Literature is a crucial piece in the puzzle of Yugoslavia’s memory. Let’s give it a read.

Part 1 of 2. With Eamon McGrath @balkanbooks and Danja Bujas @danchireads.

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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your librarian Peter Korchnak.

I read a lot. Mostly for this project over the past few years, but also adjacently (my stack right now includes a book on heritage transformations and one on football in the former Yugoslavia, a volume on grounded nationalism, and a history of the Gulag. In general, nonfiction comprises almost one hundred percent of my reading—and has for decades now. There was a point in my life where fiction—novels and short stories—just seemed like a pastime. I felt, and still feel, why read fiction when actual reality offers plenty of fascinating and worthy and “you can’t make this up” stories. This is particularly the case in the Balkans and the former Yugoslavia.

So literature remains a blind spot for me. But it’s an important piece in the puzzle of Yugoslavia’s memory and so I must tackle it. Literature was also one of the top requested topics in my recent survey of listeners and readers. So today, and in the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’re going to dip our reading toes into the vast pool of literature from, and partly about, the former Yugoslavia.

Here with me to sketch out the scene is Eamon McGrath.

He is a writer and critic based in Brooklyn, NY. He reviews literature from Southeast Europe on Instagram @balkanbooks. His work has appeared in Balkanist, Full Stop, and The Upper New Review. He has Tufts University degrees in international affairs with a focus on the former Yugoslavia, and he has previously lived and worked in the ex-Yugoslav space.

McGrath sees two major threads in the literature of the former Yugoslavia, both the kingdom and the socialist one. First, literature as being an element or even a tool in the nation-building project. Here the most pertinent was the question whether Yugoslav literature is a single literature, the way Italy or Germany cohered into a single culture, or a combination of multiple national literatures, in their own languages, that could potentially be brought together into a singular body.

EAMON MCGRATH: A demonstrative example was an author, I think was determined by many to be the national poet, and that is Petr Petrovich Njegoš, in particular, his poem, “The Mountain Wreath.”

And I think in some ways, it’s really symbolic because it pulls on these domestic indigenous trends in literature of this epic oral poetry, which is a really, really significant and specific literary category within the former Yugoslavia.

But I think at the same time, it’s really interesting because that poem, that would, in some ways, be canonized, as, in some ways, the poem, the great, you know, national poem, and has these themes that can be kind of brought into, for instance, especially to Tito’s Yugoslavia, ideas about heroism, defiance and collectivism.

PETER KORCHNAK: Njegoš was a 19th century Montenegrin prince, bishop, philosopher, and poet. The epic poem “Gorski vijenac” [The Mountain Wreath] is a centerpiece of Montenegrin and Serbian national cannon. The story centers on an 18th century mass execution of Montenegrins who converted to Islam. Its themes of heroism, fighting for freedom and justice and against evil and traitors, traditional folk values and wisdom form important building blocks of Montenegrin and Serbian identity.

EAMON MCGRATH: But at the same time, it contains these internal contradictions. And we see this for instance with the particular Serbian nationalist elements of the poem, with the particular Islamophobic elements of the poem that were, in some ways, never truly reconciled, of how this poem can speak for all of Yugoslavia, but at the same time had these elements that couldn’t be brought together.

PETER KORCHNAK: The appearance of a Montenegrin/Serbian national poem in a story of Yugoslav literature may come as a surprise, and it certainly did for me until I also considered that ideologists from all corners have used it for their respective purposes. Perhaps it’s testimony to the poem’s universal appeal. Of course the poem is a natural resource for nationalists, Islamophobes, ethnic cleansers—on the Montenegrin and Serbian side. But, as you heard in the episode about women Partisans, the communists dipped into the well of epic folk poetry like “The Mountain Wreath” in their propaganda to recruit peasants for their cause, portraying themselves as a continuation and culmination of the heroic struggle for freedom and justice.

After the war, “The Mountain Wreath” and its author were reinterpreted to fit the socialist country’s narrative, particularly its theme of fighting traitors. This was common. The regime could not ignore folk heroes and routinely appropriated them for its own purposes; to take another example, the 16th century Croatian peasant revolt leader Matija Gubec was for the communist a convenient fighter for freedom and against oppression. “The Mountain Wreath” fell out of communists’ favor as nationalism ramped up in the 1970s.

EAMON MCGRATH: But I think, important example of showing the Yugoslav literary project for, for its aims, but also some of the contradictions that lied within it.

PETER KORCHNAK: After Yugoslavia embarked in the 1950s on its own socialist path, with worker self-management at its core, it underwent progressive decentralization of government and economy. As the federation ceded power to the republics, the role of Yugoslavia and of an overarching Yugoslav identity became increasingly contentious. The creator of self-management and chief communist party ideologue Edvard Kardelj himself rejected the idea that a Yugoslav nation was emerging, even as he considered Yugoslavia the state an expression of interests of its constituent nations. Instead, patriotism was defined in terms of socialist Yugoslavia while ethnic slash national identity was left to the republics and their constituent nations. Literature reflected this shift.

EAMON MCGRATH: I think that trend within Yugoslav as a national literary project started to be abandoned sometime around the 1960s, and particularly the new constitution in 1963, where you really had the turn towards these national literatures of Slovenian literature versus Serbian literature versus Croatian literature, etc.

