Archive for the ‘Yugoslavian Literature Month’ Category

Our unnamed narrator gets up from bed one day. He says that he has been lying on bed for the past nine months. And his wife has left him. And it is his fault. He proceeds to tell us the story. When the doorbell rings. A woman is standing outside. She wants his help in finding her father. Before long we are hurled into a world, where the narrator’s city has changed beyond recognition in the last nine months, and the story looks real before the narrator starts seeing people from his dreams in the real world and things turn increasingly surreal and then some mythical, magical creatures appear. What happens after that and whether the narrator is able to help in finding the woman’s father forms the rest of the story.

This is the surface level story. Of course, this is not all there is to it, and there is more to it than meets the eye. The nine months that the narrator spends in bed are the worst, most violent nine months in Bosnia in the ’90s, and when we realize that, the whole story takes on a totally different meaning and we see everything in new light. The monsters in the story are real-world people who did monstrous things, and the disappearances of family members is what most families went through. A reader who reads this book in Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian will catch all this on the first read and will be able to appreciate the metaphors of the story with a deeper resonance. But for an outsider like me, it took a while to figure things out.

Selvedin Avdić’s prose is beautiful and is filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. There are many footnotes in the book which were fascinating. The book has a foreword by Nick Lezard, who reviews books for ‘The Guardian’, which is very interesting.

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

“Then I thought that some music might help, recalling how it can easily change the atmosphere of any room. Do an experiment, if you don’t believe me. In a completely empty room, play different types of music and you will see how the shadows shift, the air stirs, the nuances of light change, as the room adjusts itself to the music, like the scene changing from act to act in the theatre. There is no such thing as complete silence. It does not exist. At least not in this world, maybe in outer space or in the bowels of the earth, where it’s only cold and dark.”

“Allah created this world so that it would be pleasing to an intelligent seven-year-old boy. That is what Ahmed said to me when I left his office. I think the thing that He made best was the morning. How I used to love the morning! I loved to drink coffee with Anđela and to make arrangements for the day, while morning was coming into the room. I loved every one of our conversations. I loved the little movements of her fingers around the cup. The scents, the clock ticking, the news on the radio…my whole body would relax. I could be alone with her for days, with her and the child in that little room. I used to tell her even prison would not be hard for me if we were together. Because, as the proverb says, if the household is never spiteful, the house is never too small. Mornings are now completely senseless. I imagine that they are still beautiful, but I can no longer notice.”

Have you read ‘Seven Terrors’? What do you think about it?


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I read a couple of Croatian short story collections last year, one by Asja Bakić, and another by Miljenko Jergović, and loved them both. So I was very excited when I discovered this short story collection ‘New Croatian Short Story : Everything You Wanted But Had No Chance to Read‘.

This book features fourteen contemporary Croatian writers and it has twenty one stories. Most of the writers were new-to-me. I could recognize only Olja Savičević Ivančević, who was widely reviewed last year, and Zoran Ferić, who I discovered through a friend’s review of one of his books. But nearly all the writers seem to be well-known among Croatian readers, as they have been around for a while.

There is good news and bad news. The bad news first. The book was very hit-and-miss for me. Some of the stories were underwhelming, but some of the stories were wonderful. The second bad news is that out of the fourteen featured writers, only three were women. Croatian women writers are kicking ass these days, and so I was very surprised with that.

Now, the good news. When the stories were hits, they were amazing and I loved them. They straightaway waltzed into my list of favourites. Here are my favourites.

Zlatka by Maja Hrgović – This is a beautiful lesbian love story. I won’t tell you more. You should read it and find out what happened. I love this story so much that I want to read all the stories of Maja Hrgović now.

Crocodile by Senko Karuza – Two people get stuck in the middle of nowhere because their car breaks down. There is only one house nearby. When they knock the door, an old man opens it. He has a pool inside his house, and next to the pool is a crocodile. The old man says that his crocodile is unwell. What happens after that – whether the crocodile eats the two newbies and becomes well, or whether it is just a charming pet and this old man is just a kind human being – you have to read the story to find out. There were three other stories by Senko Karuza in the book, and I eagerly looked forward to reading them after I read ‘Crocodile’, but unfortunately, I didn’t like them as much. But ‘Crocodile’ was exceptional. It showed a master at work. It was beautiful, charming and it had the perfect ending. I wondered about the author’s name, Senko Karuza. It definitely didn’t look Croatian. His first name looked Japanese. Even his second name looked Japanese. I’m wondering whether this is his real name, or whether this is the name he uses while writing stories. I hope there is a translated short story collection of Senko Karuza out there, because I’d like to read it.

