Black Balloon has just published Robert Perišić’s Our Man in Iraq, translated by Will Firth. Despite its title, the novel takes place almost entirely in Croatia and feels so deeply Eastern European in sensibility that I found myself jotting down other books from that region once eclipsed by the Iron Curtain’s shadow. Without further ado, here are ten brilliant and barely-known books from ten countries in Eastern Europe . . .
Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City
Translated from Albanian by John Hodgson
Although he hasn’t won the Nobel Prize yet, Ismail Kadare might as well have—he’s just that famous in Europe. Under Enver Hoxha, Albania’s government was one of the last Communist regimes to fall, and Kadare’s works were often banned or published in translation before being read by the Albanian public. The Fall of the Stone City, his latest novel, is one of his best: it satirizes the German invasion of an Albanian city and shows how under Communism hallucinations can distort and become reality.
Ranko Marinković, Cyclops
Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Vlada Stojiljkovic
Billed as a Croatian Ulysses, Ranko Marinković’s Cyclops follows the solipsistic Melkior throughout Zagreb as he and his countrymen gird themselves for World War II. Propelled by literary allusions—Homer, Petrarch, Dostoyevsky, and many others—and teeming with paranoia and anxiety, as well as a great deal of humor, this book so thoroughly embeds you in Melkior’s mind that you appreciate his delusions and come to understand Zagreb and its inhabitants.
Bohumil Hrabal, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age
Translated from Czech by Michael Henry Heim
There aren’t many novels that consist of just one sentence, and even fewer that pull off the trick successfully, but Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age is an object lesson for the not-so-advanced in age. The whole book consists of a narrator “palavering,” endlessly recounting anecdotes and charming the pants off his listeners. It only takes two or three hours to read, which is just the right amount of time to listen to an old man describing the funniest parts of his entire life.
Deszö Kosztolányi, Kornel Esti
Translated from Hungarian by Bernard Adams
When I originally read the story of a kleptomaniac translator who steals astonishing amounts of money, jewelry, and valuables between the original version of a text and its translator, I was riveted. Kornel Esti comprises a hilariously bizarre series of magical, inexplicable fragments from the eponymous character’s life—a trip to an overly honest city, or a heartbreakingly clear account of a tram ride—painting a compelling portrait of Hungary between the wars.
Olga Tokarczuk, Primeval and Other Times
Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
This is the story of a town named Primeval, and of the people who lived there from the First World War to the beginning of Solidarity. This is also the story of many Times, each one a different chapter describing a new place or a new person. Even God lives in Primeval, yet the nature of God’s existence is still a subject for debate. As the novel progresses and the characters’ lives interconnect in ever more complex ways, Primeval and Other Times moves from a singular experiment to a profound portrait of a village at once fantastical and intensely real.
Gabriela Adameșteanu, Wasted Morning
Translated from Romanian by Patrick Camiller
Since the collapse of Ceaușescu’s regime, Romania has modernized rapidly, yet has not let go of its distant past. At the center of Wasted Morning is Vica Delcă, a seventy-year-old who has endured her country's many changes and takes no prisoners in the tales she tells. Set in Bucharest (once “the Paris of Eastern Europe”) and mixing stream-of-consciousness passages with keen-sighted realist narration, Adameșteanu’s novel offers a brilliant visual and historical panorama of a Romania that has swiftly become unrecognizable.
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby
Translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers
Her name isn’t that hard to pronounce: “Peh-true-shev-skay-ya.” That is, unless her horror stories of ghosts and vampires, neighbors letting their grudges swallow them whole, and creepy Siamese twins have you shuddering uncontrollably. While most post-Soviet writers in Russia are busy pushing the limits of postmodernity or addressing risqué topics once censored by the Soviet government, Petrushevskaya has gone on doing what she knows best, and chilling the blood of Anglophone readers finally getting a frightful taste of her work.
Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars
Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
What kind of book gets published in a male edition and a female edition? A Dictionary of the Khazars that isn’t even about the real Khazars to begin with, of course. The novel focuses on the pivotal moment when many Khazar nobles converted to Judaism, and is structured as three small dictionaries (Christian, Islamic, and Hebrew). The difference between the male and female editions is a handful of lines in a crucial paragraph—but the consequences are immeasurable. Consequently, the act of flipping between entries and dictionaries is strange, idiosyncratic, and absolutely irresistible.
Maja Novak, The Feline Plague
Translated from Slovenian by Maja Visenjak-Limon
There’s something delightful about a novel where businesswomen double as heavenly goddesses and run a chain of pet stores across Slovenia. When a quiet child decides to serve Mammon instead of the earth, she unintentionally unleashes the feline plague of the title and proposes a huge charity telethon to save the country’s morale. If this summary sounds outlandish, the full novel certainly reads as something more believable—albeit wholly Eastern-European in sensibility.
Oksana Zabuzhko, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex
Translated from Ukrainian by Halyna Hryn
“Not today, she says to herself. Not yet, not today,” this short book begins, before diving straight into the story of an Ukrainian writer teaching at Harvard and coming to understand the intricacies of female sexuality. The result is an amazing breakdown of love and sex, and the shades of gray in between. Oksana Zabuzhko became one of Ukraine’s foremost writers with this breakout novel, and has since written doorstops spanning six decades of Ukrainian history, but Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex feels pure and honest in its narrator’s attempt to make sense of a new life and a newly liberated country.
Credit: Flickr user pedrosek. Used with a creative commons license.