But I think an important piece here is just this idea of writers being part of that process, asking questions and thinking about ideas of nationality, of identity, of belonging, of collectivism, and in some ways also, especially in the later decades of Yugoslavia, of seeing some of the challenges that laid the core of that, in some ways, even precipitating that in some of the writing that was expressed in the period where they have this more skepticism and criticism, as well as these broaching more of controversial topics, especially in the 1980s.

What could be viewed as a failure to build a single unified literary culture, in some ways was representative of one of the many factors that might have led to the country’s demise.

PETER KORCHNAK: Another dimension of Yugoslav literature was its international outlook.

EAMON MCGRATH: The idea of Yugoslavia, pulling on different literary trends, for instance, especially in parts of northern Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Croatia, Vojvodina, for example, drawing on Central European literary trends, while other parts of Yugoslavia drawing on Byzantine elements.

Being in communication and conversation with different countries, different literary trends, is, I think, really important, and then also became representative, especially during, during the period of Yugoslavia, post-World War Two, with this idea of Yugoslavia as being—and I hesitate to use this word because of some of the Balkanist ideas about the idea of Yugoslavia—being this in-between space.

PETER KORCHNAK: I identify as Central European so the YU-CE connection is important.

DANJA BUJAS: When we’re talking about ex-YU lit we’re talking about Central European literature.

PETER KORCHNAK: Danja Bujas also comes to us from bookstagram, an instagram-based community of book readers and reviewers. Originally an art historian and now working in public relations, all of which is unrelated to bookstagram, she spoke to me from her hometown of Šibenik. Posting on Instagram as @danchireads, she reads, quite voraciously, and reviews books by authors from the former Yugoslavia and beyond. She also hosts the Ex-YU Book Challenge, hashtag #exyulit, which promotes the reading and reviewing of authors from the former Yugoslavia.

DANJA BUJAS: So we are talking about a kind of fiction that tends to be, let’s say, a little bit depressive, full of existential angst, a little bit dark, you know. And maybe that’s the reason why I didn’t really go through some kind of a international trend cycle. You know, it was never like, literature that people were reading outside of maybe Europe.

PETER KORCHNAK: I am humbled to say it, but this is a major reason for my literary ignorance. These quote unquote Central European books and authors are simply too difficult. In fiction, I was in the Stephen King and sci-fi camp, and what serious literature I did read, well there’s not much to say about it. Perhaps it’s too much history, perhaps it’s indeed the style, but I simply cannot handle the density and intensity. My loss, I know.

DANJA BUJAS: Once you sort of go through authors from the 70s, or 80s, or 90s, who are part of the Central European tradition, as a reader, you are really strong. You can read whatever whenever in your life, because that literature is literally very hard, not just when it comes to topics, but when it comes to writing style. You know, it’s a beautiful, but challenging writing style for a reader to absorb, especially, I would say, readers who are not used to Central European literature, who are for example, used to, you know, English-based literature, it can be challenging because of the, you know, never ending sentences and monologues that never end, chapters of chapters of chapters of monologues, inner monologues, right.

So what I would recommend to everyone as sort of an introduction to ex-Yugoslavian literature, he’s definitely my favorite author, he is an author that made me want to read more from my home country and from the neighboring countries. His name is Danilo Kiš.

PETER KORCHNAK: Danilo Kiš was one of the most important novelists and translators in the former Yugoslavia. Born in 1935 in Subotica to a Hungarian Jewish father and Montenegrin Orthodox Christian mother, he saw literature as an antidote to all the -isms that plagued his century, according to historian Mark Thompson.

Several of Kiš’s books exist in translation, most importantly the short story collections, A Tomb for Boris Davidović and The Encyclopedia of the Dead, which blend history and fiction in search of the Central European and Balkan identity.

DANJA BUJAS: The style itself is very challenging to read. I’ve never read him in translation, of course, but you know, the sentences are very complex and very long and you need to focus, you cannot read it before going to bed.

PETER KORCHNAK: For authors of Jewish origin, questions of identity in the face of history that attempts to repeatedly erase them are huge. You really can’t talk about Central European literature without Jewish authors.

EAMON MCGRATH: An author who is improperly appreciated, especially in the Anglophone world, is the Serbian author Alexander Tišma who wrote several novels, in the 1960s and 70s particularly. I think he is a wonderful and masterful writer, writes particularly starting the Holocaust, Tišma has many set in Vojvodina, Alexander Tišma, also has Jewish heritage.

PETER KORCHNAK: That in-betweenness of Central Europe, that is between Germany and Russia, and of Yugoslavia, between the empires, between the West and the East, is what marks the literature of Yugoslavia.

EAMON MCGRATH: It was really made concrete in Yugoslavia, post-World War Two because of Yugoslavia’s specific non-aligned position, vis-a-vis the Eastern Bloc that it did become this kind of bridge. And so much of that bridge ideology also comes from The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić, of course, the idea of Yugoslavia being this space to connect to the east and west. And we see this in literature that it’s, you know, pulling in trends from both sides. And I think that’s part[ly] because of that non-alignment.

PETER KORCHNAK: That Yugoslav literature drew on Western trends was made possible by the lack of censorship at least relative to Eastern Bloc countries and at least since the 1950s following the split with the Soviet Union. Levels of censorship did vary, with screws tightening for example around the Croatian Spring in the early 1970s or tensions in Kosovo in the early 1980s, or completely loosening from the mid-1980s on.

