Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / History / Literature / fiction

4 x fiction, 4 x fact

Eight books that made a difference in 2020.

Bearing in mind that Stray Satellite was largely reduced to maintaining a close orbit around Zagreb in 2020, there is a corresponding geographical bias to the list that follows, both in terms of theme and place of publication. Half of the books recommended below are not (yet) available in English, but they were sufficiently heavyweight to be worthy of coverage; writing about good books in whatever language is always worthwhile.


Sladostrašće by Asja Bakić (Sandorf)

English readers have already been introduced to the hyper-baroque visions of Asja Bakić courtesy of collection Mars, translated by Jennifer Zoble and released by Feminist Press in 2019. Published in mid-2020 in Croatia, her new 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 year 2020 has shown us how suddenly the world can change gear; Bakić’s deliciously twisted glimpses of the future may not be as far-fetched as we think.

No-Signal Area by Robert Perišić, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać (Seven Stories Press)

First published (as Područje bez signala) in 2015 and launched upon the English-reading public in 2020, No-Signal Area begins with the arrival of Zagreb wide-boy entrepreneurs Oleg and Nikola in a place simply known as N, a Bosnian town of dead industries and an under-employed, lethargic population. Oleg has somehow won a contract to supply turbines to a North African country, and sets about persuading the locals to re-open a factory that used to produce them. While Perišić’s previous novel Our Man in Iraq was primarily set in contemporary Zagreb, No-Signal Area purposefully extends its geographic scope in order to demonstrate how the human potential of a whole region has been wasted over a quarter century of war and economic turbulence – a period of “transition” to which there is never any end. Siberia, North Africa and London also play important episodic roles, indicating how peripheral places like N have become in globalized networks of news and power.

Deploying a cast of well-drawn characters with complex back-stories, Perišić conjures up a believable, organic community with plenty of potential for narrative changes of direction. It is hardly surprising that No-Signal Area is currently being made into a TV series with director Dalibor Matanić at the helm. 

An impressively rich book with a large cast, multiple viewpoints, sharp dialogue and strong female characters (who increasingly drive the plot as the book enters its final third), No-Signal Area is a big novel that delves deep into contemporary themes, dexterously handled by a writer at the peak of his powers.

From Nowhere to Nowhere by Bekim Sejranović, translated by Will Firth (Sandorf)

Another book from southeastern Europe that has emerged as a novel of our times, From Nowhere to Nowhere deals with a Bosnian-born, Croatian-raised protagonist who suddenly finds himself rendered stateless by the breakup of Yugoslavia, and applies for asylum in Norway as a way of evading deportation.  A loosely-disguised avatar of Sejranović himself, the main character gets a Norwegian university degree and a Norwegian passport, but never really fits in, developing a self-destructive streak that torpedoes his chances of ever becoming a good Scandinavian citizen. Shuttling between jobs and relationships in Norway, Croatia and Bosnia, he becomes a melancholy modern drifter, a laptop-lugging digital nomad of circumstance rather than choice.

Sejranović died in May this year at the tragically early age of 48, robbed of the chance to celebrate this English version of his first novel (published as Nigdje, niotkuda in 2008). Translated with customary fluency and panache by Will Firth, From Nowhere to Nowhere was published in Europe in 2020 and will get an American release in spring 2021. Wry, self-deprecating, comic, earthy and sexy in equal measure, the book is written with the deceptively chatty ease of a natural raconteur who is constantly tugging at your elbow because he’s got another tale to tell. However the way in which Sejranović suggestively plants information and then comes out with plot-twisting revelations later on reveals the true measure of his authorial guile.

The narrator’s narcotic haze of self-pity never obscures his empathy for those who did less well than himself. One of his short-lived jobs is acting as an interpreter for ex-Yugoslav asylum seekers being interrogated by Norwegian immigration officers. “I knew how they felt, I knew what it was like to sit on the other side of a table, look into the indifferent faces of bureaucrats, and hope that the size of your misfortune was sufficient for them not to send you back to where you were expelled from.” It’s passages like these that provide sober reflection on a contemporary Europe full of restless souls, people for whom the squeak of the wheeled suitcase means rather more than just a holiday.

