Promoting writing from around the Union and beyond….

2_the-son-frontEUROPEAN UNION PRIZE FOR LITERATURE – promoting writing from around the Union and beyond….

The EU Prize for Literature, founded in 2009 and financed by the Culture Programme of the European Union, is conceived as a means of promoting the circulation of literature within Europe, going beyond national and linguistic borders and bringing our wealthy and diverse reserves of literature closer to readers all across the Union. By its rotational participation system and the selection of one author from each country, the Culture Programme of the European Union aspires to bring readers from all over the EU closer to works which might otherwise have been confined inside national borders. Thus, artistic and creative output is broadcast all over the European and international community, and the flow of intercultural dialogue finds new channels.

In charge of coordinating the initiative is the Condortium, which is composed by members of the European Booksellers Federation (EBF), the European Writers’ Council (EWC) and the Federation of European Publishers (FEP). The Consortium is responsible for the setting up of the national juries and the practical organisation of the award ceremony. To date, Istros Books has published several works by authors that have been selected by their national juries and awarded the EU Prize for Literature. We’ve listed the, here so you can check them out:

Ognjen Spahić, who won the prize this year for his “Puna glava radosti”, was born in 1977 in Podgorica, Montenegro. He claims that he spent the 1990s reading whole libraries, having been denied a passport because he refuse to serve with the Yugoslavian Army. Previous works of his include: two collections of short stories: Sve to (All That, 2001) and Zimska potraga (Winter Search, 2007). His novel, Hansen’s Children won him the 2005 Meša Selimović Prize for the best new novel from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina and the 2011 Ovid Festival Prize. Spahic’s works have been translated to Slovenian, Romanian, Hungarian, Macedonian, Czech, Greek, Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, English, Albanian and German. His short story “Raymond is No Longer with Us—Carver is Dead” was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2011 published by Dalkey Archive Press in the USA. Spahić lives in Podgorica.

Çiler İlhan, from Turkey, was awarded the 2011 EU Prize for Literature for collection of stories Sürgün (Exile), which will be in bookstores by April ‘15. An active writer since her youth, she has collected the Yaşar Nabi award in 1993 for one of her short stories. She regularly publishes stories, essays, book reviews, travel pieces and translations in Turkish newspapers and magazines.

Andrej Nikolaidis, who was awarded the 2011 EU Prize for Literature for The Son, was born in 1974 to a Greek-Montenegrin family, in Sarajevo. A controversial, politically outspoken figure in his country, Nikolaidis has written for regional independent and liberal media, as well as for cultural magazines. He is widely considered one of the leading intellectuals of the younger generation, and is known for his anti-war activism and for his defense of freedom of speech and the rights of minorities.

Jelena Lengold is a Serbian poet, novelist and journalist. She won the 2011 EU Prize for Literature for her short story collection Fairground Magician. Aside from that she has published five books of poetry, four volumes of short stories, and one novel. She he worked as a project coordinator in the Conflict Management programme of Nansenskolen Humanistic Academy in Lillehammer, Norway, where she touched on themes such as interethnic tolerance, discrimination, negotiations, human rights and peaceful conflict resolution. She lives in Belgrade.

Gabriela Babnik is a Slovenian writer and translator. Her travels to Africa, especially Burkina Faso, have inspired much of her work. She has an MBA in Contemporary Nigerian Novel and has translated Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s to Slovene. Her third novel, Dry Season, for which she was awarded the EU Prize for Literature, will be published by Istros Books in October 2015.

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Guest Post: translating the Great War….

 Will Firth, one of a handful of experienced literary translators from BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) opens the window on his       present project – a translation of one of Serbia’s best-selling books in recent years – The Great War by Aleksandar Gatalica.

”I feel almost privileged to be translating The Great War (Veliki rat) by the Serbian writer Aleksandar Gatalica because it really is a most entertaining   and moving book written with a convincing blend of styles and imagery. It is hardly surprising that it won the Serbian novel-of-the-year award (NIN nagrada) in 2012.