EAMON MCGRATH: Lastly, on the international side is I think the idea of Yugoslav authors, but particularly post-Yugoslav authors, engaging with the world. I think that in part was an aspect of the war and immigration that many of these authors who left and went to other countries, who began writing and other countries, who were writing for other international audiences was clearly in communication with these kinds of readers.

PETER KORCHNAK: Because these readers weren’t completely up to speed on the complicated place that Yugoslavia was, often these authors and their works were presented as kind of explainers.

EAMON MCGRATH: Sometimes which was forced, you know, I’ve seen in editions of Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina as being contextualized as this will help the reader understand the violence and the wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which is, is ludicrous, because that’s not at all what Ivo Andrić was writing about.

On the flip side, I think, again, within Yugoslav literature is this kind of domestic and internal focus. And this is drawing on indigenous traditions. And most importantly, here again, is that epic oral folk poetry.

And then also the ideas of pluralism, of the idea of having multiple voices, which you see both in some these epic folk poems that have these, you know, wide casts of characters, but then carry through, for example, through Ivo Andrić and other authors who bring in, you know, these wide casts of characters and bring [in] multiple voices, multiple perspectives.

That kind of dialogue between the internal focus and the external focus is also really important in the Yugoslav literary context.

PETER KORCHNAK: Another thing to note was the attitudes of Yugoslav writers toward Yugoslavia, where it’s possible to trace the country’s rise and demise in its literature.

EAMON MCGRATH: The beginning, I think, in the first decade or two of Yugoslavia, I think, is marked by this period of what I would call Yugooptimism. This is particularly the Partisan novels that emerge post-World War Two, building these national myths of heroism, resilience, fighting off the Germans, etc. These are authors like Branko Čopić, Ciril Kosmać, Miško Kranjec, Vladimir Nazor, who I know has been featured on this podcast, as well as interestingly an author like Dobrica Čosić whose novel Far Away as the Sun was this great Partisan epic, and then later Čosić himself became more of a, some of his writing had more nationalist elements, by the time of 1980s.

But a book like Nazor’s With the Partisans, which helped really build these national myths of World War Two, and focusing on these questions of, you know, building this new country moving past, you know, not delving into these questions, fraught questions of the past, but focusing on the future, and the experience and heroism of Tito’s Partisans and the future of this new socialist country.

And then another element I think of this yugooptimism, I might add, is the quintessential Yugoslav author, Ivo Andrić, whose writings particularly [The] Bridge on the Drina, writing of this idea of Yugoslavia, of this being multiple peoples, multiple histories that are contested and fraught. And [The] Bridge on the Drina of being set, you know, over centuries with these different interpretations and understandings of what happened in this place, the different myths that emerged.

But in some ways Andrić has an optimism that these stories can be reconciled, that truths can be found, that there’s an ability to live together, for a single narrative to be pulled together out of all of these things. So I think this is kind of an optimism in some ways, you know, and it’s also an example here where we have Bosnia in some ways being the representative of Yugoslavia, which we see in other books as well that Bosnia is kind of this mini Yugoslavia. And I think in some ways Andrić is making a case for this hope that despite these contested histories there’s an ability to build something singular, which is this belief in the Yugoslav national project.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Bridge on the Drina is probably the most recommended book from the former Yugoslavia. If I were to draw up a list of essential reads about the former Yugoslavia, The Bridge on the Drina would be right up there.

Andrić received the Nobel Prize in Literature for it, quote “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country.”

Which country? Milovan Djilas once asked Andrić in an interview: “What do you feel like, a Croat or a Serb?” Andrić, who was born in Travnik, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said, “You know, I couldn’t tell you myself. I’ve always felt Yugoslav.”

Na Drini čuprija is set in Višegrad, and the main character is the 16th century bridge on the river that forms the border between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and where the Western and Eastern Roman Empires met, and the story sweeps over centuries of the bridge’s life span. People and rulers and empires and countries come and go, the bridge remains.

I read the book some ten years ago as my interest in Yugoslavia was rekindling. It’s dense, it’s slow, but it’s also quite beautiful, with some amazing sentences on the passage of time, on remembering and forgetfulness, on love. You’ll never look at this, or any other bridge in the former Yugoslavia the same way again.

EAMON MCGRATH: After that, though, I would argue that the received this trend of what I would call yugopessimism, which begins arguably around the 1960s and continues onwards.

And a couple of authors and novels I would cite here would be Meša Selimović’s Death and the Dervish from 1966, as well as the Houses of Belgrade by Borislav Pekić, and then significantly, Milorad Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars in 1984.

Some of these novels are really critical of the Yugoslav national project.

So in Death and the Dervish we have this portrayal set in the Ottoman period but in some ways it’s really critical of this opaque unjust police state. And this is part pulling on Selimović’s own experience where Selimović’s brother had been killed by the partisans after World War Two. He was in charge of overseeing the distribution of furniture, I believe, that had been confiscated, and was killed [by] Partisans as an example of someone because he had stolen some of that furniture. So in some ways Death and the Dervish is pulling on some of these themes where the main character, his brother has been imprisoned in an Ottoman jail and the security state, it’s unjust, it’s opaque, it’s corrupting. Selimović may have been something which may have been more obliquely referring to the Yugoslav state.