For more on Bekim Sejranović see our piece here.

The Fig Tree by Goran Vojnović, translated by Olivia Hellewell (Istros Books).

Slovenia is often seen as a small, ethnically homogenous country that extricated itself from the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia without too much trauma. The novels of Goran Vojnović suggest that things are a bit more complicated than that. His 2008 debut Čefurji raus (“Southern Scum Go Home”) dealt with the immigrant communities of the Ljubljana suburbs; his second, Yugoslavia My Fatherland (published in English by Istros books in 2016) involved a Slovenia-based Serb trying to track down his former Yugoslav army-officer father. His third novel Fig Tree concerns four generations of a Slovene family who, in various ways, were marked by the rise and fall of the communist Yugoslav state. 

The story centres on Ljubljana-based betting-firm consultant Jadran Dizdar, whose complicated relationships with his Slovene wife and Bosnian father are thrown into relief by the death of his Serbian-Jewish grandfather. Indeed the story starts with the grandfather’s house in Istria, a house he built himself when first sent there by the party in 1955 to help build socialism in a depopulated rural backwater. The fig tree of the title is in grandfather’s back yard, a mute witness to the fact that families (and indeed states) are not always as reliably well-rooted as their members would like to think.

Although most of the novel is narrated by Jadran, parts of the story are told from the father and grandfather’s point of view. Changes of voice and register are captured perfectly by Olivia Hellewell’s translation. The historical backdrop is suggested rather than explained; the break-up of Yugoslavia does however deliver a major blow to the family when Jadran’s father Safet impulsively runs away to his native Bosnia, piqued by the self-satisfied bureaucratic arrogance of the new-born Slovene state.

As well as serving as a group portrait of a family shaken by the shifting tectonic plates of history, Fig Tree is also a universal, insightful book about being a father, facing a bereavement, trying to make long-term sense of the concept of marriage. A novel of growing up, therefore, but with deep historical resonances.


Yellow Star, Red Star: Holocaust Remembrance After Communism by Jelena Subotić (Cornell)

I remember visiting the Auschwitz Museum some time in the early 2000s and being struck by the fact that a so-called Yugoslav exhibition still existed in one of the blocks set aside for dedicated national displays on the theme of the Holocaust. Although subsequently taken down, the Yugoslav exhibition had at least outlived the state that had installed it. What was odd about the exhibition was that, instead of dealing with Jews and other Yugoslavs who had suffered in Auschwitz, it covered the whole of the antifascist struggle: the broad Yugoslav masses were presented as the real victims of the Holocaust rather than a specific ethnic group within their midst.

Holocaust remembrance and its political uses is the subject of Yellow Star Red Star by Jelena Subotić, Professor of Political Sciences at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Published at the tail end of 2019, it picked up a string of prizes in 2020. As well as discussing the ideological contortions performed by communist regimes in discussing the Holocaust, it also examines the way in which Holocaust commemoration has been sidelined or repurposed by states seeking to establish new national narratives in the wake of communism’s collapse.

Focusing on three states in particular (Serbia, Croatia and Lithuania), Subotić pays particular attention to the way in which contemporary politicians in Central and Eastern Europe have sought to present both Nazism and Communism as comparable evils – both in terms of their totalitarian ambitions and the enormity of their crimes.

The politically-inspired transformations of Holocaust remembrance have played themselves out differently in different countries. In Croatia, where the Nazi-quisling Ustaša regime carried out genocide against Serbs, Roma and Jews during World War II, there is a tendency among nationalist historians to minimize these crimes by suggesting that the persecutions carried out by communists at the war’s end were actually worse. In Lithuania, the deportations of tens of thousands of local citizens by the Soviet regime is presented as the central trauma of Lithuanian history; the fact that Lithuanians actually took part in the Jewish Holocaust is thereby minimized by balancing it against the suffering of the Lithuanians themselves. In Serbia, the very real genocide inflicted on Serbs by the Croatian Ustaše serves as a powerful demonstration that Serbian civilians were among the principal victims of World War II – the fact that there were also Serbian collaborators also aided the Nazis can be reduced to a historical footnote. What unites all three cases is the nationalist imperative to push one narrative at the expense of others, and to avoid too open a discussion of the Holocaust, as to do so would implicate local collaborators.