The Snake Collector by Jurica Pavičić – This is one of the longest stories in the book. It is set during the war in the ’90s. It is about the absurdity of war and the loss of innocence of young soldiers who think it is an adventure and volunteer for the first time, and how the violence of war changes them irrevocably. It is a beautiful and moving story.

Sheepskin by Josip Novakovich – Another war-adjacent story. A man is travelling by train when he bumps into someone who was his tormentor during the war. Thoughts of revenge rise in his heart. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

When I was Nana Pila, Dead, but in my Prime by Zoran Malkoč – A man selling books knocks on the door of a house in a quiet village. The door is opened by an old man whose wife is unwell. This old man thinks that the visitor is the doctor. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. Beautiful, moving story with a heartwarming ending.

So, that’s it. If you stumble upon this book, or if you plan to read it, I’d suggest that you read these five stories first. Then if you feel upto it, maybe you can try dipping into the rest of the book.

Though this book was hit-and-miss for me, I’m glad I read it. Especially because I discovered Maja Hrgović, Senko Karuza, Jurica Pavičić and Josip Novakovich. I loved their stories and I hope to read more stories by them.

Have you read ‘New Croatian Short Story’? What do you think about it?

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We’ve all heard of ‘Hurricane Season’. Well, this is not that 😊 In these parts, it is ‘Dry Season‘ 😊 With Gabriela Babnik.

A woman in her sixties is walking through the streets of Burkina Faso. She meets a man in his twenties. Sparks fly. What happens next? She is in her sixties, he is in his twenties. She is white, he is black. Will this work? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved the central premise in the book. I haven’t read many (=any) spring–autumn romances, especially in literary fiction, especially in which the woman is older. It is common in movies and TV shows. But I haven’t seen many books featuring this. So that was wonderful. Gabriela Babnik’s prose is elegant and is a pleasure to read. I loved that. The story is narrated by the two lovers alternatively. They talk about their past and how they came to be where they were in the present. I loved those parts which delved on their past history. The parts in which they talked about their relationship and about each other – I found them hit and miss. Sometimes I loved those parts, sometimes I found them underwhelming.

One of the things I love reading in books is the description of food. There is a description of a Burkina Faso food in the book – “tô, kneaded balls of dough soaked in sesame sauce.” I want to try that 😊

Towards the end, the story has a cinematic climax, which in my opinion felt thrust in. I would have loved it when I was younger. But now, I was a little bit disappointed. But the book has won widespread acclaim and won awards. So probably, the problem is with me and not with the book.

I am glad I read ‘Dry Season’. It has many things to recommend it. It is also my first Slovenian book 😊 So, yay! My dream is to read atleast one book from every language from the Balkan region. Till now I’ve read Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian books. Only Montenegrin and Macedonian are left. Looking forward to reading them also soon.

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

“In fact, I don’t really know how it is with the body – when, exactly, does it start to decline, when does it surrender to that cold blast of wind, not asking, not hoping anymore, that things might change for the better? The only comfort is the here and now, which becomes the best you’ve got.”

“I swore to myself that I would learn to make sentences, not just letters and words, but long weaving sentences, and would someday write it all down in the dust, in the ground, in the earth. And when somebody looks down at my writing from above, their heart, from all the beauty of it, will cling to their inner walls and simply stand still.”

“Should I be like other elderly people who sit in remote villages and gaze into the fire and at certain rare moments think their life could have encompassed something other than simply what it is now? Or like the elderly lady who watches people’s faces through the window of a café, people too preoccupied to return her look? All my life I had lived the way other people wanted me to live, my mother, my father, my son, my ex-husband, my customers; all my life I had been the person they wanted to see. I could remember periods of my life lived through as somebody else, so now I had no need to pretend. So all those men sitting at that low table, and the woman by the window – I was able to return their gaze.”

