Literature written in the Balkan countries, or that created by writers stemming from the region is becoming increasingly prominent internationally.
With topics such as war, exile, migration and the fall of one system of values often forming the topics of their literary works, names such as Aleksandar Hemon, Slavenka Drakulić, Dubravka Ugrešić, Staša Stanišić and Faruk Šehić have for some time occupied important places in modern world literature.
Some authors write in their mother tongue in their countries of origin, while many write from countries in which they’ve found their new home, in the language they have adopted after leaving their land of birth, either as refugees or migrants.
But beyond the “big names,” there are so many authors who write from the Balkans or about the Balkans, who you simply should be reading.
Without any doubt, this list could be a lot longer but here’s my pick of seven to take note of.
- Damir Karakaš (Croatia, 1967)
Damir Karakaš is one of the most authentic literary phenomena in the field of post-Yugoslav literature.
Since his book of stories “Kino Lika” was published in 2008, through his “Blue Moon” novel and the romanesque accomplishment titled “Remembering Forest,” Karakaš has built his own recognizable approach and literary model portraying him as a writer who thinks deeply about his books.
In their writing and in his own language, he makes no compromises with some of the core issues of these geographical areas, but also people themselves, thrown into the grindstone of history and political systems.
A specific characteristic of this author is that, while searching for the chronotope of his books, he has built an entire literary world around the Lika region (the part of Croatia that he descends from), introducing it into literature as the central theater of the drama and tragicomedy of his heroes.
Setting off from that world, Karakaš goes from book to book using complex forms of permeating a traditional environment, searching for those chinks and displacements that directly disintegrate the mitomania of a patriarchal society by means of subtle language interventions, bringing about characters and situations that showcase all the darkness of the 20th century in his political and ideological tempests.
Karakaš’s most recent book, “The Celebration,” reintroduces a sort of classical process into the literature of these regions; more specifically, it shows that a strong supporting story is still the most important aspect for successful literature.
You can read Karakaš’s works in English, German, Czech, Macedonian, Slovenian and Italian.
- Arian Leka (Albania, 1966)
Arian Leka is an author who became known to the wider public after the process of democratization in Albania; he constitutes a literary avant garde that has broken off from Enver Hoxha’s socialist realism in literature as the dominant approach.
As a writer, as we see from the way he shapes his stories in “The Husband’s Back,” he was undoubtedly raised on the literature of socialist realism, but then, as an author, he moved away from it, using this grounding for the development of his storytelling style which, I will dare to say, today constitutes one of the most original literary approaches in this part of Europe.
Leka’s literature is almost excessively concerned with relations with the past, from the closed totalitarian past during the rule of Enver Hoxha, the supreme leader who headed the state from 1944 to 1985, to the present time which has inevitably been determined by the past as represented by this painful wound, or better yet by the profound trauma of a society.
This is where Leka’s literature stems from. “The Husband’s Back,” as well as the essayistic books “Eleven Acoustic Essays” and “Dollap” direct their focus toward facing the core temblors of Albanian culture. (However, with Leka’s work in mind, it’s difficult to talk about clear genre classifications, bearing in mind that the writer is constantly changing his genre perspectives in his texts.)
Starting from the abundance of stories on departures and the emptying of the population — which has been emigrating from Albania for longer than a century — through texts dealing with generational conflicts and traumas due to the isolation caused by Hoxha’s regime, to the recordings of Leka’s hometown, Durrës, and the sea — which in one instance represents the path to “a better world” and in another a threatening force depicted by the ships of colonizers — Leka sinks deeper into the crevices of a culture that seem to be invisible, while actually representing the key disturbances that turn a person’s life upside down.
Arian Leka’s literature is available in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Romanian, Bulgarian and Croatian.
- Emina Smailbegović (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1996)
Emina Smailbegović is a young writer and musicologist from Breza, as well as a postgraduate student at the La Sapienza Roma University in Rome.
Still in her early twenties, her debut romanesque novel published earlier this year is a literary work that has significantly moved the established borders of storytelling in recent Bosnian and Herzegovinian literature.
“Via Appia,” is a rare and successful example of a writer taking to literature for a good reason. The surprising thing is that she writes naturally and casually, while the novel is a product of a need to tell a story using artistic means.
The hero of this novel, Kozimo Meštrović, is an atypical protagonist who bypasses all the shortcomings of generational prose. Kozimo tells his story from Genoa; it is the turn of the millenium and he remembers the tumultuous days of his youth in the beginning of the 1990s, as the snow suddenly covers the Mediterranean.
He is of Italian and Slovenian descent; one side of his family is Italian (from Rome) and with a Catholic family tradition, while the other is Yugoslav (from Dubrovnik) with sympathies toward a grandfather who is a communist and atheist.
This selection of one specific character, unburdened by the standard identity frames of our literature, is an exceptionally bold decision by Smailbegović. She bypasses the typical involvement of the hero in immediate events, using the ambiguity of his identity to create a complex path where the hero faces himself and the world around him.
In this manner, the drama of the young person at the turn of the millennium is depicted by means of more far-reaching consequences. The author successfully manages to use this deflection to provide a convincing picture of the turn of the millennium, introducing the reader to a multilayered story about a time that has changed our civilization to its core.
Following Kozimo’s adventures, his trips to Egypt, Venice, Genoa, Dubrovnik, and Rome, the reader is faced with an authentic human drama through the search for a path of his own.