PETER KORCHNAK: In Death and the Dervish, the titular, quite undecisive and not exactly honorable dervish in 18th century Bosnia attempts to free his imprisoned brother and in the process reflects on his life and faith itself. The novel depicting the oppressiveness of the Ottoman regime was indeed most widely read as a critique of communist Yugoslavia.

EAMON MCGRATH: And then I think in some ways, the quintessential anti-Andrić novel, I would say, is Pavić’s Dictionary of the Khazars where he is portraying contested histories. In Dictionary of the Khazars we have three different religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that have these three different stories of how this people, the Khazars, an ancient people, converted to their religion. And each religion is making a case that the Khazars converted to their religion. And we have these contested histories, or their own version of what happened and different experiences and perspectives. And they do not come together, we do not understand what happens in the end, there is no Andrić-like reconciliation of these different narratives. So in some ways, I think it becomes this almost anti-Andrić, anti-Yugoslav novel, where it’s this more of a hopelessness about there’s no way to bridge these differences.

PETER KORCHNAK: Milorad Pavić’s 1984 debut novel Dictionary of the Khazars is written as an encyclopedic dictionary, hence its subtitle Lexicon Novel, which can be read in any number of ways: chronologically, hypertextually jumping around through references, end to beginning, as books within the book, as “something like a feast eaten in a dream,” as Pavić put it. The non-story revolves around the history of a fictional nation and its chroniclers and historians. “’The Khazars are a metaphor for a small people surviving in between great powers and great religions,” Pavić told the New York Times.

The novel was perhaps the most prominent example in the post-modern turn in the literature of the former Yugoslavia.

EAMON MCGRATH: In the 1980s, and 1990s, we have this trend towards generally most more post modernism, which I think is on one hand, again, this connection to international trends. Authors here include, Kiš but also Dubravka Ugrešić, Semezdin Mehmedinović, Daša Drndić, Vladimir Arsenijević, Slavenka Drakulić, Svetislav Basara, and others.

PETER KORCHNAK: Dubravka Ugrešić is one of my favorite authors from the former Yugoslavia. I’ve read all her essay collections, some more than once, and even her novel, The Ministry of Pain, which deals with the question of nostalgia for the disappeared country. Ugrešić’s critical, often scathing and always witty and erudite reflections on nationalism, the flag-bearers of which essentially chased her out of her native Croatia in the 1990s; pop culture and yugonostalgia; migration and America; capitalism and democracy; trauma and historical revisionism; and much much more really make her work a delight to read and re-read. She described herself as “post-Yugoslav, transnational, or, even more precisely, postnational…”

I met her briefly, at a reading in Portland, Oregon, in 2018, when she was touring with her book American Fictionary. She signed, in Croatian, my Czech-language edition of her Kultura laži [The Culture of Lies], and she agreed to come on the show—if I could do the interview in person, at her home in Amsterdam. Our paths kept not crossing, and I never did speak with her again. She died last year.

DANJA BUJAS: Dubravka Ugrešić especially had a really strong impact on me, because of her sort of sharp mind.

Sometimes in many of her books, she’s recycling [the] same ideas. So if you read like a lot of her work, at some point, you would get a little bit maybe frustrated with the same topics of, you know, wars in the 90s popping up. But reading something of hers for the first time is [an] amazing experience, just because she really doesn’t censor herself, she is very much politically incorrect.

For everyone interested in her works, I would recommend one book that is sort of not that popular outside of Croatia, it’s called Fox. And it’s inspired really by her interest in Russian literature, not just in politics.

PETER KORCHNAK: Ugrešić’s novels have been described as metafiction. In Lisica we travel around the world with the titular fox trying to parse what in fact is narrative, what’s historical and what’s fictional.

EAMON MCGRATH: And here I think on the one hand, this is tying into these international literary trends but on the other hand, I think, some of these trends are directly connected to the experience of Yugoslavia and its dissolution and the wars. Postmodernism with focus on ideas of irony and metafiction, discontinuity and non-linearity, skepticism, nihilism, etc. Many of these ideas that were circling again with the end of Yugoslavia and its collapse, as well as this idea of these pastiche, ersatz history, as we see in novels, like novels by Svetislav Basara and Danilo Kiš, among others that are kind of these just kind of made up alternative histories.

And most importantly, I think, within post modernism is the idea of this distrust in meta narratives, a disbelief in single truths. And in some ways that describes the end of Yugoslavia as this collapse and belief in the possibility of Yugoslavia, the possibility of a single unifying truth that could unite different groups, different nations throughout their different perspectives and histories that remain contested. This is a great example of where we see kind of international literary trend also corresponding to the experience on the ground.

PETER KORCHNAK: As nationalism burgeoned in the 1980s so did national literatures.

EAMON MCGRATH: The end of Yugoslavia really precipitated the growth in these kind of more specific national literatures. So again, moving from Yugoslav literature towards Slovenian literature and Macedonian literature, and Montenegrin literature. But in some ways, that was always the case, I would argue that despite some of Yugoslavia’s broader goals, there were always these kind of national literature’s and part again, is the role of language here that Slovenian authors tended to be more read in Slovenia. And we can see this like in school textbooks and primers that those prepared in each country tended to focus more on authors from the specific country. And then of course, also this role center-periphery is that generally writers writing in Serbo-Croatian were had more of a voice and more of a presence than, for example, a writer writing in Macedonian or Slovenian.