“The desire to have a baby was, for him, a form of control, but there’s nothing new about that. It happened to generations before me and even a generation or two after me, and it undoubtedly happened to the women I was watching from under the mango tree.”

“Nowhere does evening come the way it does in the desert. The darkness comes over you so suddenly you sit in front of it motionless. It swarms a while through your entire body, then settles in your feet, and all you can do is light a paraffin lamp. The mosquitoes gather in formation around it, and you have to shoo them away with your hand.”

“The frog does not know there are two kinds of water if he never falls into the hot kind.”

Have you read ‘Dry Season’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered David Albahari through a friend’s recommendation, and decided to read his most recent book ‘Checkpoint‘.

A unit of soldiers and their commander are taken to a place in the middle of nowhere and are asked to create a checkpoint and manage it. They don’t know anything about the war going on, and who is the enemy. Nothing happens at the checkpoint. There is no one coming from either side and the days just pass by. As the narrator says –

“So we guarded a checkpoint where nobody was checked and peered through our binoculars at landscapes through which no one passed. If there was a war still on somewhere, we knew nothing about it. No shots were fired, there was no zinging of bullets, no bomb blasts, no helicopter clatter, nothing.”

What happens after that – are the soldiers just ‘waiting for Godot’, or does war enter this quiet place and does something happen – this is told in the rest of the story.

‘Checkpoint’ is a darkly comic satire. It is about the meaningless nature of war, during which innocent people get killed, and nothing good happens. David Albahari has been compared to Kubrick and Kafka and we can see why. (I’ll also add Joseph Heller to the mix.) Albahari’s dark humour makes us laugh in many places, and it also makes us think.

I enjoyed reading ‘Checkpoint’. David Albahari has written many books, but only a few are easily available in English translation. I found that a couple of them are available, and I hope to read them soon.

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

“No one wanted to die. Even for such a noble cause as defending the homeland. What could possibly be noble about a violent death? And the stupidest part of all was that afterwards this would become fodder for people who’d had no experience at all with it, with death. How can a living person understand someone who’s dead, understand what a gunshot victim thinks as the bullet rips through his flesh…”

“A wiseguy would say that the real barriers are the ones within us, and that the external ones, like the checkpoint, are, in fact, futile. Mumonkan, an ancient collection of Zen tales, speaks of all this with eloquence, but no one among us soldiers had Buddhist texts in mind, especially none of the amateur soldiers, society’s dregs, who were generally blasé about warfare. Professional soldiers, like samurai, are another story, and among them one may find connoisseurs of the Mumonkan and Hagakure, even lovers of the poetry of T. S. Eliot and the music of Edvard Grieg. Yes, it is one thing to be a samurai and altogether different to be an ordinary recruit who, when he opens his eyes in the morning, cares not a whit for himself or for the world.”

“War is so unnatural, so different from all else, that no one in their right mind can grasp why war would be a part of human culture. The commander turned—he ought to love war at least a little, being a man in uniform, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Never would he admit this to his soldiers. But he also couldn’t abandon them to this hell. So like a good fairy he hovered over their preparations for departure.”

“You could see right away, thought the commander, that he was one of those people bullets didn’t want to hit. There aren’t many folks who enjoy that kind of luck, though they’ll pay for it elsewhere, as things tend to go with good and bad luck. Life is impartial, it plays no favorites. If a person is offered something that is not equally accessible to all in equal measure, they’ll also be given something bad, meaning they’ll be greater losers in other realms. So the radio and telegraph operator, say, was spared the bullets, but he often tripped and fell, and it may have been a fall that additionally shielded him from bullets. The radio and telegraph operator may have stumbled exactly when the fingers of three snipers were on their triggers, and his tumble removed him from the enemies’ field of vision.”

“…the sky began to redden and the shadows, hidden until then by the dark, began shivering with anticipation. In no time they’d be venturing into the world, all they needed was to be told whether to go in front of or behind the soldiers. Shadows have a way of moving slowly and faltering, but when they finally make up their minds, their resolve is legendary. And so, when the soldiers set out on their “punitive expedition,” as the commander noted in his ledger, the shadows followed behind the soldiers, fused to their heels. When the soldiers returned, the shadows were still swinging from their heels, but with none of the earlier joy. In a word, the shadows on that brief journey downhill and uphill aged quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. Anyone would have aged who’d seen what the shadows saw; it’s enough to say they became darker, more somber, more hermetically sealed. Who knows what they might have said if only they’d had skill with words.”

