Category Archives: Balkans

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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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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Love, Adultery and the Communist inheritance: Interview with Cecilia Stefanescu, author of ‘Sun Alley’ and ‘Love Sick’

Cecilia Stefanescu is one of Romania’s leading authors; part of a new generation of writers who grew up under the old regime but have gone on to write and flourish in a new literary culture. She made her debut with the novel Love Sick, which has been published in two editions in Romania and translated into French (Éditions Phébus, 2006).  Love Sick was also been made into a film, directed by Tudor Giurgiu, which has been shown at the Berlin Film Festival, Karlovy Vary, Chicago, and in more than twenty countries. In 2005, alongside eleven other Romanian writers, she took part in the annual Les Belles étrangères event, organised by the Centre National du Livre and the French Ministry of Culture, which was dedicated to Romania that year. She contributes monthly editorials to the Romanian-language edition of Elle magazine and writes for the weekly Romanian-language edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sun Alley‘ is her second novel, and was published in April this year by Istros Books, in a lovely translation by Alexandra Coliban. The novel is a tender mix of childhood first love and the more seedy world of grown-up adultery, seen though the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy with prophetic powers. Set in a Bucharest which belongs more to Eliade that it does to Ceausescu, it seduces and beguiles the reader beautifully, so that only at the end does one understand (or believes one understands), ‘the whole story’.

We asked Cecilia a few questions about her choice of subject matter in both her novels, and to tell us a little bit more how she writes and finds inspiration:

If I understand correctly her first novel Love Sick also took love as a main theme? Can you tell me a bit about Love Sick and how important writing about love is for you? 

 Writing about love is as important as writing about myself, about my fears and expectations. I think all of us, at some levels, lead our lives wondering what our purpose is and fearing about our end. We need to be loved and fear we might not be. In Love Sick, I wanted to depict the world through the eyes of a young woman who fell in love, accidentally with another woman, and distorted her reality in order for her to be happy. I spoke about the post-Ceauşescu era, about the Romanian 90s, a controversial and very difficult period of recent Romanian history. But, it’s true, I don’t touch real historical subjects, I talk about that historical period through a personal experience. I think that’s the only way you can speak about collective events.

Why did you decide to write about love in two novels?

 In Love Sick, I wrote about adolescent love, it was a coming-of- age story. In Sun Alley, it was mature, adulterous love. The end is tragic beacause it can’t be otherwise. I often wondered why, I still can’t find an answer…

 When talking about Romania the first thing that comes to mind is Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. For a reader it might be somewhat liberating that this is not straightforward political book, or a book that comments on the former regime and the politics of Romania. Was it a deliberate move for you to move away from that historical baggage? 

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Cecilia Stefanescu presenting ‘Sun Alley’ at this year’s London Book Fair

I carry this historical baggage within me, and unfortunately it exists in the basement of my book even if you say you didn’t see it, which I think is a good thing. But I wanted to write only about me and what’s in my head, because it’s the only honest thing to do. I will answer your other question too, about how I see my own fiction. I see it as a work of archaeology, a work of research. I use a flashlight and, illuminate parts of my brain, while leaving other parts in the shadow. By doing this, I perpetually discover something else about myself. I think a book is not an answer but rather an experience in itself. A journey in the brain and the mind of a person who dares expose themselves. In this case, I am that person.

 Can you give us a potted self-portrait of yourself as a writer?

”I’m the neurotic product of a childhood spent among the ruins of Ceausescu’s Bucharest and that’s why, vacillating between petty fears and some naïve happiness, between the nostalgia of what was at that time a personal paradise and the horror of what I might have turned into but didn’t as time went by, I’ve chosen the shortest route, that of fabulation. Since I don’t exactly like talking loudly or laughing noisily or entering a room full of enthusiastic people and listening to those that like talking a lot and for a handful of other idiosyncrasies, I’ve become a writer. It’s a job that increases your phobias, glorifies your failures and sets in memorable forms the whole mess of time passed.”

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Prose after Srebrenica?

This morning I had cause to remember once again that much quoted line (by Theodor Adorno)   that ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. The title of the article I was reading in the Independent Blogs – ‘Poetry After Auschwitz?‘ referenced that statement, and was dedicated to the poetry of Tadeusz Różewicz

In my ignorance, I did not know that Rozewicz is Poland’s most celebrated living author, a Nobel prize nominee and considered by many as “one of the great European poets of the 20th century. Despite my dedication to literature in translation, I also find myself a victim of my own specialization – with Poland not included in my chosen area of S E Europe. Luckily, Stork Press have started to remedy that, with their English-language publications of Rozewicz and other neglected Polish writers.