Over seventy main characters come together in The Great War. Among the historical figures we meet are Manfred von Richthofen (aka The Red  Baron), the flamboyant poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a megalomaniac little corporal in a Bavarian regiment on the Western Front (Adolf Hitler), and the illustrious Mata Hari – one of several spies in the book. These are joined by many characters who are fictional but convincingly portrayed: a Sarajevo  pathologist who finds Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie on his dissection table in 1914; a failed German artist who is now a zeppelin pilot itching to drop a bomb on Picasso; and an Istanbul spice trader, whose five apprentices are all mobilised and sent to five different frontiers across the unsettled, post-Ottoman territory of Turkey. This is a skilful device which helps sketch the geopolitical dimensions of the war. Many readers will not know that the relatively young Kingdom of Serbia was wiped off the map during WWI. One of the characters is a Serbian commander who repeatedly lies to his freezing, starving men to give them hope and keep them alive on their long retreat through the mountains of Albania; ultimately they reach the Adriatic coast and the relative safety of Corfu, where the officer indulges in a single glass of ouzo – and dies.

The Great War has many elements of a historical novel but is also rooted in the tradition of magic realism. A German submarine captain, for example, is in league with sea monsters; a Turkish policeman of Armenian extraction (something he has successfully repressed) is finally overwhelmed by the spirits of all the Armenians killed in the genocide; a Russian surgeon on the Eastern Front miraculously saves soldiers with bullets in their brains, and the often illiterate muzhiks wake up speaking German; at the same time, students and poets in the Austro-Hungarian army are dying after bloody battles in Serbia, despite the best efforts of a surgeon there (our Sarajevo pathologist). Their souls ‘migrated east (…) along some imponderable transversal, in the invisible barques of the dead, into the split heads of Russian farmworkers’. The Austrian Bolshevik Karl Radek sets off from Zürich, Switzerland, for Russia in March 1917. He is one of the passengers in Lenin’s famous sealed train. On the long journey through war-impoverished Germany, Radek sees the same boy at every railway station: a fair-haired lad with a freckled nose, whom he instantly feels fond of. Pale and emaciated, the boy is either pushing a heavy luggage cart, waiting despondently or leaning on a crutch. And when Radek arrives in troubled Petrograd he can’t believe his eyes: the same boy, it seems, has been sent to meet him.

As well as being fascinating ideas in themselves, these events and links create a web of intersecting fates. The Great War portrays the cataclysm that was WWI from a pan-European perspective and will hopefully help redress Anglophone preoccupation with the Western Front. The author paints a convincing, gripping picture of a continent in agony. It is the end of an age built on a belief in material and technical progress, and the beginning of an uncertain future.

The Great War is due to be published by Istros Books in November 2014. It will make a fascinating read. Although there are some hard nuts to crack, the novel is also a pleasure to translate. I don’t get to say that very often.”

Will Firth, translator

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A biographical note for Alma Lazarevska

A biographical note for Alma Lazarevska:

author of Death in the Museum of Modern Art

alma l,2013  Alma Lazarevska is a Bosnian prose writer. The attribute ‘Bosnian’ appeals to her most when it is used in conjunction with the word, ‘kilim’ or traditional woven rug. She has written a story with that title. She began to consider the date of her birth worth mentioning when she realised that it was the day when Robert ‘Bobby’ Fischer was born. One of the recurrent themes in her work is ‘the light and dark woman’ and she has played ironically with the idea of astrology in her novel The Sign of the Rose. However, out of respect for ‘the last great Yugoslav writer’, Danilo Kiš, and her exceptional liking for the books of the Swiss writer Nicolas Bouvier, she acknowledges belonging to the sign of the Fish.

Lazarevska also recognises the year of her birth as the one in which the Nobel Prize for Literature was won by Albert Camus. She likes The Outsider because it is concise, precise and devoid of sentiment. And she likes it because of the title. She is used to the fact that the combination of her first and second name provokes questions: a Bosnian writer, but ‘Lazarevska’? How come? Her answer to that kind of question may be found in her text, entitled ‘The Origin of Silk’. It is only here that she mentions the town of her birth. She does not, regrettably, speak the language of the inhabitants of that town. Constant moving in the first eight years of her life accustomed her to a sense of impermanence and not belonging. Through her father (in his day one of the most important Yugoslav authorities on porcelain), she acquired an interest in the dividing line between chemistry and alchemy. This interest is built into the essence of her writing and her affinities as a reader.