Have you read ‘Checkpoint’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Marina Šur Puhlovski’sWild Woman‘ in an interesting way. I was looking for more translations by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, because she had translated two of my favourite books, ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ and ‘Zlata’s Diary‘. And that is how I stumbled upon ‘Wild Woman’.

The story starts with a young woman in an apartment with her dog. The apartment is in a mess. There is no food and the woman and her dog are literally scraping the barrel. This woman tells us what happened, and how events led to this situation. She takes us back by many years, when she first went to college and met a guy on the first day, and sparks started to fly. What happened after that – you have to read the book to find out.

‘Wild Woman’ is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking book. It describes what happens when we fall in love, and things don’t go as we expect, and how sometimes we fall into a bottomless abyss from which we find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

I loved ‘Wild Woman’, though the word ‘love’ doesn’t begin to describe what I feel about it. It was powerful and moving and heartbreaking, and it pulled my heartstrings and it made me angry and it made me scream. Sometimes it felt like I was reading a contemporary version of the Ingrid Bergman movie ‘Gaslight‘.

Marina Šur Puhlovski’s prose is beautiful and I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages. She has been writing for a while, but it appears that this is her only book which has been translated into English. Wish more of her work gets translated.

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

“What hurts is what you don’t have. And it hurts, say the experts, because the brain won’t accept that you no longer have what you once did, what it still remembers, and so it turns its absence into the pain of loss, which keeps going back to the beginning. That’s my story, I guess. Because if it weren’t, then I wouldn’t be sitting here for three days now, incapable of extricating myself from it.”

“I stepped out like a sleepwalker, in my nightgown, barefoot, at that magical moment in the morning that belongs to the surrounding forest, when life wakes up and you are filled with this sense of awakening, as at the dawn of humankind, when the first human realised that he was alive, because he hadn’t known it before, it came to him suddenly. And it’s no different today, the wonder of life remains hidden from us during the day, and turns into fear at night, and it is only like this in the early morning that we understand it, when we are alone and when it’s spring and when the forest within us breathes, or the sea within us breathes, when we imbue each other.”

“A magical wonder is when something doesn’t look real but is, I realised as they took me around – like the way Plitvice’s waters forged their own paths through the rocks and bushes, through the grey and green, through the air and earth, creating a work of art out of nature, making it look like child’s play, untaught, becoming a work of art in itself, based on some primeval memory. It was as if we became a work of art ourselves, rather than creating one, a higher form of existence that we did not sufficiently appreciate, because it eluded us, I thought, walking with my feet in the moss and ferns and my head in the air.”

“What else is love except a kind of blindness, I reflected, you see what you want, what you like, what catches your fancy, what makes you grow, you see what you need but you don’t see what you don’t need. When you see what you don’t need you try not to see it, to attribute it to a random instance, to hide it from yourself, because you compare what you see with the ideal that they’ve drummed into your head and try to make it fit that ideal. Sometimes it more or less works, unless you completely fail, because basically you always fail, but even an approximation is something, at least it’s bearable. The world exists on the basis of approximation. But it’s awful when it turns out that what you get is not even close, that it’s the exact opposite, that you had imagined somebody else! And, of course, he helped you along, he tried to be what he thought you wanted him to be, not what he was, but he could pretend to be what you wanted until he captured you, until he took away your freedom, in life and, worst of all, within your inner self, because the hardest thing was to save yourself from yourself. By saving him I was saving myself from myself, I realised, from the debt of love, I supposed, a debt you couldn’t just discard as if it never existed, it doesn’t exist now but it did, it was your life and if it is worthless then so are you and your life; how do you live with that?”

“…gazing at the early autumn greenery that has only just started to turn yellow and red and to decay, a moment with no continuation, but all the same a moment that existed, that fell into place with everything else that existed, the unreal attaching itself to the real which, once it passes, itself seems unreal, and passes in a heartbeat, as if it had never existed, but you know that it did, and so a vicious circle.”