The shadows of the Holocaust still lie heavily over us, nearly 70 years on, especially in the world of literature. But my personal experience with the horrors of war came in the 1990s, when I was working with refugees from war in Bosnia, many of them from soon-to-be sites of atrocities, like Srebrenica and Sarajevo. And so, for me, the question becomes whether it is possible for anything beautiful and pure – in the literary sense – can come out of Bosnia?

And so it is with such pride and relief that I can be involved in translating  and publishing Bosnian writers like  Selvedin AvdićImage, who evokes the horror of mass murders and unsolved disappearances not with blood and gore, but with the shifty workings of paranormal activities in his disturbing book, Seven Terrors; and Alma Lazarevska, whose tender and revealing set of stories – Death in the Museum of Modern Art, avoid the easy traps of politics and blame in order to reveal a world full of incidents and worries so similar to our own, and yet always under the shadow of the snipers and the bombs which we know are out there and who occasionally impinge on the story in shocking ways.

The human desire to understand terror, to probe the minds of the victims and the perpetrators and – perhaps more importantly – to allow the mind to convert the horrors of historical events into the stuff of memory, is an essential one in the process of living, and indeed forgiving. The process of writing down – recording, shading and refining – itself being a kind of therapy, a way to allow one part of the brain to process the experience and allow it a proper place in our recollection and understanding. It seems, therefore, that far from being a betrayal of our humanity (as indicated in Adorno’s quote), it is an imperative action; indeed, an affirmative action by the soul in desperation to save itself.

Without poetry, without prose, we are dumb animals at the gates of the abattoir.

Post script:

The Romania poet, Paul Celan  (who witnessed the Shoah (The Holocaust) first hand, and which provided him with defining forces in his poetry and his use of language) said of language after Auschwitz that:

”Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”

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Check out the European Short Story Festival

It’s funny, but I have a sneaky feeling that since I left Zagreb, it has become the most interesting and edgy city in South East Europe!

Last week saw the likes of Oliver Stone and Slavoj Zizek, discussing such topics as the European Left, Love and Democracy at the Subversive Film Festival, while next week sees the start of the 10th annual Festival of the European Short Story. fessThe festival will be held from 29 May to 3 June in the present capital city of Zagreb and the once-capital Baroque town of Varaždin, bringing together dozens of writers from Croatia and abroad.

Welsh short-story writer, Owen Martell will be there, as well as Man Booker International nominee, Josip Novakovich, who was just in London for the Book Fair, and French writer and film director, Phillippe Claudel and local heroes –Edo Popović, Nenad Bartolčić, Branko Čegec

Highlights at this eclectic and truly European festival include a workshop on The Golden Age of Visual Storytelling which looks at the history of comics and graphic novel and a Short Introduction to the Contemporary Welsh Short Story.

Neighbouring Bulgarian writer, Alek Popov, is also there to present his collection of short stories – The Mythology of Transition’. Istros’ is hoping to bring his hilarious novel, ‘Mission London’, to UK audiences early next year, with the motion picture of the book out for UK release this autumn – watch the trailer here

All due to respect to the Creative director, Roman Simić Bodrožić, himself a short-story writer, as well as an editor at Fraktura Publishing House. Roman too joined Istros recently, at the Croatian stand of the London Book Fair. Listen here to get a sample of his hosting skills and his sterling efforts to control a panel-full of the top Croatian writers at the Europe House event – Contemporary Croatian Literature: Inside and Out

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Let’s RECLAIM the Balkans!

As we enter the third and final day of the London Book Fair, a certain theme can be noticed lingering around the Croatian stand. If you pass by, you might notice a Bulgarian publisher or a Romanian literary scout, perhaps even the odd Macedonian translator or Serbian PR agent. And why is this so?

Well, it seems to me that those from the Balkan seem drawn together in some elemental way. They feel welcome to take a break at the Croatian stand between meetings; to catch up with colleagues or make new acquaintances; and of course to listen to what our visiting writers have to say about their books:)

While I was at the lovely Romanian national stand on Monday (the only other stand from the region at the LBF, listening to one of the speaker bemoan the negative associations connected to the Balkans, while also repeating those woeful words blood-letting, war, ancient hatreds. And it suddenly occurred from me how willing we all our to accept these adjectives and to apologise for the apparently inevitable curse that is cast over the region…

And suddenly I felt a voice inside me shout no! What we have to do is to reclaim that word – turn it round and make it our own. And that’s what the Romanians and the Croatians, the Bulgarians and the Serbians are all trying to do with their efforts to promote their culture, art and literature – they are trying to promote new adjectives for the Balkans: exciting, inspiring, fascinating, multi-cultural…

I don’t want to start wading though the muddy waters of recent history, but let’s just keep in mind who taught them the ways of Fascism and ethnic cleansing, and let’s keep in mind the cruel hand dealt by geography.

So let’s open the floor;
The Brilliant Balkans
The Best Balkan Books…

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