Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Literature / fiction

Reading the Territory

The best books from Southeastern Europe in English translation in 2022

It's impossible to read Mircea Cărtărescu without being taken on a tour of Bucharest; Robert Perišić's new novel deals with the foundation of the Croatian Adriatic town of Vis; and there's an important place for Sofia in Georgi Gospodinov's ruminations on European nostalgia.

“Southeastern Europe” is a somewhat arbitrary definition and might indeed lead to arguments about which countries and literatures truly belong within it. Suffice to say that it vaguely corresponds to the satellite's current orbit, so for us at least there is an undeniable logic in covering the best books to have emerged from the region as we imagine it to be.

Many of the books on our list come with an undeniable sense of place: it's impossible to read Mircea Cărtărescu without being taken on a tour of Bucharest; Robert Perišić's new novel deals with the foundation of the Croatian Adriatic port of Vis; there's an important role for Bulgarian capital Sofia in Georgi Gospodinov's ruminations on European nostalgia; and we find Senka Marić making regular journeys along the motorway between Mostar and Zagreb. New translations of rediscovered novels by Miloš Crnjanski and Daša Drndić are rather different in that they deal with the experiences of Balkan exiles in western cities. One thing that unites all the books in this list is they could be pleasurably, and enlighteningly, read in situ while visiting the locations in which they are set.

Mircea Cărtărescu. Solenoid. Trans. Sean Cotter. Deep Vellum.

Only published in English in October, Mircea Cărtărescu's brick-sized odyssey through a phantasmagorical Bucharest has already been hailed by the critics as a contemporary classic, a judgement with which it is very difficult to argue.

Solenoid's success is all the more surprising given that first impressions suggest that it might be a bit of an awkward read. Cărtărescu's main protagonist is a misanthrope who lives alone, has few friends, and regards his humdrum teaching job as a lifelong prison from which he will never escape. He is obsessed by his failure to become a writer, his epic poetry having been comprehensively rubbished by the university literary society back in the days when he was an ambitious student with dreams. And yet this man's internal monologue is totally gripping, badgering us with tales of his childhood, his workmates, describing with fascination the landscapes of Bucharest - not the historical centre that visitors might be familiar with, but the sprawling factory-lands of its peripheries, and the never-ending cast of grotesques that pass through its streets, or ride its trams and trolleybuses.

The story is set in the 1980s, and although there are some good jokes about the absurdities of Romanian communism, Cărtărescu keeps our focus on the strangeness of his narrator's world rather than depending on more obvious references to Comrade Ceaușescu and his self-declared "epoch of gold".

And we gradually discover that there is more to the narrator's life than meets the eye. He buys a house from an elderly scientist who has buried a huge magnetic coil or solenoid beneath the foundations. At first we assume that the solenoid is a dead relic of past technology, until the first of the book's surreal set-pieces reveals that it is very much in function.

Our protagonist's Bucharest becomes ever more bizarre; there are other solenoids located around the city, the narrator explores an abandoned factory where he discovers a natural history museum full of previously unknown creatures; he comes across a cult-cum-protest group called the Picketists that campaigns against the senselessness of death, and in which many of his workmates have become involved.

Cărtărescu is a master of the digression, allowing his narrator to constantly chop from the present to the past as he goes over different episodes of his childhood (a childhood we increasingly learn was very strange) or indulges in meditations on the books with which he has been obsessed throughout his life. This technique of stopping a story half way through in order to go back to an earlier one builds up a palpable tension as the reader eagerly awaits more information on the brooding sense of cataclysm that is gradually taking over the city.

And having battled our way through over 600 pages to reach the end of the story, we can only confirm that it is definitely worth the wait.

Miloš Crnjanski A Novel of London. Trans. Will Firth. Službeni glasnik

This long-awaited and timely translation of one of the most significant Serbian novels of the last century first appeared in the Dialogos imprint in 2019 - lost amid Covid lockdowns, however, it never received the attention it deserved. Re-published in 2022 by Belgrade's Službeni glasnik (with a much nicer design and a much more attractive cover), it fully deserves its place in this list of the year's literary highlights. And not least because it was just over 50 years ago that Crnjanski received the NIN prize for this very book (Serbia's most prestigious book award, the NIN prize was at that time the most sought-after literary gong in the Yugoslav federation) - a career-capping moment for one of Serbia's canonical writers.

