Serbian literature


The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.

Thursday Thirteen

1. I’ve noticed that I quite rarely write about Serbian literature (so far I think I have only one post) which is quite strange. Truth is that I usually read foreign contemporary literature and in private correspondence with my foreign friends I’m recommending my favourites Serbian writers; what a paradox.

2. Recently I had “conversation” with one Finnish friend about Serbian folklore, namely about devil/vampire in it and have recommend her “Fear and its Servant”, novel written by Mirjana Novaković (as far as I know book is translated only in French: La peur et Son Valet). That was the novel who missed the most prestigious Serbian literary award, NIN Award by one vote. But (big BUT) I wasn’t talking about the novel but about magical theatre play based on this novel. Play was settled under the open sky, during the night on the Belgrade fort Kalemegdan (where the novel is set as well). I have the novel on my to-be-read pile and after that conversation I took it and lightly start to read. I made first pause after reading 100 pages!
This is probably my novel of the year!

Fear and its Servant (Страх и његов слуга)
by Mirjana Novaković (Мирјана Новаковић)

Fear and its Servant3. Fiction with vampires is usually not my cup of tea (I’m afraid my only positive experience was „Historian“ by Elisabeth Kostova); however I’m very interested in ethnology and folklore and being Serbian I surely can’t skip vampires (I’ll explain the reason later; you’ll be surprised), therefore folklore, myths etc. in nonfiction work is something I like very much indeed.
The novel is set in XVIII century in Belgrade under Austrian administration and the topic is one historical event: Investigation of vampires.

4. XVIII century is full of scientific achievements and historical events and Serbs gave their (quite odd but still) contribution as well: Vampires!

Namely for the first time in the western world Serbian (!) word “vampire” has been documented! In the year of 1725 in the Serbian village Kiseljevo peasant Petar Blagojević (or HERE) died and soon after him few peasants more. All of them in their dying moments were talking that late Petar is coming to them during the night and drank their blood. Then commission along with the priest exhumed Petar, stabbed his heart with hawthorn stake and burned the body. Peter has been proclaimed as “archvampire”, the report has been sent to Belgrade and from there to Vienna and after publication in The Wiennerisches Diarium it was the main theme in Vienna’s public circles.

5. So, theme for this novel is historical fact from 1725, arrival of the commission from Vienna that supposed to investigate article in Wiennerisches Diarium about vampires in Serbia. But that would be just too simple right? Therefore the main role plays Devil himself! (in strange way similar with “Sympathy for the Devil” by Rolling Stones). 6. So I guess by default this novel suppose to be horror and in some way it is: we have vampires, placed in the system of manipulations, money, politics … yes it is actually kind of political horror novel. Therefore there’s no problem to put in this sub-genre at the same place vampires, devil, princes, Maria Magdalene, Christ … Politics is the biggest horror because it is true horror. In politics, nothing is fiction!

7. As I said devil plays the main role and is one (of two, second is Princess Maria Augusta Turn and Taxis) narrators of the story. He is disguised in false count Otto von Hausburg (one of many historical allusions) and is coming with his servant Novak, Serb (amazing character, Christian who is willingly work for devil as a way of self punishment) to check if the rumors about vampires are true. He has his own reasons.

8. In one moment devil says “I don’t have enemies among people. Everyone loves me!” and in some way you can believe in that (remember Rolling Stones from above) because we are meeting men that are much worse than the devil. Here devil is anthropomorphous being, almost common man who doesn’t have any supernatural powers but has flaws common to majority of human beings. And that is the irony: Devil meets people much worse than he is and he’s afraid and wants to avoid them. It seems that devil is afraid of Serbia (and Serbs)!

9. So this is mixture of horror and fantasy with postmodernistic elements. This is the story where the history is turned upside down! Vision of Christianity through the eyes of the devil, from the night in the Gethsemane Garden through the centuries is so intelligent and with amazing humour! We see devil as a common man who drinks, smokes hashish, sleep, is running away from love and is afraid of vampires! And why’s that? Well, think! If dead people are arising Judgment Day is near, meaning farewell to the devil!