You see this with the Association of Writers of Yugoslavia, which was intended as this kind of grand organizing body but ultimately, by the 1960s and 1970s, it effectively collapsed and in some ways kind of mirrored the future of the country. And then it just splintered into these different republican associations, which would kind of again, mirror the future of this connection between the literary project and cultural project to the broader Yugoslav project.

PETER KORCHNAK: When it comes to literature in the successor countries of the former Yugoslavia, the topics and themes depend to a great extent on the author’s generation.

EAMON MCGRATH: Many writers, I think, in Yugoslavia, were dealing with questions about nationality, identity, politics, all these these ideas that are related to history and the idea of Yugoslavia, to understand them, and to read them, in some ways it is important to understand that those pieces of where they’re coming from, the civic contexts and the specific experience, I think, of Yugoslavia and those writers.

One of the most important trends that we see in post-Yugoslav literature is kind of this, trying to understand some of the history of, in part it’s Yugoslavia and in part it’s all of the 20th century, starting really, I guess, in some ways, the 2000s where this kind of this turn to try to process what the past century was, and this being this millennial marker of this past century.

And I think when you go back and look at what has happened in former Yugoslavia over that period, you have the collapse of empires, you have the rise and fall of Yugoslavia twice, you have the Balkan Wars, World War One, World War Two—an incredible amount of history and incredible amount of tumult that I think it’s hard to understand, depending on where the reader or listener is based. For instance, in the United States, I think it’s hard to really grasp the amount of things that changed in that region over that period of time. Nations really just appearing and disappearing off the map. Totally different experiences on, through the wars, through different regimes, dictatorships, through the Iron Curtain, etc. That marked a period, I think of looking back to understanding what that was.

So I think one trend you have here is kind of this looking back in a broader sense of these longer novels that tried to make sense of that period.

In an international sense, his is kind of part of this turn towards what we might call the system’s novel or like a maximalist novel. And authors outside of former Yugoslavia here like Zadie Smith, for example, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace, might be more familiar, the idea of having a novel that builds in all of these characters and tries to make sense of this history.

An author and a book that I think is really emblematic of that is The Walnut Mansion by Miljenko Jergović, published in 2003.

PETER KORCHNAK: Jergović was born in Sarajevo in 1966 to Croatian parents, and moved from there to Zagreb in 1993. He’s quite prolific. A number of his books are out in translation, including the short stories Sarajevo Marlboro and novels Kin and The Walnut Mansion.

The translator of The Walnut Mansion, Stephen Dickey, has noted that Jergović is, quote, “one of the top two contemporary Croatian writers—the other being Dubravka Ugrešić. If Ugrešić is better known among Anglophone readers, this is due in part to the fact that Jergović has remained continually “on the ground” in Bosnia and Croatia, writing squarely for the local populations of Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs, a position that has resulted in fewer of his works being published in English translations.”

EAMON MCGRATH: In [The] Walnut Mansion you have lots of references to specific elements of Yugoslav history, culture, consumer culture that wouldn’t necessarily be understood unless you’ve lived in Yugoslavia, understand some context for what’s going on here.

I think for so many authors from the region, there is one always this Balkanist discourse of the Balkans are just this incomprehensible, mysterious region that’s just impossible to parse. And on the flip side, there being a lot of history in the region and without depending on where you grew up or where you’re coming from, you may have zero context for the region.

PETER KORCHNAK: In fact, the stories in Jergović’s books almost exclusively take place in the former Yugoslavia, mostly in Croatia and Bosnia, making countless references to geographic, cultural, political, and historical realities that, render his work not only difficult to translate but also to read.

As Dickey writes, “Jergović is the contemporary paradigm of a Balkan/Southeast European storyteller: he writes stories and novels replete with the charm and tragedy of the region that local and outsider alike simply can’t put down.”

EAMON MCGRATH: This book is pulling on this idea of like a family saga or a family epic. And it’s based on the woman named Regina Delavale and her family, particularly her daughter, Dijana, who are living in Dubrovnik (the novel’s mostly set in Croatia and Bosnia).

And I think in some ways it’s emblematic of a shift in the region as well as internationally of a turn a little bit away from postmodern and towards different forms of realism, some might call it hybrid realism.

PETER KORCHNAK: If The Bridge on the Drina unfolded over an epic span of four centuries, The Walnut Mansion unfolds over an epic span of a hundred years and five generations of a single family. According to Dickey, “if The Walnut Mansion has an epic scale, its epic is not the heroism of South Slavic tradition, but an epic of small, ordinary people. And it is in particular an epic of women [who] are the central characters that provide continuity to the story. The central theme of the novel is how these women struggle and endure amid the fallout from the misfortunes and cataclysms (most notably the Second World War) that afflicted those living in the lands of the former Yugoslavia during the twentieth century.”

EAMON MCGRATH: The novel begins in the late 1990s and then it goes backwards into the past and kind of the chapters actually count downwards. But it’s kind of pulling into the history, which I think is a really a way of trying to understand this 20th century idea.