You can find Marina’s (from ‘Finding Time to Write’) beautiful review of the book here.

Have you read ‘Wild Woman’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Aleksandar Tišma’sThe Use of Man‘ through a friend’s recommendation.

It is the year 1935. A teacher in Novi Sad goes to the stationery shop, buys a diary and starts writing in it. At some point, this diary ends up in one of her students’ hands. This student has a boyfriend who has another friend. And suddenly our horizons widen, as we get to know more about these three people, and their families. The story keeps moving back and forth across time, as we follow the fates of the main characters and the people who are part of their lives. As this was also a complex time in history, when the Nazis, the Hungarians and later the Russians all occupied Novi Sad, and as our characters have complex social backgrounds and political persuasions, their lives get entangled in complicated ways, and the story tells us that.

The Use of Man‘ is a complex novel. It doesn’t have a linear structure and the story keeps moving across time, back and forth. Also some chapters are different from others, because they look like meticulous descriptions and lists. There is a reason for this and it is explained in the introduction. The characters in the book are all fascinating – complex, flawed, capable of beautiful things while at the same time doing the not-so-good things. In other words, they are all human. I loved the character of Vera, the girl who discovers her teacher’s diary. The way she evolves is very fascinating. Her boyfriend Milinko is very interesting too, as he is one of the nice characters in the book. His friendship with Vera’s father, and how their shared love for books and learning brings them together is very beautifully depicted. Mikinko’s friend Sredoje is one of the most complex characters in the book and because of that he is very fascinating. There is a German captain whom I liked very much and there is a minor character called Mitzi who is always bursting with energy, who is very likeable.

There is a beautiful introduction to the book by Claire Messud in which she puts the book in context and explains many of the things in the book, like a good teacher. If you are a seasoned reader, you probably already know this, but if you are like me (I’ve burnt your fingers many times reading the introduction before reading the book), I’d recommend that you read the book first and then read the introduction after that, as the introduction has many spoilers.

The Use of Man‘ is one of the classics of contemporary Serbian literature. I’m glad I read it. This is also my first NYRB book. So, Yay! 😊 I learnt a lot about the history of the period and I want to read more. I loved reading my first Aleksandar Tišma book. Aleksandar Tišma has written two more books set in Novi Sad and I want to read them sometime.

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

“At last she came to understand that having achieved her independence, she was going to be left too independent, in fact, completely alone, and that she was not up to such solitude.”

“It’s like people. Even nations borrow from each other. Nothing is born in a vacuum, nothing develops from itself alone, and anyone who claims otherwise—usually to laud the culture to which he belongs—is lying. All life is imitation. The way we live in this house is a copy of the way my father and mother lived in it, and they in turn patterned themselves on others. This kind of home, these objects, the storeroom in the back, the courtyard through which one passes from the private world into the business world and back again, all existed long ago, before this house, and served as a model when it was built and furnished. You could probably trace the migration of this type of merchant’s house, going back in time, from street to street, from the outskirts of town to the center, from town to city. Thus Novi Sad would perhaps lead you to Szeged, Szeged to Pest, Pest to Vienna, Vienna to Berlin. It might have been in 1862, or 1852, when this kind of merchant’s house was first adopted in Berlin. The same goes for books, whether they contain artistic material or whether they are of a scientific nature. Invariably you find traces of imitation.”

Have you read ‘The Use of Man‘? What do you think about it?

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I have read three books by Jelena Lengold before and loved them all and so I was excited to read this one, ‘Giving Up‘ (‘Odustajanje‘ in Serbian).

The story is told by a young girl in the first part of the book. In that part our narrator describes her childhood and the experiences and adventures she has. Her relationship with her brother, who is much older than her, and who is her frequent companion in her adventures, is beautifully described. It is a beautiful evocation of childhood, almost golden like the Garden of Eden. It made me think of Marlen Haushofer’s depiction of childhood in ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’ and Danilo Kiš’ depiction of childhood in ‘Garden, Ashes’. Then something goes wrong and the story turns dark and it depicts the narrator’s loss of innocence, as happens in the best coming-of-age stories.

