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Archive for the ‘Yugoslavian Literature Month’ Category

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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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?

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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?

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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?

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I discovered Slavenka Drakulić’s novel ‘S. : a novel about the Balkans‘ recently. I tried to stay strong and brave today, when I started to read it.

S. is in a hospital in Stockholm. She has just given birth to her baby. But S. doesn’t want to touch her baby. She doesn’t want to keep it. She wants to give it up for adoption. We are puzzled why. The story travels a year back in time. S. is a school teacher in a village in Bosnia. It is the early ’90s. One day she hears some loud conversation in the street. Then a soldier walks into her house. He asks her to pack up things and leave. S. is puzzled but packs a bag and comes out. All the village people are put in buses and taken somewhere. They end up in a camp in the middle of nowhere. Then the horror starts. The women are first put in a camp and are expected to work to keep the camp running. Then some of them are chosen and put in a different building. Then unspeakable horrible things are inflicted upon them by the soldiers. Some of the women die as a result. S. ends up in that building. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

The first half of the story felt like a combination of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich‘ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘. It was very hard to read. Things get a little better after that. It appears that Slavenka Drakulić based her story on real events which happened in Bosnia in the ’90s. It is very hard to believe that such horrible things happened not long time back. This was not the time of the Nazis. It was not the medieval ages. It was just now. The women who ended up in those camps when they were young and who survived, must be in their forties or fifties now. I can’t imagine the kind of nightmares they’ll be having even today and the emotional scars that they still have in their hearts. It is just so heartbreaking to think about. The ending of the book was beautiful and life affirming and I thank Slavenka Drakulić for offering that sliver of hope.

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading ‘S.’, because it was a heartbreaking story which was hard to read, but I am glad I read it, because it shines the light on a horrible episode in recent human history, and hopefully this book will make humans learn from their past and become better people.

I’m sharing one of my favourite passages from the book, which is one of the beautiful, sunny moments from the story.

“S. does not remember the day, but she does remember the moment that N. took out of her apron a round golden loaf of bread, corn bread. It was still warm. J. grabbed the bread from her hands and kissed it. She carried it around the room, holding it out for each girl to smell. For S. there was nothing more wonderful than the smell of freshly baked bread, of buns which her mother would bring back from the corner bakery in the morning, before S. and her sister were up. When she opened the front door the smell would fill the entire apartment. They would wake up and find waiting on the table for them the bread and the buns, still warm and fragrant. N. breaks up the bread and suddenly they feel as if there is no war and they are not in a camp. N. sits down with the girls. She does not eat, she merely observes their delight over the fresh bread she has just baked for them…”

Have you read ‘S. : a novel about the Balkans‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered ‘The Moment‘ by Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar serendipitously while looking for something else.

Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar is a Bosnian writer who has written novels, short stories, poems and plays. ‘The Moment‘ is a collection of her short stories.

There are ten stories in ‘The Moment‘. The first story ‘Memento Mori‘ is nearly one-fourth the length of the book. It is set in the ’90s during the war in Bosnia. It is a sad, heartbreaking story with a surprising ending written in what can only be described as serene and tranquil prose. The surprises continue in the rest of the book. Nearly all the stories have surprise endings, and most of the time they are unexpected. ‘Dzevad of Sokolica‘ is a story about the beautiful friendship between a fifty year old man and a ten year old girl. It has a sad ending, which seems to be Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s favourite kind of ending, but the ending was so unexpectedly surprising that I didn’t see that coming. It also put the rest of the story in context and made me think. ‘Pigeon‘ has the feel of an Edgar Allan Poe story. ‘The Vase‘ is about a mother and her son. ‘Mother‘ is about a man who accidentally discovers a dark secret about his family which changes him as a person. I enjoyed reading all the stories in the book and I loved the surprise endings. My favourites were ‘Memento Mori‘ (because it was atmospheric, dark and heartbreaking) and ‘Dzevad of Sokolica‘ (because of its depiction of a beautiful friendship and the surprising ending). I want to read more of Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s stories. Hope they get translated into English.

I read this for ‘Women in Translation Month‘ which celebrates translated literature by women writers during the whole of August.

Have you read Nura Bazdulj-Hubijar’s book? What do you think about it?

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