She lives in the town where her mother and her mother’s forebears were born, in the town where her brother and her son were born. It was here that she was educated. Given the choice between studying regional and comparative literature, she chose the second without hesitation.

The town where she lives is mentioned in the title of a collection of her essays, Sarajevo Solitaire. It is mentioned also in the novel The Sign of the Rose, a novel that has recently been translated into French and German. The stimulus for the novel was the murder of Rosa Luxemburg, or rather the fact that Lazarevska began to experience this theme as almost obsessive during the siege of her city.

Her books Death in the Museum of Modern Art (translated into French and German.. and now – English!) and Plants are Something Else (the title story has recently been included in the most recent edition of the literary magazine Wasafiri) deal with siege, and a ‘besieged city’, without naming it. They are written in the first person, for dramaturgical and stylistic, rather than confessional reasons. That this is the case is confirmed by the fact that several stories are written in the male first person voice. The author leaves it up to the reader to recognise Sarajevo in ‘the besieged city’. If asked, she will confirm that she lived in Sarajevo during the siege. Every single day and every single night. But she refuses to be a loudspeaker. Her stories are always intimate stories. She likes Nabokov and his distinction between ‘average reality’ and ‘true reality’. In her writing, Lazarevska pursues the latter. Her story ‘How we killed the sailor’, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, is included in an anthology of women writers from East and Central Europe. Lazarevska feels honoured that her work has come to speak in the language of authors whom she appropriates as ‘her own’. One of the fundamental threads of her reading runs from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf and beyond. Her graduation essay, which she wrote in the department of theatre studies, is concerned with four of Shakespeare’s plays (Cymbeline, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). Her biography is inconceivable without mention of the books that she has read and continues to read. Books are frequently mentioned in her writing. She has a large library and particularly likes books that fit into the pocket. She likes substantial books, or novels, if they are written by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mann, Hamsun, Broch … but she is suspicious of recently published long novels. Experience has taught her that after reading such books she regrets the wear and tear on her eyes.

Death In The Museum of Modern Art [NEW]3She is honoured by the fact that her book – Death in the Museum of Modern Art – has been translated by Celia Hawkesworth, who has translated the Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrić, a writer whom Lazarevska considers an unsurpassed teacher of language and style. She experiences Andrić’s language as her own, although because of regional divisions it is inevitably called by different names Andrić’s language is called Serbian. Lazarevska’s is called Bosnian. The language of the poet Ivan Goran Kovačić, whose tragic life inspired Alma’s recently published story ‘Letter from 1938’ is called Croatian. This language Lazarevska also considers her own. Lazarevska keeps in a small corner of her biography the fact that she attended the oldest grammar school (gymnasium) in Sarajevo and Bosnia, which was attended also by Andrić. Andrić ‘failed’ mathematics. Lazarevska had top marks in mathematics, and even won school contests. But she would renounce all those top marks and prizes for the beauty of Andrić’s sentences. When she wishes to believe in language as perfection, she reads The Damned Yard. After such séances, she always thinks: it is a great achievement to be at least a pawn in the literature in which Andrić is king.

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Macedonia on my Mind

3_bLast week, I was in Macedonia for a very special event – the second installment of a literary festival that hopes to be one of the biggest and best in the region – Pro-za Balkan. With the up-coming Balkan Day celebration of Creativity and Identity at the British Library (June 13th), and the (unavoidable!) lack of a Macedonian writer on any of the panels, Macedonia is on my mind in more ways than one:

Firstly, back to the festival. As I mentioned before, PRO-ZA Balkan is a fledgling festival which launched last year by hosting a number of writers who also happen to be published through Istros (just to prove to you that we really have the pick of the crop) – Alek Popov from Bulgaria, Andrej Nikolaidis from Montenegro, and Vladislav Bajac from Serbia. Bajac was also the recipient of the festival award – ‘Prozart’ Award – given to a prominent author from the Balkans for outstanding contribution to the development of the Balkan Literature (and shall be giving one of the Key note speeches at Balkan Day).