In the second part, our narrator is a young woman, and she is living in another city, and she describes her life and loves. The past, of course, doesn’t leave her alone and tries to catch up with her. As our narrator says,

“Sometimes you leave something behind and hope that item of the past will never resurface. That no mud will wash her ashore. You can pretend to the world and to yourself that it no longer exists, just as an amputated leg does not exist. Where once there was a part of your life, there is now an empty space. You should not even try to fill it with anything, because that is impossible. Just don’t lift the lid, never, not for a living. And I stuck to that, years ago. But the amputated leg found its way by itself, happened and fell in front of me. And now what?”

In the third part, our narrator is an older married woman with a grown-up daughter, and we see how life has turned out for her, and how her childhood past keeps impacting her life even after so many years.

One thing I didn’t realize while reading the book, but only noticed after I finished it was that most of the characters don’t have names. The narrator doesn’t have a name, neither does her brother or her parents or her husband. I remember only three names from the story – the narrator’s boyfriend has a name and so does her daughter and her boyfriend. It is fascinating, because I didn’t notice this while reading, and it didn’t impact the flow of the story.

Jelena Lengold’s prose is beautiful and is pleasurable to read. I highlighted so many favourite passages. Jelena Lengold first pages are always spectacular, and this book is no exception. She is also famous for her cat passages and cat stories, and this book also has a beautiful one.

The ending of the story is moving and poignant and surreal, but I won’t tell you what it is. You have to read the book to find out.

I loved ‘Giving Up’. It is a beautiful evocation of childhood, and it is also about how the past and family secrets keep haunting us for the rest of our lives.

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

This is from the first pages of the novel. It is long and so I am giving only a little part here.

“Nothing really prepares you for how quickly life goes by. Rush through your days, convinced for a very long time that something important is yet to come. And that the burden you carry with you will disappear, somewhere along the way. That it will melt, the way the muddy deposits of snow on the pavement melt, as soon as the first March sun arrives. That you will forget and leave behind that heavy cloud that has been overwhelming you with fatigue for decades. That the noises that fill the room as soon as it gets dark and rush at you in the meaninglessness of your apartment, which is supposed to be a reflection of you, will be lost. But there are only notes and scribbles around you, they follow you through life like loyal beings and do not help at all. The cup of tea stays where you left it. The pile of mail keeps getting bigger and all you can do is dread how it will one day come crashing down on you. You live in an apartment that is so dumb and dead that it makes you a little crazy…”

Jelena Lengold is famous for her cat stories, and this is the beautiful story featured in this book.

“The cat was anxiously walking around the yard because we were disturbing her perfect July tranquility in every way and threatening to rob her basement hiding places. She went reproachfully from one to the other, wrapping herself around our legs, which, translated from her language, was a polite but firm request for us to calm down and stop making noise around the yard. What was wrong with yesterday, said the cat, when you all just lay in cloth chairs and read the newspapers? But no one paid any attention to the cat’s remarks, so in the end, with a little angry snort, she went and sat under the thuja tree, in the shade, to watch from a distance the continuation of our unreasonable behavior. Even then, I knew that cats are, in a sense, much wiser than people. They know exactly when some things no longer depend on them, they withdraw, they give up trying to educate the world. But people don’t. People always think that they can influence what bothers them, that it is their duty to do so as long as there is an iota of strength in them. They are not able, like cats, to hide in the shade and wait for the world to do something of its own.”

This passage about fear was another of my favourites.

“Sometimes he would ask me if I wasn’t afraid to walk alone in the city at night. Fear, I guess, was supposed to be a natural state of the world. Fear of loneliness, hunger, robbers, fear of appearing ridiculous and pathetic in front of those we care about, as well as in front of those we don’t care about, because we still want them to think the best of us. Fear of elevators breaking loose and plunging us into the abyss. Fear of our own impotence. I didn’t admit to any of that. And I didn’t care. As I walked through the night, at the same time and in the same place, the night walked through me. I couldn’t possibly explain it to Komar or anyone else, nor did I want to. The night had reason to fear me.”

I once quit my job, took a year off, refused to pick the phone when it rang, and read for the whole day. This passage is how I felt. This is one of the reasons I love reading. We think our experiences are unique, and no one will be able to understand us even if we explain it to them, and them we read a book, and there is a passage in it which exactly explains our feelings and what we went through. It is amazing, beautiful, surreal.