In Western Europe, Holocaust remembrance has become one of the defining pillars of European identity. Following the end of the Cold War, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were eager to adopt these values as a sign of their candidacy for European integration. As Subotić however reveals, it was the outer appearance of Holocaust remembrance, rather than its content, that was enthusiastically taken up. Holocaust memory was appropriated by former communist states, with the language and iconography of Holocaust museums and memorial sites being recycled to serve more narrowly national commemorative needs.

The contention that Nazi and Communist crimes are equal has been passively accepted by the very Western Europe that sought to turn Holocaust commemoration into a unifying moral practice. Western European conservatives in particular have welcomed the equalization of Nazi and Communist ideologies, seeing it as a useful stick with which to beat their own left-liberal rivals. Crucially, it enables the contemporary, populist right to discredit antifascist narratives by claiming that the victors of World War II committed greater crimes than the people they were fighting against.  “The great tragedy of the anticommunist moment is that it has weakened and made less imperative our collective antifascist moment”, is Subotić’s telling comment.

Compellingly argued and written with genuine literary flair, Jelena Subotić’s study is also a call to action, urging us to look more critically at the ways in which memory can be manipulated to suit political needs.

Diana Budisavljević: prešućena heroina drugog svijetskog rata by Nataša Mataušić. (Profil)

An altruistic Austrian woman married to a Zagreb doctor, Diana Budisavljević (1891-1978) spent World War II trying to rescue Serbian children from the camps established by Croatia’s quisling Ustaša regime. Beginning with collections of clothes and food to help minors (in many cases separated from parents who had been sent elsewhere), Budisavlević’s campaign quickly grew to become a major relief operation, in which an estimated 10,000 children were placed with foster parents either in Zagreb or on north-Croatian farms. Judging by the deprivations and bestiality of the Ustaša camps, Budisavljević’s action was a genuine life-saver for most.

Budisavljević’s achievements were hushed up after 1945, pushed under the carpet by a regime that believed that only the communist-controlled partisan movement could be credited with anti-fascist resistance; a middle-class woman working on her own did not fit the ideological narrative.

The publication of Diana Budisavljević’s diary in 2002 brought her story to a wide audience for the first time, prompting a debate about World War II commemoration in a country where right-wing politicians were accustomed to deftly sidestepping references to crimes committed during the Ustaša period. A film based on the diary (directed by distant relation Dana Budisavljević, it was a bold exercise that mixed acted and documentary footage) arrived in Croatian cinemas in 2019, carrying off the best-film accolade at the Pula Film Festival the same year. The story of Diana Budisavlević became a rallying-point for historical truth-telling, a frank rebuttal of revisionists who sought to minimize Ustaša crimes.

As a historian and museum curator who has spent most of her professional life researching the crimes of the Ustaša regime, Nataša Mataušić is ideally placed to tell us Budisavljević’s story. The book reveals the mechanisms by which the Budisavljević action worked: as an Austrian she was better placed to plead with civil servants, camp officials and the self-regarding power elite of uniformed criminals. She worked with the Croatian Red Cross, and also gained the trust of people within the Catholic Church, whose charitable organizations provided her with the means of delivering help without being accused of anti-regime subversion. Mataušić also shows us how the Ustaše camp system came into being, and how Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-regime Croats were treated. Occupying a central place in the book are the fates of the so-called children of Kozara, separated from their parents and placed in camps after the clearing of ethnic Serb villages in the fight against the Partisans. The children were placed in camps where malnourishment, lack of sanitation and a deliberate level of neglect caused huge mortality rates. The Budisavljević operation saved many of the Kozara children from certain death.

Budisavljević did not reveal a great deal about herself in her writings, and Mataušić does well to draw as rounded a picture as possible of this determined but self-effacing woman. We also learn about many of the brave people who helped her in her mission; notably Kamilo Bresler, a career civil servant in the Social Ministry who risked his job to help the action.

