Welcome to the New Croatian Weird
An emerging group of writers are providing Croatian literature with a disturbing new flavour
In a nation as unsure of itself as this, it is the New Croatian Weird that is the most accurate cultural expression of the country's dreams and nightmares.
Autumn 2022 saw the publication of Urania by Osijek-based Luka Bekavac, an author who was spent over a decade writing a series of alternative histories of the Croatian Southeast. Peopled by characters who suspect they are receiving radio messages from parallel worlds, or that there is something locked in a past and future landscape that is maintaining ambiguous communication with the present, Bekavac's novels have created a warped and yet totally believable vision of a provincial city in which nothing is quite as it seems. Urania, Bekavac's latest, runs to over 2000 words spread over six separate volumes. According to publisher Fraktura this six-book set is limited to an edition of 111 copies - drawing deliberate attention to Bekavac's unique, non-mainstream status.
Bekavac is by no means the only Croatian author to have drawn recent attention for his ability to create woozy alternative realities. Thanks to the work of a handful of (individually very different) Croatian authors, a distinct and disorienting strand in contemporary literature is beginning to take shape. Welcome, then, to the New Croatian Weird.
What unites all these authors is the craft which their work is composed. Their ability to create alternative narratives that are believable and engrossing depends absolutely on the employment of serious literary discipline. These are not authors who simply deal in the bizarre.
And it's not surprising that a new surreal literature should take root in Croatia, a country that appears to be constantly on the move from one transition to another, a state that can express pride in its independence and spirit and at the same time resemble a thirty-year crisis that never seems to be approaching a solution. Lack of economic perspectives and a suffocating social conservatism drive the nation's most talented young people abroad. In a nation as unsure of itself as this, maybe the dystopias and paradoxes of the authors listed below represent the true Croatian folklore, and it is the New Croatian Weird that is the most accurate cultural expression of the country's dreams and nightmares.
Luka Bekavac.Urania. Fraktura.
Luka Bekavac came to critical attention with a bold and experimental trilogy set in the flatlands of his native Southeast. Drenje (2111), Viljevo (2013) and Policijski sat (2015; this last translates as the "The Curfew"; the others are names of villages) follow several generations of researchers monitoring radio signals emerging from rural villages northeast of Osijek. The trilogy mapped out an alternative Slavonia which, while being totally recognizable as the real one, boasted secret portals to parallel worlds, counter-histories, and chronological twists. Featuring narrative prose mixed with pages of crackling radio signals, fragmentary sentences, and the textual equivalent of white noise, Drenje and Viljevo represented serious challenges to the reader but still made compelling reading, on account of their mysterious premise an involving characters. The final part of the trilogy was written in straightforward prose, although it would be going too far to say that it completely tied up the enigma conjured by the first two volumes. Viljevo was translated into English as "August After Midnight" (a task bravely and consummately undertaken by Ellen Elias-Brsać) - although fragmentary and impenetrable as it is, it probably wasn't the Bekavac book best suited to an international breakthrough. A better choice might have been his glitteringly original 2017 collection Galerija likovnih umjetnosti u Osijeku ("The Osijek Gallery of Fine Arts"), which looks at a series of exhibitions held in Osijek between 1958 and 2043. While containing the author's customarily bizarre mixture of historical fact, science fiction and total invention, the book largely eschews textual innovations and is written in 'normal', accessible prose.
Bekavac's new book has been eagerly awaited, and doesn't disappoint.
The first part of Urania consists of four pages of random numbers and letters (a computer code?) followed by eight pages of little dots. (After a while, you realize that random words are hidden between some of the dots). Much of the text occupies the right-hand page only and has a commentary on printing errors and textual weaknesses on the left - delivered partly in Latin and Greek, this is deliberately obscure and disorienting. (Do we have to read this bit? Will we miss something if we don't?)
The cast of characters in Urania is much bigger than in his earlier works and presents us with a social panorama of the city and its inhabitants: this is a book in which we are emotionally involved as well as intellectually intrigued. Strange phenomena are never far from the surface, however. One character is experiencing disorienting visions and receiving telephone calls from a crackling female voice which, he speculates, might be part of the radiophonic memory of the flat he is renting; another character lies in his bedroom feeling white noise running through his veins. One is never quite sure of the timeline: action takes place in both the 1980s and in 2004.