“A man who becomes a true loner is usually not even aware that he has become so. He doesn’t hate other people, he just doesn’t need them. He prefers to hide in a shady part of the street, avoid crowds and passers-by. Sometimes he does not answer the phone for days because he is enveloped in silence. He prefers to spend the pale winter afternoons lying down, until barely noticeable movements betray him at night. He tells himself that one of these days he will call someone, go somewhere, and sometimes he actually does, but the whole time he’s there, he’s actually waiting to be alone again. A true loner is just as selfish as most other people, except that unlike others, he admits it to the morning mist that he has no need to share with anyone.”

Have you read ‘Giving Up’ or other books by Jelena Lengold? What do you think about them?

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I discovered Milorad Pavić’sDictionary of the Khazars‘ through a friend who highly recommended it.

The book talks about the history of a people called the Khazars who according to the book lived somewhere between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It focuses mostly on one event which was significant in Khazar history – when the Khazar king invited a representative each of the three major religions and asked them to interpret his dream and depending on which religion gave the most convincing interpretation, he and his people converted to that religion. After this event, the Khazars mostly disappeared from history. The book has three parts describing the events from three different points of view – christian, islamic and jewish.

The book is structured as a dictionary or a lexicon. So, it has three dictionaries / lexicons inside. As the author describes in his introduction, the book can be read in different ways – reading it traditionally from the beginning to the end, or picking up a random entry and exploring further, jumping to other entries using the links provided, or reading a particular entry in one part of the book (for example the christian part) and then reading the entry on the same topic in another part (for example the islamic part). In this format, the book makes me think of Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’, but it takes ‘hoptscotching’ to another level.

Though the book looks like a dictionary, it does tell some kind of overall story. The entries in it are all connected, and things are tied up in the end in the appendix. There are, of course, some open questions still at the end. Some entries are short and comprise just a paragraph while other entries are long and run to many pages, sometimes even to the length of a short story. The longer entries were the most interesting to me. One of my favourites was about Avram Brankovich, which was around thirty four pages long. It had history, magic, fantasy, mystery, a love story, war. It was amazing that the author has managed to squeeze in so much into those pages. It was a 34-page epic.

The book feels like a combination of Borges, Umberto Eco and the Arabian Nights combined together, with Julio Cortázar’s ‘Hopscotch’ style thrown in. Because there are three different perspectives of the story which are narrated, we also see some ‘Rashomon’ thrown in, as we wonder what actually happened, and which is the real version of the truth. To give you a flavour of a Borges type story in the book, I’ll share this passage.

“After dining…he would go to the long-unopened rooms of his father’s house, where deep into the night he would leaf through English and French newspapers printed in Alexandria at the end of the 19th century. Crouching on his heels…he would read the papers with thirsty interest, because they could have nothing to do with him. The advertisements were ideal for this purpose. Night after night he pored over advertisements put in the papers by people who had long since died; offers that were now meaningless glistened in a dust that was older than he…One evening in 1971…Dr Muawia sat down and answered an advertisement from 1896. He carefully wrote out the name and address – an Alexandria street he was not sure still existed – and put his reply in the mail. From then on, every evening, he would answer another ad from the end of the 19th century. Piles of letters were sent out into the unknown. Then one morning the first reply arrived.”

To find out what happened after that, you have to read the story 😊

I’ve never read a lexicon type novel before, though I’ve heard of a few like Xiaolu Guo’s ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’, David Levithan’s ‘The Lover’s Dictionary’ and, of course, Roland Barthes‘ famous ‘A Lover’s Discourse’ (which I think is not a novel). I’ve always wondered how a lexicon type novel will work. Going by the experience of reading Milorad Pavić’s book, I would say it works pretty well.

The book comes in two editions, the female edition and the male edition. The description at the bottom of the book says that the two editions are nearly identical, except for one crucial passage. Sometimes a single word, a single sentence, or even a punctuation mark placed in the right spot, can change a story dramatically. So, I decided to get both versions of the book. I read the female edition first and then went and compared it with the male edition, especially that particular passage which was different. That passage was different, but it didn’t seem to alter the story much. Not at all, actually. I have to take the two editions again and read those two passages again in the calm light of day tomorrow and see whether I am able to get some insight. Maybe, I’ll be able to see some magic then.

