roza is beautifully depicted. The kind of resistance that these two have to put up, and the battles they have to fight, especially when facing opposition from their friends, family members and loved ones, has been portrayed in the story in a nuanced way. In the last chapter of the book, Esma is at the edge of the precipice (a metaphorical precipice, of course), and we can feel the author Ajla Terzić literally pause her pen over paper, and contemplate on what to do next, and we readers realize that the fate of our heroine Esma, and our own happiness lies in the author’s hands, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. Does Esma take the risk and jump off the precipice and take the plunge? Or does she step back to the safety of her previous life before all this happened? You have to read the story to find out.

It was nice to discover a new Bosnian author in Ajla Terzić. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the story, in which the translator John Cox introduces us to Bosnian literature and Ajla Terzić’s work. It is vintage John Cox. John Cox is odd among translators, because he is a Balkan historian. So his knowledge of Balkan and Bosnian history, culture, literature and language is deep and that is clearly visible in the introductory essay and in the footnotes throughout the book.

John Cox says this in his introduction – “She (Ajla Terzić) herself sees no need to stress this, but you are about to read the first novel by a Bosnian woman that has appeared in English translation.” If this is true, then this book breaks new ground and this translation is pioneering. And the fact that the first book by a Bosnian woman to be translated into English is a lesbian love story – that makes it even better.

One of the central things in the book is the way music is embedded throughout the story. This would be easily perceptible to a Bosnian reader, but to an outsider like myself, it would be impossible to see. For this reason, the introduction is invaluable. The main character Esma’s name, the title of the book, and the titles of all the chapters are taken from the songs of the famous Yugoslav band Bijelo Dugme, and John Cox explains the connection between the band and the author and the book. One of my favourite musical discoveries from the book was a Bosnian music form called Sevdalinka, which expresses unrequited longing through music. I went and listened to a recording of it. It was beautiful, haunting, heartbreaking. (Do search for ‘U Stambolu na Bosforu’ by Daphne Kritharas, in YouTube, if you’d like to listen.)

I enjoyed reading ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story‘. I can’t wait to read more books by Ajla Terzić.

Have you read ‘This Could Have Been a Simple Story’? What do you think about it?

I discovered Biljana Jovanović through Ellen Elias-Bursac’s afterword to Asja Bakić’sMars‘. Ellen Elias-Bursac mentioned Slavenka Drakulić, Daša Drndić, Dubravka Ugrešić, Biljana Jovanović as some of the great women writers from the region formerly known as Yugoslavia. I knew of the first three, but Biljana Jovanović was new to me. When I looked for her books, only ‘Dogs and Others‘ was available in English translation.

Dogs and Others‘ starts with an introduction which has this passage.

“Dogs always believe that they belong to Others (whom they consider to be, for unknown reasons enduring right up to our day, better than they are). The Others are not always convinced that they are not themselves Dogs. Still, though, Dogs are Others and Others are Dogs. The one thing that actually distinguishes them from each other, now and again (and something that justifies singling them out for participation in this story), is the level of their…social adaptation.”

The story starts after this interesting page. The narrator Lidia lives with her grandmother Jaglika and her brother Danilo. Her mother Marina lives elsewhere but occasionally visits. Lidia tells us that she can’t remember anything about her childhood. So she spins her own yarns and then tells a little bit of them to her grandmother Jaglika and Jaglika takes that and makes it into a realistic story and this becomes part of Lidia’s memory and past. Lidia then tells us more about Jaglika, Marina and Danilo, Milena her lover, and other people who are part of their lives and who occasionally step into the story.

There are two things about the book which stand out. One is that it is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. I am wondering if this is one of the first Serbian / Yugoslavian book to be written in this style. If that is the case, then it is pioneering. Also, if, as a reader, you are not used to this style or you are not comfortable with it, it will be a challenging read for you. It was challenging for me. The second interesting thing about the book is that the main character Lidia is a lesbian. This book was published in 1980, more than forty years back. This was probably one of the first Yugoslavian / Serbian novels in which the lead character was lesbian. So Biljana Jovanović was breaking new ground here. The description of the relationship between Lidia and Milena is one of the most beautiful parts of the book and gives a very modern contemporary feel to the book.

There are some fascinating literary references in the book – there is Marina Tsvetaeva, there is Dostoevsky, and there is a mysterious person who writes letters to Lidia, who resembles Constance Chatterley’s husband Clifford. It was fun spotting all these literary connections. There is an insightful afterword at the end of the book by the translator John Cox, which is fascinating to read.

Dogs and Others‘ is a fascinating, pioneering book. I wouldn’t call it an easy read, but I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘Dogs and Others‘? What do you think about it?