Through scrupulous research and measured language Mataušić has done us a huge service in rescuing Diana Budisavjević from the margins of Croatian historiography and placing her actions – and the grim reasons why she had to undertake them – in the centre of popular memory.

“I’ve never been involved in any kind of humanitarian action, and don’t think I am in any way cut out for that kind of activity” wrote Budisavljević in her diary on October 24 1941. Simple humanity spurred her on to change her mind.

Budimir Lončar: od Preka do vrha svijeta by Tvrtko Jakovina (Fraktura).

Former Serbian communist leader Latinka Perović (herself a good subject for a biography; maybe she’s pitching for one) says in the afterword of this book that good biographies are rare in ex-Yugoslav historiography, and biographies of diplomats are virtually non-existent.

Tvrtko Jakovina is certainly the right man to break the mould, an internationalist as a historian who has always sought to place Croatian narratives in their wider Yugoslav, European and global contexts. His subject, Budimir Lončar (born in Preko on the Dalmatian island of Ugljan in 1924), was the last foreign minister of federal Yugoslavia, having previously served as the country’s top man in Indonesia, West Germany and the USA. A biography of Lončar is by its nature a history of Yugoslav foreign policy, and of an era when the Yugoslav state exerted the kind of global influence of which its successor states can only dream.

As a communist state ejected from the Soviet Bloc by Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia had to reinvent itself as a country that used Cold-War divisions to its own advantage. It also developed a non-Soviet form of “self-managing socialism” which, despite offering more in the way of promise than actual delivery, nevertheless persuaded global intellectuals that there was far more to Marxism than merely Moscow and Peking. Yugoslavia enjoyed a symbolic role in international affairs that went far beyond the mere projection of its own state interests.  Yugoslavia was (certainly to outsiders it not always its own citizens) an ideal for living as well as a country.

A career diplomat who had fought with the Partisans during World War II, Lončar was at the centre of all this, serving for many years as aide to Koča Popović, the partisan general who served as foreign minister from 1953 to 1965. Popović laid much of the groundwork for the emergence of the Non-Aligned movement, led by Tito and emerging world leaders Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah and Sukarno. Jakovina’s book takes is through the development of a movement that contained disparate countries with frequently conflicting aims, a movement which Yugoslav diplomats deftly cultivated as a platform for Yugoslav influence. Yugoslavia retained its authority in the movement precisely because, of all its leading countries, it remained the most scrupulously non-aligned (in contrast to Castro’s Cuba for example, which attempted to pull the movement in a more pro-Soviet direction).

Yugoslavia also occupied a pivotal position in Europe, but only as long as the Cold War lasted. After the fall of the Berlin Wall Yugoslavia became an issue on which foreign powers found it difficult to make up their minds. Indeed one of the most fascinating aspect of this book is that way in which Lončar, together with his prime-minister Ante Marković, tried to use foreign policy as a way of redefining Yugoslavism at a time when the idea was being abandoned by the federation’s own republics Lončar wanted Yugoslavia to enter a partnership with the EU, in the expectation that the promise of European integration would promote integration at home. The fall of the Iron Curtain initially appeared to provide opportunities for Yugoslavia rather than dangers. When Lončar went to Prague in early 1990, Czechoslovak foreign minister Jir*i Dienstbier actually spoke about Non-Alignment as a way forward for Central and Eastern Europe, and looked to Yugoslavia for encouragement.

While Lončar found plenty of willing allies in Europe, he was undermined by republican leaders in Yugoslavia itself. Lončar was one of the last official bearers of the Yugoslav ideal, resigning from his post in autumn 1991 when it became clear his mission had failed. “I am a Croat by nationality, a democrat and a Yugoslav by vocation, and a Belgrader by residence” is what Lončar himself declared at the end of his tenure.