So basically, when the novel opens, we have this Regina Delavale, she’s 97 , and at this point she has gone violently insane and we meet her through her daughter, Dijana. The unit has gone and she’s tone, completely berserk. She’s turned into a clinical monster, she’s destroying the apartment that she’s living in, spreading excrement across the walls, hurling curses that everyone, saying the worst things. And Dijana is ultimately able to bring her into a hospital and through kind of winning over the symphony get some sympathy of a doctor to get her euthanized. This is just the beginning of the book of her trying to explain herself: she goes to police station and try to exonerate the doctor who has euthanized her mother. It was interestingly a police archivist, I think also at least comments on you know, setting history straight and all these topics.

We have this idea of this really tragic and inglorious end to this woman’s life, Regina, just this horrible, violent, brutal ending, that ultimately euthanized, unable to survive any longer. So here we can already see this just in this first chapter, that in some ways Jergović is probably hinting, connecting Regina’s life with Yugoslavia, that this ending this horrible, horrible ending to this woman’s life.

And then basically, from there on each chapter [is] set at a different time during history in the 20th century, unfolding, mostly centered on Regina, her family, as well as various other people, a whole host of characters, you know, dozens of people across time periods and places. And it’s kind of you know, this history of Yugoslavia over a century.

PETER KORCHNAK: “The reverse chronology of the novel is oddly suitable for outside readers, the majority of whom first learned about Yugoslavia at its bloody end and only slowly worked their way backward to learn the history of the country,” notes Dickey.

EAMON MCGRATH: Some of the ideas that are explored by Jergović and other authors in this time is the idea of how to understand history. And for example, in The Walnut Mansion, I think, in Jergović’s telling, history is arbitrary, it’s random, it’s popping up in random places. You know, the critical junctures, the decisive things that happen in history just occur. This, there’s no way to predict them. They happen spontaneously, and someone says one thing, and we see because we’re moving backwards through time that we know what that one person said this one thing or did this one thing that led to all these kind of future outcomes. So that’s one way of understanding history.

But in some ways, there’s no way to understand it at all. That’s, in some ways, what the vision of history that’s articulated by Jergović just kind of prioritizing the personal over the historical.

That’s an important trend that we’re seeing in other authors coming from former Yugoslavia, but the idea that history can kind of only be measured and understood through lives and personal experiences, that these grand narratives, they can’t explain history and especially all of the things that happened in 20th century in Yugoslavia, the violence and the disillusion and the loss of lives.

And there are several examples of this throughout the book where something really important is happening, a historical moment, for example, the shelling of Dubrovnik’s happening and Regina and Dijana are fighting over the raising of Dijana’s daughter Mirna.

PETER KORCHNAK: As in movies, Tito’s death represents an important moment in the lives of literary characters as well.

EAMON MCGRATH: Dijana’s husband is killed in a car crash just at the time of Tito’s death. But here we see this idea that, the personal tragedy of the loss of Dijana’s husband and the father of her children, takes priority over over the death of Tito, which was this, obviously national tragedy. But he gets in some ways this alternative vision for how to understand history, how to understand Yugoslavia.

Within [The] Walnut Mansion it’s almost like a dialectic between, you know, is Regina story an allegory for Yugoslavia, and we see some a lot of authors, I think, from former Yugoslavia. think, for example, in The Bridge on the Drina, for example, or Dictionary of the Khazars, in some ways are more allegorical novels. We get these bits and pieces, for instance, and on the reaches novel, different characters, but we have a little bit less of an investment because we’re popping across different times while in this novel we’re really invested in Regina’s life, we get her whole life story. So it’s, I think, almost this is Regina’s story an allegory for Yugoslavia, or Yugoslavia an allegory for Regina’s life and her experience of the 20th century.

But I think it’s just trying to just to grasp, what happened in the 20th century in Yugoslavia and how can it be represented.

Another example, in The Walnut Mansion, you have— Regina has five brothers, and three of those brothers end up on different sides of World War Two, what ends up as a devoted Ustaša and hangs a portrait of Ante Pavelić in the bar he owns; one ends up as a Partisan colonel; and one ends up as a Chetnik. Which in some ways, it’s kind of this again, this allegory of Yugoslavia being you know, these different sides fighting within one family, but also this idea of just this incredible amount of history happening, an incredible amount of changes that are ongoing.

PETER KORCHNAK: The personal gets elevated in another literary trend: autofiction. In the former Yugoslavia, the themes include—

EAMON MCGRATH: —the wars of the 1990s, emigration, and the post-socialist space, whether that’s political, economic, cultural, all of those ideas.

There’s importantly kind of two generations of authors here. Authors born in the 1960s or early 1970s, who experienced the war more as adults. These include authors like Alexander Hemon, Semezdin Mehmedinović, Faruk Šehić, Slovenian author named Sebastian Pregelj, Montenegrin-Bosnian author named Andrej Nikolaidis, or the Macedonian author Lidija Dimkovska.

PETER KORCHNAK: Alexandar Hemon’s first works The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man accompanied my journey back to Yugoslavia. Very autobiographical, very well written, if a bit repetitive (though of course understandably so) in its themes of dealing with war, which caught Hemon in the United States, and of immigration.

EAMON MCGRATH: And then a second generation [of] authors born more in the late 1970s or 80s who experienced the war either as children or infants, and in particular, also through their families and the aftermath of the war. I mean, here we have authors like Saša Stanišić, Lana Bastašić, Ismet Prčić, Lejla Kalamujić, Rumena Bužarovska, and Pajtim Statovci.