I had only got as far as the second volume at the time of writing this text, and while totally engrossed by Bekavac's cast of characters, I still have no idea where this novel is going. Although a totally different kind of writer, there is something of Mircea Cărtărescu and his creation of an alternative, surreal Bucharest in the way Bekavac re-fashions a gritty but dream-like Osijek from fragments of real history, a fantasy-writer's taste for speculation, and a deftly-handled sense of the grotesque. Maybe the real challenge of Urania will be to get hold of all six volumes before they run out - I guess Bekavac has already calculated that this is one novel that many of readers - despite their better intentions -my never get to finish.
Ivana Rogar. Grad, pepeo ("City, Ashes"). Oceanmore.
Published during the first year of the pandemic but clearly written well before its arrival, this short sharp novel from Ivana Rogar offers a vision of dystopia that seems chillingly close to recently-lived reality.
The story revolves around a dysfunctional family who have not left their flat for months except for brief missions to collect food and other essentials. Judging by the fragments of information offered by the son of the family and chief protagonist we are led to assume that this situation is the result of some kind of apocalyptic event or momentous social change, but - taken for granted by the inhabitants of the flat who seem to have passively accepted their dramatically altered circumstances - the change itself is never described.
The house is full of bags of provisions and sacks of rubbish. Getting from one room to another is a time-consuming exercise that requires careful planning; going out into the hallway a major voyage of exploration fraught with concern. The question of exactly who the neighbours are and whether indeed there is anyone still there has been long forgotten.
The narrative is interspersed with a series of learned historical digressions from Rogar, taking us back to the Mongol Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or other states and epochs that remind us of the rise and fall of empires and the ebb and flow of globalizations.
Short on action but strong on atmosphere, the cloying stickiness of the book is totally involving, and the ambiguous pointers to how this social breakdown actually happened seem to be totally relevant to our own new world of serial crises and insecurities.
Darko Šeparović. Pristanište ("The Quay") Fraktura.
One of the most talked-about books of 2021, Pristanište is another exquisitely sculpted short novel that pulls you in towards a disorienting, claustrophobic space.
Šeparović's tale is set inside the obsessive, methodical mind of a young man on an Adriatic island who responds to a recent break-up by deciding to build a boat. From scratch. Inside his house. What's more, the boat is partly built from bits of the house itself (and after reading this book, it's unlikely that you will ever be able to look at a parquet floor in quite the same way again). The house is progressively sacrificed in order to make way for this parasitic new entity, which gestates like an insatiable foetus in a dark stone womb.
It would not be giving away any secrets to reveal that the story is set in the (easily identifiable) port of Vela Luka on the island of Korčula, And while it is the determined day-by-day sawing and sanding of the main protagonist that gives the book its relentless rhythm, it's also a book about a Mediterranean that is totally different from the one of travel-journalism cliché. A place where loneliness, isolation and the small-town syndrome of seeing the same things every day on the same stretch of quay induce feelings of melancholy and alienation that the sun, sea and cocktail menus can't quite take away.
Asja Bakić Sladostrašće. Sandorf. To be published in English as Sweetlust (trans. Jennifer Zoble) by Feminist Press in February 2023.
And here at last is an author you can actually read in English. Several of the hyper-baroque visions of Croatian-Bosnian author Asja Bakić are already available in the shape of Mars, a story collection translated by Jennifer Zoble and released by Feminist Press in 2019. Published in mid-2020 in Croatia and due out on Feminist Press next year, her newer set of stories Sladostrašće (“Lust”) is if anything even more compelling than its predecessor, a sustained exercise in speculative imagination that blends elements of science fiction, the uncanny, and the grotesque.
Witty, savage, audacious and frequently unsettling, the eleven stories in Sladostrašće range from dystopian visions of the near future to contemporary fairy tales rich in forests, monsters, lakes and dreams. One story takes place in a society where group marriages are compulsory, but the quantity of partners must add up to an odd number. Another envisages a world without men, in which women visit sex-fantasy theme parks run by an artificial intelligence. Like J.G. Ballard, or the Lithuanian-Ukrainian master of future-noir Jaroslavas Melnikas, Bakić seizes on a perverse idea and takes it to its logical conclusion, shedding light on the very real absurdities of contemporary life as she goes. The current epoch of pandemic, social fragmentation and Putinist ultra-violence have shown us just how suddenly the world can change gear; Bakić’s deliciously twisted glimpses of the future may not be as far-fetched as we think.
© Jonathan Bousfield