Jakovina has spent years talking to his subject and has striven to provide not just a definitive account of Budimir Lončar but also an insider’s history of Yugoslav foreign policy. Jakovina is too polite to his subject to indulge in political or personal revelations, but this is not to say that there are no juicy stories. Take for example the tale of how President Sukarno of Indonesia - in the presence of Yugoslav ambassador Franjo Knebl – signed a letter to Tito by balancing the paper on the backside of one of his female companions. Knebl tactlessly reported the incident to Belgrade; Tito went ballistic. Lončar himself comes across as the consummate diplomat, the one exception being his description of Slovene hard-liner Stane Dolanc (who played a domineering role in meetings involving Tito and foreign-office folks) as “a cunt, pushy, with no knowledge of languages, like Himmler”

Vatra u vatri: Ivo Andrić – jedan europski život. Mihael Martens (Ljevak)

Was there ever anyone more Yugoslav than Ivo Andrić? A Bosnian Croat who chose Belgrade (and the Serbian literary idiom) as his home, Ivo Andrić was a leading international representative of the multinational state, first as a diplomat serving the inter-war kingdom of Yugoslavia, and then as a globally successful novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. For many foreigners, Andrić’s complex historical novels, set in a Bosnia of different faiths and traditions, were their first points of contact with Yugoslavia’s heady mix of cultures.

Although there have been literary biographies of Andrić before, Vatra u Vatri (initially published in German as Im Brand der Welten or “In the Fire of Worlds”) by long-standing foreign correspondent Mihael Martens is arguably the first to attempt a rounded portrait of the writer, a man of public duties and private obsessions shaped by an epoch of war, uncertainty and dramatic change.

As a man who participated in rebel youth politics in Austrian-occupied Sarajevo, represented Yugoslavia as a diplomat in Nazi-ruled Berlin, and went on to serve the communist state that succeeded it, Andrić was both witness to and participant in the grand themes of the twentieth century. As Martens notes, Andrić was one of the few people who had met both Gavrilo Princip and Adolf Hitler personally.

Andrić served as the Yugoslav ambassador to Berlin from 1939 to 1941, the summit of a distinguished diplomatic career that saw postings in Graz, Rome, Madrid, Paris and Brussels. Andrić seemed too close to his Nazi hosts, saying complimentary things about the Führer and declaring the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to carve up Eastern Europe) to be a “triumph”. In private, as his diaries reveal, he was anguished by the pointlessness of the war that the Nazi-Soviet deal unleashed. Following Germany’s defeat of Yugoslavia in the April war of 1941, Andrić returned to occupied Belgrade, locked himself away in a flat and wrote. By the end of the war he had produced the three works that made his name as a novelist, Bosnian Chronicle (Travnička Kronika), Woman of Sarajevo (Gospođica) and his most famous work Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija). The latter, a centuries-spanning epic set in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, is one of the few works of world literature in which the main character is a bridge. Both Chronicle and Bridge made good use of research notes that Andrić had been collecting for decades but had never had time to write up – surely an inspiration to all those writers who have spent a long time storing up what they think is going to be their major work.

His three great wartime books were published within months of each other; Andrić was hailed almost immediately as a great Yugoslav artist. In return, he was expected to serve the new communist regime, sitting in the parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina, embarking on speaking tours, and joining the party in 1954.

I was already on page 200 of this book when I realized that I’d learned a lot about Andric’s works but didn’t feel close to Ivo Andrić himself. Martens tells us as much as he can about Andrić’s friends and lovers, but we know more about Andrić’s relationships with fictional protagonists (such as Bosnian Chronicle’s French diplomats Daville and Des Fossés) than his relationships with any real human beings. As Martens freely admits, Andrić was the consummate sphinx, a lifelong diplomat even when he was no longer employed as one, a man who served many masters and left people rather unsure of what he really thought himself. Indeed a lot of his contemporaries simply considered him an opportunist who would follow whichever line offered him career advancement, or which left him alone to follow his own intellectual interests. Milovan Đilas said of Andrić that he “lived only for himself and for literature”. Martens’s own verdict is that he “was close to no-one. He simply wanted to live and work in peace.”

Arguably the book that provides us with the best insights into Andrić is Znakovi pored puta (“Signs by the Roadside”; a compendious collection of Andrić’s own notes and reflections published shortly after his death. It leaves one with the impression that nobody is better at writing about Andrić than Andrić himself, although Martens’s well-rounded, assiduously researched and elegantly written biography will always serve as an excellent companion.

© Jonathan Bousfield