10. Images of Belgrade from the early XVIII century are magical! The city has been divided in two parts: “Austrian” (which means: European, Christian, white (Belgrade means Beli-White Grad-City)) part and the second “obscure other” part that is on the other side of the Wall, behind the Prince Eugene Line, where through the night and fog roam vampires, ghosts, road bandits and other Serbian and Turkish natives. I said that the history has been turned upside down but there are many historical facts, especially about the history of my Belgrade (episodes I didn’t know).

11. Through entire novel many pseudo-biblical stories are interweaving and are initiated with the constant devil’s self-reexamination, his desperate need to treat Christ with irony and author with many beautiful marginal allusions is canceling linearity of time. We are sailing from the New Testament to Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Dante to Rolling Stones and through the huge part of Serbian literature.

12. In the same time, Novaković is telling one apocryphal story about one Belgrade that is nothing but apocryphal place for any nowadays Belgradian because there is almost nothing left from those past times. That was de-oriental-ed place, with three circle of strong walls, full of cathedrals build by Austrians, and destroyed by the same Austrians when the Austrian regent sold Belgrade back to Turks. 13. And if there is a place where that town still exists, it must be in that other world where, even today many undead souls of the always obscure, dark Balkans are roaming; about which Mirjana Novaković is writing with cheerful, ironical tenderness, precisely in the way one should write about something that is dear as much as is crazy, about something where even devil himself in one moment is putting cross around his neck!

P.S.
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Kandže (The Claws)
Marko Vidojković

This is my January entry for 2007 TBR Challenge

Marko Vidojković is one of the most popular Serbian writers of young generation. And this novel is his most praised work so far. It has won “Golden Bestseller” award for 2005.

The Claws is novel about student protest 1996/97 against Slobodan Milosevic and his vote fraud. From time to time I almost wasn’t sure is this work of fiction or nonfiction. I participated in those events and all of them are very vividly described; night when I “tasted” tear gas for the first time in my life is here in the novel; described precisely in the way I remembered; I even imagined where he (Vidojković I guess) was standing and calculated he was some 20 meters away from me. Strange feeling indeed.

The main character is law student at Belgrade’s University who participates in the protest fanatically; hungry; betrayed by the rest of the world; he goes on demonstrations every day and haeadlong running into the most dangerous situations, comes to term with pointless of life. But everything changes when he meets very unusual girl with cut-off eyelashes…

The Claws speaks in new manner about student protest uncovering it till the final detail, and promoting almost impudently principle of revolutionary justice and rule that in politics and in love everything is permitted. This novel is offering that grotesque reality show of gray and carnival-whirlpooling everyday life in Belgrade in nineties with characters of flesh and blood even when they go astray on the other side of reality.

Here we can see anger in the leading role; anger as completely natural manifestation and only defending mechanism that person can afford during those years. Each character as much as s/he’s angry on his parents or girlfriend or his friends or … whatever; everything is leading to that anger because you cannot oppose to that monster called life or world or …. Especially in such idiotic and abnormal country that Serbia used to be then.
(”[…] AIDS is not the worst thing you can catch here in Serbia; the worst thing that might happened to you in Serbia is to live in Serbia.”)

Indeed those years were really tough and only to think about that period is scary enough! That’s why reading this novel was so déjà vu although this novel is extremely political, with very explicit political attitude (including real politicians (still active on our political scene); including late Serbian prime minister; including hint of his assassination; including hints about events which will lead to the final fall of Milosevic’s regime); written in very urban style with extremely obscene language …
What I like is that here there is no idealizations. Even perfect girl is not perfect (her nose and teeth aren’t quite perfect and she has no eyelashes); Ideal landscape is concrete architecture of New Belgrade; and in the end love which exists and don’t exists is actually sex (in enormous amounts) with amazing women who exists but on the other hand does she exists?

This is modern fairytale: sex, politics, anger, beating, police torture, sex, marihuana, loyalty, revolution, alcohol, magical realism or narcotic hallucinations (?) = strange and interesting combination.

Now I’m really not sure how will anyone who is not from this story understand this novel? Book is full of local stuff: streets, jokes, language, (existing) people, spirit and energy… It’d be very hard (if possible) to explain to someone who is not familiar with this. Poor translator … I could imagine only with glossary twice thicker than the novel itself!

7/10