Conceived during Crnjanski's post-war exile in the English capital (a serving diplomat in royalist Yugoslavia Crnjanski didn't return to communist Yugoslavia until 1965), A Novel of London is a magnificent evocation of the post-war city, with its rattling underground trains, buses the look like "red elephants", and energized crowds returning to normal life amidst Blitzed-out buildings. The novel is also celebrated for the author's wry, bitter reflections on the English themselves - polite, reserved, with a conscientiously maintained sense of dignity, but also closed to outsiders, incapable of keeping their promises and with an exaggerated view of their own fairness and generosity.

Although the book contains much that is autobiographical, Crnjanski disguises his auto-fictional intentions by making his main protagonist a White Russian count, Nikolai Repnin, who escaped Bolshevik Russia as a young man but is now penniless, living a hand-to-mouth existence and moving from one unsatisfactory job to another.

The melancholy of the immigrant forms the emotional heart of the novel. London post-1945 is full of exiles, many of them Poles, men and women who fought for the allies on all fronts during World War II and (rather like Crnjanski himself) are now unwilling to be sent back to a homeland controlled by communists. The English are rather indifferent to their plight - bureaucrats draw up lists of Polish veterans and jobs they might do, but never seem to deliver much in the way of practical action. "They had been promised work. It was a promise. "We're so sorry," they said later" comments Repnin, as his increasing contempt for the English becomes the dark cloud hovering over the book.

Repnin admires the resourcefulness and dignity of the Poles in doing whatever menial jobs come their way, but is simply too aristocratic and impractical to show the same survival instincts himself. He despairs at his inability to provide his wife with a comfortable home, and harbours unrealistic ideas about how he might be able to improve his lot. He obsesses about writing a book on bear-hunting in Siberia as if this is somehow going to make his reputation, or carry him towards a social circle more suited to his noble status.

In many ways the Poles of post-war London served Crnjanski as a useful metaphor for the national mythologies of the Serbs, condemned to fight for foreign empires before being humiliated or discarded by those they thought would treat them as allies and friends. Indeed the Poles are reminiscent of the Serbs of Crnjanski's earlier (and equally canonical) historical novel Migrations (Seobe; 1929), who fight for the Austrian Habsburgs only to be treated as useful savages only good for throwing into battle.

Thanks to Migrations and his poetry collections Crnjanski had been a celebrated literary star in his native Serbia ever since the 1920s, and by the time he wrote A Novel of London some forty years later he was a consummate stylist with a reputation to keep. His famously long sentences, full of lolloping clauses broken by rhythmic commas, are rather magnificently rendered by translator Will Firth.

Daša Drndić. Canzone di Guerra. Trans. Celia Hawkesworth. Istros Books

I must admit I had second thoughts about including this one. But then an early Drndić work written before she really got going as a novelist is still a better read than most things that get translated these days - especially when rendered so fluently by doyenne of Croatian-English translation Celia Hawkesworth.

First published in 1998, Canzone di Guerra doesn't have the practiced power and rage of Drndić's later work - indeed beginners should start with her searing Holocaust novel Trieste (published in Croatia to great acclaim in 2007, it enjoyed a major English-language success with Maclehose Press in 2012) before exploring further.

Canzone is however one of Drndić's most revealingly personal works, adding flesh to autobiographical themes that she returned to again and again (but with more in the way of auto-fictional ambiguities) in her later novels. The book's main protagonist Tea Radan seems pretty close to the real Drndić, a Croatian-born writer who spends most of her childhood and early career in Serbian capital Belgrade - only to discover in the nationalism-ridden 1990s that Belgrade society no longer regards her as one of their own. She moves to the Croatian city of Rijeka, where the amount of time she has spent in the "enemy" camp evokes a similarly hostile response. Emigration to Toronto follows, in the hope that Canada at least will not judge her background, accent or fiercely independent political views.