That second generation of authors have a little bit of a different focus. So we have also ideas of returning important here. Recent novels by Lana Bastašić and Saša Stanišić have ideas of returning of like going of people, characters in their novels, or in their fiction, who have left Yugoslavia and coming back after immigration to try to understand what Yugoslavia meant and what it means. But through a much more personal lens, not these kind of broader national questions, but really what it means to them, to their family, to their roots, to their ancestry, etc.

PETER KORCHNAK: Bujas too recommends some of these authors. In terms of contemporary literature @danchireads favors women authors and short stories.

DANJA BUJAS: I really want to promote this lady, because she’s amazing and I feel she’s not appreciated enough in Croatia, where she lives—her name is Asja Bakić. She’s a writer and blogger based in Zagreb, in Croatia, originally from Bosnia. I simply adore her short stories because she is something different, she is a breath of fresh air.

When you are a small country, then your literary scene is also very small, you know, and topics that get represented in the literature and the way it’s represented is also very, you know, like predictable. So I feel like her influences are really international and that she is not just like copy-pasting stuff but also infusing a lot of local stuff in this international influences.

The second reason why I love her is that she is very feminist. So she would be very critical of certain patriarchal structures, traditions, and very progressive in the way she sees the world. Progressive also in the way she sees literature, you know, she’s very playful with her stories. She’s mixing a lot of genres, and so I love that she’s sort of combining her very literary style with topics that are very science fiction, very fantasy, very open to these different worlds, you know? She’s just combining a lot of stuff and making it her own.

PETER KORCHNAK: Like Jergović, Asja Bakić is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, from Tuzla to be exact. She was not yet a teenager when the war started.

Another author Bujas recommends is—

DANJA BUJAS: —Rumena Bužarovska, she’s from Macedonia, her short stories. Her short story book called My Husband is a big hit in Europe, got translated to many languages. It’s also, of course, feminist, and critical of the society and the world we live in and traditional stuff here in the Balkans.

PETER KORCHNAK: My Husband was also made into a theater play. Bužarovska also translates from English to Macedonian. Like Bakić, Bužarovska has been named among New Voices from Europe.

DANJA BUJAS: The third author I would like to mention, is Lana Bastašić. Originally from Bosnia, I think she’s located right now in Berlin, Germany. Only her novel Catch the Rabbit is translated, although her short stories are wonderful. Catch the Rabbit was translated to many languages, and it deals with sort of war experience in Bosnia in a completely different point of view that includes people who grew up in the war but didn’t directly participate in it.

PETER KORCHNAK: Bastašić’s debut novel Catch the Rabbit, which she translated herself, is quote “a modern-day Alice in Wonderland set in post-war Bosnia, in which two young women plunge into the illusive landscape of their shared history.” The book won the 2020 EU Prize for Literature.

DANJA BUJAS: Asja Bakić is definitely on the lighter side, she can be critical of stuff, but s her sense of humor makes it like much lighter. Her sense of irony and just making fun of stuff. Although she talks about important stuff, she’s on the light side.

The other two I mentioned, Rumena Bužarovska and Lana Bastašić, they are dealing with certain, like, more heavier topics, but once again, their writing style is not that heavy, which was really challenging with Central European literature before.

PETER KORCHNAK: If you’re a longtime listener of this podcast, you’ll recognize the name of the final author Bujas recommends.

DANHA BUJAS: She is from Croatia. Her name is Maša Kolanović. She’s such an amazing short story writer. And I’m so sorry that she’s not translated to English yet. I hope she will. She did receive European Literature Award, a couple of years back. Two of her books were translated to German. But the one I want to highlight right now, well, in Croatian, it’s Poštovani kukci i druge jezive priče [Respected Bugs and Other Scary Stories.]. It’s sort of a wonderful introduction to society of Croatia, political climate and all this sort of changes we were going through since the 90s. She even has [a] couple of stories about tourism and how it affects us and how it sort of directs our everyday life (you know, tourism is a very important part of living in Croatia, especially where I live).

She has lots of similarities with Asja Bakić, in doing this in a very sort of funny, light way that you can read, like, as a summer literature during your summer vacation, but still, these topics are very deep, important, and you can really learn about the country and the society reading these stories.

I really hope they do get translated, I think it would definitely be a great introduction to everyone who is like vacationing in Croatia and wants to learn more about us.

PETER KORCHNAK: You may remember Kolanović, whose day job is professor of literature at Zagreb University, from Episode 36, “Dream of the Yugoslav 80s.”

There’s some good news considering translation of Kolanović’s work. More on that in the second part of this literature series, in the next episode.

Some stories and excerpts from Poštovani kukci i druge jezive priče are available online, by various translators. One is in the Asymptote Journal, another is at Jonathan Bousfield’s website, Stray Satellite, and another still on the page of the European Union Prize for Literature, which describes the award-winning book as one that quote, “tells of the absurdity of existence, connected to ruthless capitalism, with protagonists who try to preserve their dignity while floundering like bugs and sometimes literally ‘cracking up’….stories in which life and death intertwine alongside laughter, some tears in the eyes, and a lump in the throat.”

DANJA BUJAS: That book was very popular in Croatia, like people were reading it like crazy.