Dictionary of the Khazars‘ came out in English translation in the late 1980s, and got rave reviews at that time. Since then it has slid into obscurity, though occasionally it appears in ‘Best Books’ lists. Milorad Pavić is a virtually unknown name now outside the former Yugoslavia region. It is sad, because this book is wonderful, and Pavić is a brilliant writer. I loved the inventive structure of the book and I am glad I read it. After this book, he went on to write other books with similar experimental structures. One of those books comes with a pack of tarot cards, and the reader is supposed to pick a tarot card randomly and read the chapter in the book corresponding to it, and continue reading the book in that vein. That is crazy even for Milorad Pavić and I want to find out how he pulled that off 😊

A book like ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ is a rare thing these days. Literary fiction these days touches mostly on contemporary issues and a book which talks about the history of a probably fictional community which lived a thousand years back, a book which is structured like a lexicon where one can’t see the beginning or the end, where this open structure demands effort from the reader, an effort which may or may not deliver tangible gains for the reader other than a pleasurable reading experience – this book will probably not get published today. So, I am glad that this book got published when it was, and it continues to exist today.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book. There were so many of them in the book.

“I can say that he is a person who tends to his future like a garden with special attention and zeal. He is not one of those who will journey through life on the run. He settles his future very slowly and conscientiously. He uncovers it piece by piece, like an unknown shore; first he clears it, then he builds on the best site, and finally he rearranges the objects inside at great length. He tries not to let his future slow down its pace and growth, but he also takes care not to rush ahead of it. It is a kind of race : the quickest is the loser. At present, Kyr Avram’s future is like a garden where a seed has already been planted, but only he knows what will sprout.”

“They had stumbled upon an inn; darkness was falling in reddish flakes, and Masudi was breathing deeply on his bed. His own body looked to him like a ship riding the waves. Somebody in the next room was playing the lute. Later, Anatolian lute players would tell the legend of that night and that music. Masudi immediately recognized the lute as an exquisite specimen. It was made from the wood of a tree that had not been felled with an ax, so the sound in the wood had not been killed. Moreover, it had been found in some high country, where the sound of water does not reach the woods. And, finally, the belly of the instrument was made not of wood but of some kind of animal matter. Masudi could tell the difference, just as wine drinkers know the difference between inebriation on white wine and on red. Masudi recognized the melody the unknown musician was playing; it was an extremely rare tune, and he was surprised to hear this particular song in such an out-of-the-way place. There was an extremely difficult section in this song, and in the days when he had still played the lute, Masudi had devised a special fingering for it, one that was used widely by lute players. However, the anonymous player was using another, still better fingering; Masudi could not figure out what it was, could not find the key to it. He was stunned. He waited for the section to come around again, and when it did he finally understood. Instead of ten, the player was using eleven fingers for that section. Masudi knew now that it was the shaitan playing, because the devil uses his ten fingers and tail to play.”

“…he began passing the time by forgetting his first love – music. He forgot not song by song, but piece by piece of these songs. First to fade from his memory were the lowest tones; the wave of oblivion rose like the tide to ever-higher sounds; then the flesh of the songs vanished and all that was left was the skeleton of their rhythm. Finally he began forgetting his Khazar notes, word by word, and was not too sad when one of Brankovich’s servants tossed his dictionary into the fire….”

“The translation was faithful when ben Tibbon was in love with his betrothed, good when he was angry, wordy if the winds blew, profound in winter, expository and paraphrased if it rained, and wrong if he was happy. When he finished a chapter, Tibbon would do as the ancient Alexandrian translators of the Bible had done – he would have someone read him the translation while walking away from him, and Tibbon would stand still and listen. With distance, parts of the text were lost in the wind and around corners, the rest echoing back through the bushes and trees; screened by doors and railings, it shed nouns and vowels, tripped on stairs, and finally, having begun as a male voice, would end its journey as a female voice, with only verbs and numbers still audible in the distance. Then, when the reader returned, the entire process would be reversed, and Tibbon would correct the translation on the basis of the impressions he had derived from this reading walk.”

Have you read ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘? What do you think about it?

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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?

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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?

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