Posts Tagged ‘  Yugoslavian Literature’

I got Danilo Kiš’Garden, Ashes‘ a few days back. I was so excited about it, because it took me a long time to get this book, because Danilo Kiš’ books are hard to come by.

The narrator of the story is a boy called Andi Schaum. He tells us about his family, his mother, his sister, and his father. A significant part of the book is about his father. Through the book the family’s circumstances seem to be changing from good to bad to worse. And they are constantly moving from one place to another. In these circumstances, Andi describes his life and life around him and narrates his experiences while growing up.

This is the simplistic version of the plot. But this is not all what the book is about. The Holocaust looms large in the background, though it is only implied and hinted at and never explicitly mentioned, but we can feel its dark shadow throughout the book.

The book can be read as a coming-of-age story, a boy’s story about his father, a story about the Holocaust, or even as Danilo Kiš’ veiled memoir.

For me, the thing I loved the most about the book is this. Danilo Kiš’ prose sizzles throughout the book. In some places, there are beautiful sentences. But in other places, and these were my favourite parts, there were long passages of absolute beauty, which were almost Proustian in their depth and elegance. These were so pleasurable to read and gave me goosebumps. These passages continued till the end of the book – one of the last ones is a passage in which Andi and his mother light a lamp in the evening and start talking (I think) and it is magical. I waited for these long passages to arrive and when one of them arrived I read it slowly and immersed myself in it, and then contemplated on it for a while, and then went back and read it again. The book is slim at 170-pages, but that slimness contains such immeasurable, poetic beauty. I am sharing some of those passages below for your pleasure.

“I am sure that I will not be able to fall asleep that night. I have been lying awake long that it seems to me that dawn should already be at hand, so I lift my head to hear if the others are asleep or are just pretending, but then I sense that my head is drooping from tiredness and that I will not really be meeting the dawn awake. Yet there is no way for me to comprehend how sleep comes on all at once, without any effort of will or knowledge on my part, how I can fall asleep every night without catching hold of that instant when the angel of sleep, that great butterfly of night, swoops down to close my eyes with its wings. So I begin to set an ambush for that instant. I would have liked to catch hold of sleep at least once, just as I had been resolved to catch hold of death one day, to catch hold of the wings of the angel of sleep when it came for me, to grab it with two fingers like a butterfly after sneaking up on it from behind. I use precisely this metaphor because when I say “the angel of sleep” I am thinking – just as I was when I believed in the angel of sleep – of the moment when the waking state passes into the state of oblivion, for I long believed – and I think I was right – that this shift occurs all of a sudden, for – if the organism lulls itself to sleep over a long interval – consciousness has to sink all at once, like a stone. And yet I wanted to catch the angel of sleep in its insidious fortress…”

“Notes at the bottom of pages and all the ideograms – crosses, crescents, asterisks – were supplanted by whole pages of manuscript in a tight hand. Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters. The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression. In the end, all that remained of the ‘Bus, Ship, Rail, and Air Travel Guide’ was a shriveled cocoon, an ideogram, a bracket, an abbreviation here and there. In the meantime, the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence, and this fabricated and abstract prototopic was represented only by the thin lines of meridians and parallels in the immense structure of some eight hundred pages, single-spaced. The text stubbornly, obstinately retained its original title as a travel guide, reflecting the sick confusion in my father’s mind : he actually believed that some publishers would be fooled by this obvious fraud and publish his chaotic compendium under the guise of an innocent timetable-travelogue.”

I loved ‘Garden, Ashes‘. It is one of my favourite books of the year. I’ve met only a few Danilo Kiš fans on the internet, but every one of them has raved about him. Though he was one of the literary stars during his lifetime, it is sad that he is less well-known today. I wish his books are more widely read.

Have you read ‘Garden, Ashes‘? 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 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?

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