PETER KORCHNAK: The stylistic and thematic shifts are indeed generational.

EAMON MCGRATH: This experience of rupture, of the wars and the dissolution of Yugoslavia being this almost before and after, you know, the pre and post Yugoslavia, family and friends before and after. That period marking a juncture and moving from youth to adulthood. We see this in a lot of novels, the idea of both just the experience of the 1990s forcing people into adulthood, but also that you know, people who were children before the war who did come of age, just biologically during that period.

And then also ideas around the separation of loss of language and culture, especially with emigration of people that began writing in other languages or learning other languages and how that could disconnect them from parents from other family from people who remain living in the former Yugoslavia. Particularly, I think also the experience of trauma is something that is so important to these authors of the idea of trauma being passed down through families across time and space, existing, you know, carried with them, found, rediscovered once returning, all of these ideas.

PETER KORCHNAK: Emblematic of this trend is Pajtim Statovci, an author who was born in 1990 in Kosovo and moved from Yugoslavia with his family to Finland in 1992.

EAMON MCGRATH: Two of his novels in the past decade, My Cat Yugoslavia, which was published in 2014, and Bolla, which was published in 2019, concern characters who have a lived experience, which is, one, in some ways, somewhat reminiscent of Statovci’s us who are children of Kosovar Albanians who fled Kosovo to Finland, and the experience of emigration, of being separated. But then also in those novels, both the primary characters return to Kosovo to try to understand ideas around what it meant to live in Yugoslavia, what Yugoslavia meant, what Kosovo is, all these questions.

And, I think, this is also a really good example of this rise of more specific national literatures where I think, Statovci’s novels are dealing with a specific experience of Kosovo during Yugoslavia during the 1990s and post-2000. They don’t have necessarily these universalist pretentions, they are focused on a more specific national context.

PETER KORCHNAK: So how does Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia feature in this serious literature?

DANJA: Well, the authors that I’ve mentioned are all sort of like born in the 80s, like me, I was also born in the 80s, and sort of lived through the last years of Yugoslavia, barely remember it. But definitely wars had bigger effect on us. And the falling apart of, crumbling of Yugoslavia had better effect on us than Yugoslavia itself. So I don’t know, I didn’t notice besides Lana Bastašić, which I didn’t notice anyone else, sort of referencing Yugoslavia, maybe here and there, like as s sideways comment, not something that will be the focus of their stories.

PETER KORCHNAK: It does depend on the writers on the author’s age and generation, the topics they deal with, for sure. We would probably see more of Yugoslavia in authors who were born in the 60s, 70s.

DANJA: I mean, for us born in the 80s we still have some traces of it, of course, but I don’t know, like today’s generations, like Gen Z, for them Yugoslavia is like, Mars.

PETER KORCHNAK: They might hear their parents or grandparents talk about it. But that’s about it.

DANJA BUJAS: Yeah, I mean, and that, too, is also sort of like phase with years. People have their daily life, their daily struggles. And things have changed so much. In the meantime, at least here in Croatia, that Yugoslavia sort of fades as a topic of conversation.

PETER KORCHNAK: Right. And here I am keeping it in the center of what I do.

DANJA BUJAS: And you’re not from Yugoslavia, right?

But it’s the irony of Yugoslavia or maybe it’s like beauty of Yugoslavia, you know, it will attract people who are not from it.

You know, I was born in 1981 and once I was filling a form for a scholarship, and they were like, Where were you born? I put Croatia and a computer told me, “The country of your origin did not exist at the time of your birth.” I was confused for a moment. I was like, Where was I born? Did I forget where I was born? What is going on? And then I was like, I was born in Yugoslavia.

PETER KORCHNAK: All that said—

DANJA BUJAS: Lately, there’s been a sort of a trend to write more about light topics, more lighter topics, not like, you know, wars and dark times and existential angst, but also about just regular everyday stuff. Not just in Croatian literature, where I’m from, I’m from Croatia, but also from other countries, from Montenegro from Slovenia, from Serbia. There’s been this push towards more lighter topics because readership is asking for it, you know, readers want to read lighter stuff.

EAMON MCGRATH: While I think so many books and authors from the region, are dealing and thinking about some of these bigger questions, about history, about Yugoslavia, about politics, about post socialism. These are also just wonderful books that are, can be strongly plot driven, can be about character development, so much more than that. I don’t want to just limit it to one way of reading and understanding these books, but I think they can be read and understood, particularly in this context of Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav space. But yeah, I would encourage all listeners to just explore more, more books and more authors from the region.

DANJA BUJAS: It’s very hard to talk about literature. It’s much easier to read it

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

BUZZ POOLE: It’s refreshing to read an author from a region or a country you don’t know about, or you only know very little about . And then it comes down to just the quality of the storytelling. There are incredible contemporary authors from Croatia and Slovenia, and Bosnia Herzegovina, and Macedonia and the entire region.

PETER KORCHNAK: In Episode 90 we’ll continue about ex- or post-Yugoslav literature, focusing this time on translations.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and follow to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening—and reading. […]

All guests’ opinions expressed are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.


Additional Sources

  • Prekić, Adnan. “Crveni Njegoš – novo, ideološko čitanje crnogorskoga mitropolita u prvim godinama komunističke vlasti.” ČSP, No. 3 (2019), pp. 863-878

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