As a book on the migrant experience Canzone is profoundly relevant to today's world of constantly moving populations, refugee rights and closing borders. Drndić describes the mixture of humiliation and quiet dignity with which her own generation of ex-YU migrants responded to unsympathetic bureaucrats, treated as cheap labour, and yet were still expected to voice gratitude to a Canadian society that flattered itself as generous, welcoming and kind.

There's also a lot about fascism and its capacity for eternal return. The cynical cultivation of ethnic hatreds in 1990s Yugoslavia is an ever-present background; and the Drndić/Radan character also becomes obsessed with researching World War II archives in an attempt to discover whether the family of a man she met in Toronto was responsible for betraying her mother to Croatia's Nazi quisling rulers in 1940s Zagreb. All of these obsessions are to flood back in Drndić's later novels.

The book rather tails off as if Drndić didn't really know how to best wield these powerful themes, but Canzone still stands up as an essential Drndić companion for those who already know her oeuvre, and a revealing pointer as to how the rest of her career developed.

Georgi Gospodinov. Time Shelter. Trans.Angela Rodel. (Liveright/WW Norton)

Back at the end of a long working visit to Bulgaria in 2006 my local colleagues gave me a going-away present in the form of a book entitled the "Socialist Inventory" (Inventarna Kniga na Sotsializma), co-authored by Yana Genova and Georgi Gospodinov). It was filled with pictures and of all the consumer products, popular brands and street slogans that would have been familiar to anyone who had grown up in Todor Zhivkov's Bulgaria - a deliberately ambiguous book that captured the nostalgia of people who had grown up in the Seventies an Eighties, but which also pointed up the colourlessness and simplicity of the Bulgarian visual world, especially in comparison to what lay on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In Gospodinov's new novel Time Shelter nostalgia for the past is offered up as therapy by a private chain of medical clinics catering for old people losing their memories, Alzheimer's patients, or simply rich pensioners trying to make sense of their lives. Created by an enigmatic visionary called Gaustine, who recruits the book's narrator (a thinly-disguised Georgi Gospodinov) as his chief researcher and strategist, the clinics create self-contained environments devoted to specific years or eras. Each contains the appropriate furniture, a healthy supply of contemporary newspapers and magazines, even appropriate foodstuffs, scents and cigarettes. Here the patients can be totally immersed in the particular past they are trying to recapture. Increasingly, Gaustine's clinics attract clients who have nothing medically wrong with them but simply want to live in their nostalgia for a particular age.

Gaustine's clinics are soon overtaken by trends in society itself, with citizens of European nations increasingly seeking out past epochs in which they want to immerse themselves, stopping the clock of human history and retreating into the comforting embrace of some previous age when things were better, more exciting, or full of childhood hopes.

The narrator returns to his native Bulgaria to discover that various movements are campaigning for a return to different epochs of national history. As usual, the dichotomy between nostalgia for the certainties of communism and nostalgia for imagined national greatness comes to the fore.

Europe becomes a continent of historical reenactments, each country rummaging through its collective memory box in search of a national utopia. Maybe the book is Gospodinov's reaction to Brexit, a vote for an imagined past rather than a pragmatic future - although it touches on a much wider malaise in which societies surge towards politicians cultivating deep-seated national myths rather than the real practicalities of solving social and environmental problems.

Meanwhile, the idea of Europe as some kind of collective home struggles on. As Gospodinov's alter-ego says in the book, [the] "kind of Europe Gaustine and I were dreaming of.., it's mornings are Austro-Hungarian, it's nights are Italian, the gravity and grief are Bulgarian."

Senka Marić. Body Kintsugi.Trans. Celia Hawkesworth. Peirene Press.

It is summer 2014. First the narrator fins out that her husband has decided to leave her; and then she discovers that she has a lump in her breast.