Aleksandar Prokopiev, Artistic Director of the festival (and also an up-coming Istros’ author), gave this statement on the impetus for starting this festival:

”The festival is a great step forward in the creation of bridges between the Balkan and Macedonian writers, between the European stakeholders in the publishing world and the Macedonian publishers, between the world of the book and the Macedonian reader.”

What’s more, PRO-ZA Balkan has now introduced a Fellowship programme that hosts the most prominent European publishers, literary agents and scouts, and directors of renowned literary festivals. This year, about from yours truly, the fellows included UK Literary Scout, Anne Louise Fisher and Lucien Leitess, founder of the Swiss publisher, Unionsverlag. Also joining us for a week of literary discussions and tasty, literary meals, were the Turkish writer, Mario Levi, the Slovenian writer Aleš Čar, Bosnian Writer Nenad Veličković, legendary Yugoslav film-maker and author, Slododan Šijan, and Macedonian author and translator of Shakespeare, Dragi Mihajlovski (whose short-story ‘Pop Goes the Weasal’ appears in the latest edition of Wasafiri Magazine). And the winner of the ‘Prozart’ Award this year was Daša Drndić, whose impressive and moving novel on the Holocaust –Trieste – was published to great acclaim in the UK with Maclehose Press last year.

Apart from the usual human dramas of minor toes infections, headaches, missing participants and hay fever attacks, all involved were shown the very best of Macedonian hospitality, and introduced to a vibrant literary and cultural scene, which exists despite the terrible economic pressures on this beleaguered Balkan country.

And then there’s another thing…..this month will see the publication of ‘Death in the Museum of Modern Art‘, a collection of six stories by the Macedonian-born writer, Alma Lazarevska. Described by fellow (ex)citizen of Sarajevo and writer, Aleksandar Hemon as ‘…a brilliant, engaging work of fiction’, much is expected from this literary debut on the UK market. Its first review – by Marina Sofia in Necessary Fiction, was a rave one, which praised the ”poetic silence between sentences” in this, subtle, tender collection.

a brilliant, engaging work of fiction.”
a brilliant, engaging work of fiction.”

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Balkan Killers and British Paedophiles?

Can we allow ourselves to see the man behind the stereotypes?

Can we allow ourselves to see the man behind the stereotypes?

It has been a long gap since my last blog post – which has more to do with relevance than lack of commitment. I have decided only to write when I feel there is something important to say. And today, I’d like to get something off my chest which has been bothering me for a few days….

Last Sunday, in his review of Tim Butcher’s fascinating new book – ‘The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War‘, John Lewis-Stempel (author of The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British PoWs 1914-18) summed up this in depth and sympathetic account of Gavrilo Princip’s life, politics and motivations thus:

”Ultimately, Princip was just one killer among many Balkan killers. Butcher’s first travel book, about the Congo, was called Blood River. He could easily have called this one Blood Land.”

Like many uninformed and lazy observers of the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s, Lewis-Stempel obviously feels that a little research into the politics and history of the region would be too much trouble, given his obviously low opinion of that part of Europe. In a wonderful piece of imperialist condescension, he classifies the conflicts of that time as ”that decade when Bosnia descended into a whirligig of violence inexplicable to the outsider and maybe not much better understood by the participants.”

Belittling what happened in Bosnia as ‘inexplicable’ and thereby inferring that the people and the place are inherently violent and that blood-thirsty conflict is therefore likely to explode anytime without sufficient reason was a line that many politicians took in the 90s in order to justify their lack of military intervention and inability to take a stand against fascist aggression and thereby stop humanitarian disasters like the Srebrenica Massacre (see veteran war reporter Ed Vulliamy‘s many articles on this phenomena). This attitude no-doubt instills in them a self-satisfied sense of the unavoidable tragedy, which comes ‘guilt-free’ to all those who subscribe to it.