- Stevo Grabovac (Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1978)
This author talks about the lost generation that was still underage during — and hence did not directly participate in — the slaughtering wars in Yugoslavia. However, in the process of growing up, surrounded by violence in its most brutal form, the generation has been fully marked by those events.
If we put it this way, we could not say that this is something unknown to literary circles in the region, since many writers have strived to talk about war and post-war times from a generational perspective.
However, what sets the literary work of Grabovac apart from many other creative works dealing with similar thematic circles is the fact that this author manages to elevate his novel above the constant repetition of well-known factographics. Instead of this, the author strives to build a character hero who he uses to tell a unique story about growing up in the border town of Bosanski Brod, about war-related violence, but also the apathetic and disintegrated post-war cities that have lost all notions of a future unreachable utopia.
“I’m 27 years old and I have no future ahead of me,” the hero created by Grabovac says at one point.
The atmosphere surrounding this novel is laborious above all other things; it testifies about a general disintegration where a person flexes beyond recognition.
Grabovac doesn’t tell the story in a linear manner. Even though told in the first person, it goes beyond the form of a confession; with frequent changes of temporal setting, heading in three directions (peace, war, and post-war), a dynamic effect is achieved, making this novel easy reading for the reader. However, this doesn’t mean that this is a text with no ponderosity.
On the contrary, Grabovac demonstrates an extremely precise skill for narrative build-up, playing with irony and oniric flashes, thereby reaching a rhythm of text that is fluent, drawing from it and creating the horrors of the scene.
- Jasna Dimitrijević (Serbia, 1979)
This storytelling debut of the author has brought about a significant shift, both in the context of what is referred to as women’s writing and in the approach used, which testifies that this is an author who approaches the story with a meticulous sense of detail and with well-thought-out compositional solutions.
The limited space provided by short stories requires the skill of concision but also the ability to listen to the story’s rhythm. Hence, without too much writing, in a couple of moves, the story obtains its essence, while simultaneously not reducing it to banal anecdote.
With her recent book, “Fibonacci Sequence,” Dimitrijević continues where she left off with her previous book. Once again, we see that this author possesses a literary momentum, insisting on effective details above all else, on a little crack that opens up the existential abysses of her heroes in front of the reader’s eyes.
With clear-cut moves, following the twists and turns of reality, the author uses the change of registers to again impressively demonstrate her skill in shaping short stories as storytelling forms, all while moving through different characters.
In comparison to “Recognition,” here Dimitrijević further develops her approach, with her latest book demonstrating dedicated work to sharpening the stylistic process and the finding of even better solutions to telling the story as effectively as possible to its very end.
- Goce Smilevski (Macedonia, 1975)
In his most recent novel, “Heloise or the Return of Words,” by using a thematic framework, Smilevski once again comes back to the story of historical women who have remained in the shadow of men.
In this sense, this is a prosaic trend that builds a fictionalized romanesque biography of women while taking into account the historical framework of the actual person, thereby seeking to deconstruct a single-perspective romanticized story that has been placed within a framework that only constitutes an echo of the dominant male perspective.
In “Heloise or the Return of Words,” Smilevski tries to build a multi-layered narrative where — apart from the fate of the historical women — a whole host of other elements coalesce, thereby making the story more complex and creating a stage where the tragic and dramatic life of his heroine plays out. This time, as a historical basis for his novel, Smilevski incorporates the medieval story of forbidden love between Heloise and Abelard, with the aim of becoming some sort of a historical match for Tristan and Iseult.
However, no matter the loudness of this classical French love story, the focus of the novel by Goce Smilevski isn’t exhausted in the reconstruction of its famous details. Namely, searching for a historical source for this story, Smilevski reveals that the letters of Abelard and Heloise, which had been stored in the Parisian Library, may not have been a completely authentic source.
Actually, according to some researchers, Abelard is the one who wrote all the letters, including Heloise’s, in order to “greasepaint” his biography for eternity. Starting with this absence of Heloise’s voice, as the novel’s initial investigation, the author showcases authentic literary fiction in the search for the missing voice.
Goce Smilevski’s books have been translated into English, German, Slovenian, Czech and Hungarian.
- Stefan Bošković (Montenegro, 1983)
Stefan Bošković is a writer, playwright and screenwriter. In 2013, his debut novel, “Slap in the Face,” won the award for best unpublished manuscript in Montenegro. He has also published short stories and drama works in a number of magazines and anthologies.
His book of stories, “Transparent Animals,” was published back in 2017. Conceptually, it’s a book of stories that this author uses to continue to develop an approach established in “Slap in the Face.”
Bošković’s style is characterized by simple storytelling, with frequent inversions and twists of the storytelling reality. This enables his prose, written mostly in flashes or images, to obtain a poetic rhythm.
The thematic register of Bošković’s stories in “Transparent Animals” introduces the reader to a unique transitional postapocalypse due to its scenery and the sense of displacement present in this book.
One could additionally say that the 14 stories presented in this book also function as sheet music, since every story seems to be an element within a musical setup, as noted by Vladimir Arsenić in the foreword.
In other words, Bošković uses “Transparent Animals” to introduce a symphony of a postapocalyptic time, in the face of which man turns into a mere thing or function. An alienated robot, free of emotions and conscience.
This is why the heroes of Bošković’s short prose appear to be pre-defeated, disbalanced and neurasthenic creatures that roam around in their somnambulist trance, unable to establish strong relationships, and whose connections with reality have been broken. This is why this world is brutal, bloody and violent.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.