Writing a novel about cancer is no easy undertaking. People who have never experienced the big C can be understandably squeamish when it comes to reading about the one thing that nobody wants to be diagnosed with. Maybe it's the people who have been through it -and survived - who find it easier to deal with the narratives that it brings out.

Un-phased by these challenges, Marić dives straight into her narrative and fashions a powerful compelling book driven forward by the protagonist's endless programme of examinations and treatments, drawing the reader directly and emotionally into the drama. In a manner that will be familiar to anyone who has been through a major life-crisis, whether health-related or not, Marić's protagonist goes through a familiar sequence of emotional responses - fear, denial, mood swings, and sleep disturbed by phantasmagorical dreams. Has she become a new person as a result of these sudden changes, and is that person weaker or stronger than the person she was before? The whole question of identity crises and the need to re-root one's existence in the things that are important are anchored by peppering the narrative with the protagonist's childhood memories.

Marić captures perfectly the strange weightlessness of existence that comes from long-term medical treatments, when time loses its meaning, weeks and months are measured by therapy sessions, scans and check-ups rather than the changing seasons and the normal stuff of life.

The story is told in the second person singular, although it is clear the narrator is addressing herself - capturing perfectly the way people talk to themselves when going through a crisis.

So it's a book about identity in adversity, and what our childhoods, adulthoods and mosaics of character add up to when we are really up against things. It's an occasionally harrowing but ultimately uplifting book about resistance in the face of adversity, with the main character's particular health problem serving as a powerful metaphor for the many other challenges of the modern age, and the changes forced upon us by dramatic and unexpected events.

Robert Perišić. A Cat at the End of the World. Trans. Vesna Marić. Sandorf Passage.

A boldly original novel about the ancient world, the Adriatic, the civilizational impact of the cat and a lot more besides, A Cat at the End of the World is something of a major departure for a Croatian writer previously known for his generation-defining short stories and social novels.

It also displays deliberate unorthodoxy by including characters who are animals (Miu the cat and Mikro the donkey), although they don't have speaking parts - this is not a kids' book or an Aesopian fable.

The story starts in the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily in the fourth century BC, where a fleet of ships is due to set sail for the Adriatic island of Issa (present-day Vis) in order to found a new colony. Slave boy Kalia, eager to escape a life of drudgery and abuse with his unsympathetic owners, stows away aboard one of the ships. He liberates his owners' cat, Miu - a prestige pet imported from Egypt and tormented by the family's son - and takes her with him on the boat. On arrival at the island Kalia is apprenticed to the new town's main builder, and grows to adulthood as the new town slowly takes shape.

The book's other main departure from the norm is the inclusion of an occasional narrator called Scatterwind, a breeze that follows the colonists to Vis and choses to stay there, providing bemused commentary on Kalia's epoch and the centuries that follow. Indeed it's Scatterwind who fleshes out the broader themes of the book, musing on the way in which the Greek colonization of the Mediterranean and the advance of urban civilization edged out those societies that saw spiritual value in animals and nature, and replaced them with a world that saw nature merely as a tool. The cat, the animal that will allow itself to be domesticated but never dominated, is one of the few creatures that can be close to humans and yet preserve its independence and mystique. "Cats confused people... " Scatterwind declares, "They were the first ungovernable animals that made friends with the humans. When humans stood before cats, they did not see their own purpose."

This is the key difference between Miu the cat and Kalia's other four-legged friend Mikro the donkey, who is on the island to work, not be some kind of companion animal. As Scatterwind reflects, "I think that people, because they domesticated animals that served them, thought the whole of the earth could be their servant, and even found among their own species those whom they could own."

Writing about the fourth-century BC is a tall order; we can't really know how people communicated then or reproduce the rhythms of their speech. Perišić nevertheless succeeds in creating a convincing world, with Kalia, the animal-loving runaway slave who knows the pain of being owned by another human being, anchoring the book to moral, humane (and indeed ecological) concerns. And after all, boy-meets-cat is just as good a starting point for romance as any other.

© Jonathan Bousfield