But apart from the ignorance and arrogance intrinsic to such attitudes, there is the even nastier withholding of sympathy and empathy towards the thousands of victims killed in these conflicts. Is there no glory allowed the soldiers of this conflict, of the kind which is obviously endowed to the soldiers on ‘our’ side in Mr. Lewis-Stempel’s above-mentioned book?

Last but not least, I would like to ask Mr. Lewis-Stempel – and any others who agree with his analysis – if by the same token, and in light of the recent uncovering of decades of perversion and criminal activity in such great ‘British’ institutions as the BBC and the Public school – can we assume that men such as Jimmy Savile are simply part of a nation-wide, cultural predisposition towards child abuse? Can he therefore be summed-up (and therefore dismissed) as simply ‘just one paedophile among many British paedophiles’?

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The Romanians Are Coming!

In response to the small-minded, xenophobic scare-mongering of some politicians and quite a few journalists – all of whom should know better – I am starting a Twitter campaign called #TheRomaniansAreComing. I’d like everyone who does know better to join in and start spreading the word about the contributions people of all nations –  from the East as well as the West – make to our joint cultural heritage; from literature, art, drama, music, poetry to cuisine and science.

Romanian FlagAfter a week in which the UK was branded the ‘nasty country’, it’s time to start reminding people on this island that nations are more than a sum of their population; they are the ideas and creativity that they produce and offer out into the wider world for the enrichment of our common humanity. Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia…these are all new/newish members of the EU but they do not come into the club as beggars with nothing more to show than an open hand (for begging of course) and a foreign tongue. These countries all have histories and cultural traditions, have spent time and money educating their population through primary education, music education, sports education, and specialised training schemes. As a consequence, they offer a whole range of skills, experience and knowledge.

Yesterday I spoke about this phenomena to George Stanica, a Romanian writer and translator who has been living in London for more than twenty years and supplements his income working as an interpreter in the law courts and police stations. When I asked him if he expected as huge influx of Romanians after the restrictions have been lifted at the end of the year, he gave a completely different perspective. Rather than an influx of manual labourers, he thought it far more likely that Britain would attract graduates and skilled workers like doctors and nurses, whose wages are pitiably low in their home country and are likely to be attracted by better conditions. This is of course, can only be of benefit to us, while is a sad loss for the people of Romania – those very same people who we are accusing of wanting to drain us of our resources.

Over the next few weeks – as we lead up to the 31Dec deadline on the end to the ban on certain people from the Eastern EU – I will be highlighting the Romanians who have contributed to European culture over the decades. In this way, I hope to counterbalance the negative stereotypes that the press think normal people want to hear about. Please join in with your own positive examples. Myself, I prefer to see the world through exceptions rather than stereotypes: it’s a much brighter place, full of interesting individuals….

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Sharjah Book Fair – Books to bring your gaze back down to earth

Its tempting when in Sharjah – just as in its more famous next-door emirate, Dubai – to let your gaze roam constantly upwards towards the sparkling skyline of skyscrapers. Ground-level doesn’t really attract the eye in quite the same way as it does in European cities. But last week, a group of publishers from around the world were flown to Sharjah in order to bring people’s eyes back down to earth…in other words, to get them looking at those earth-bound objects – books!

Istros Books was invited to attend the 32nd #SIBF, along with other UK publishers @Arcadia, @CommaPress, @MadeinMe as well as publishers from the rest of the globe – 150 in all, apparently.

For the third year running the fair  began with a two day professional programme, designed to encourage the buying and selling of rights. The programme for us started off with two mornings of panel discussions on such subjects as IP Rights in the digital age, Tacking Book Piracy in the Arab world, publishing in Egypt after the Arab Spring. The subjects were interesting and relevant, but often to short to be tackled in any depth – one of the disadvantages of a packed programme. However, the pragmatic highlight was the match-making sessions organised for publishers to buy and sell rights at the fair. In a very magnanimous gesture, the organisers of the fair award translation grants to those who sign deals at the venue, with a generous grant value of up to $4000 for every adult fiction book translated from and to any language, not just Arabic. Potentially, we managed to sell 4 books there, and buy the rights for two excellent titles from Hungary and Croatia.

You can read more about what went on at the fair at Publisher’s WeeklyImage

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