review

2021: The Best Croatian Literature in English Translation

Jonathan Bousfield delivers a real gift with his overview of the best Croatian literature that was translated into English in 2021.



 

2021: The Best Croatian Literature in English Translation

By Jonathan Bousfield 

 

Last summer I saw a British tourist reading Miroslav Krleža’s existentialist classic The Return of Philip Latinowicz on the beach. An uncommon choice of holiday reading, perhaps, especially inbetween swims. But a sign nevertheless that at least some people make a point of reading the literature of the country they are visiting.

 

It’s not that often that you see foreign tourists with a Croatian novel in their hands, even though it is something that old-school guidebook writers like me constantly exhort our readers to do. It set me thinking about what Croatian books we actually recommend to outsiders, and whether it is possible to come up with a best-Croatian-books-of-the-year list for readers who are dependent on English translations.

 

What I came up with is not exactly a very long list (and despite being in the grave for forty years, Miroslav Krleža is still on it). Until a few years ago however any such list would have been difficult if not impossible to compile: either no Croatian books were published in the Anglosphere in a given year, or it was impossible to pick out Croatian books that were inherently more worth reading than translated Slovak books, translated Lithuanian books, or translated books from Liechtenstein. Now at least, we have more of a basis on which to make a choice. 

 

The last few years have seen a significant increase in the number of Croatian books appearing in English translation. This is not so much the work of big publishers and mega-agents as the result of the tenacious enthusiasm of small houses and their editors. Thanks to them, there is an emerging sense of who among Croatian writers might be considered “important” (and which of them, besides the perennial Krleža, should be tossed in your travel bag). The confrontational, uncompromising books of Daša Drndić, who died in 2018, are nowadays accepted as contemporary European classics, thanks in large part to the single-mindedness of the publishers who brought her work to the English-reading audience (namely Maclehose Press, Istros Books and their translators Celia Hawkesworth, Ellen Elias-Bursac and Susan Curtis). Indeed Drndić’s characteristically abrasive 1998 title Canzone di Guerra, due to be published in English by Istros in spring 2022, looks set to be one of the literary highlights of the coming year.

 

Writing about Croatian writers translated into English always comes with a subtext: which deserving Croatian writers are not breaking through? Damir Karakaš is currently the most lyrical, unsettling and at the same time commercially readable novelist in Croatia, known for his frequently autofictional take on growing up in the rural Lika region. Lighter, but also deliciously grotesque, Maša Kolanović combines the intimate, comic in her fantasmagorical-but-true tales of the horrors of contemporary life. Both would attract readers in the Anglosphere if their work was available.

 

The best book I read in 2021 (and which is highly unlikely to be ever translated into English despite its sparkling quality) was Glazba za žedno uho (Music for a Thirsty Ear) a musical autobiography by legendary alternative concert booker, club-runner and festival organizer Mate Škugor. Taking the form of 69 essays about the albums that marked his life, it is an intriguing hybrid of personal memoir and pop-cultural handbook. It also works as an alternative history of Croatia’s last three decades, as told by someone who fought against institutional philistinism and dysfunctional local politics. Non-fiction writing is taken far less seriously in Croatia than it should be, and Škugor’s insightful and moving personal history has been far too easily pigeonholed as a rock book rather than hailed as the accomplished literary autobiography it really is.

 

And so back to the best of the English translations: an awful lot of mediocre Croatian books have been translated in the last few years, but also a lot of rather good ones too – enough, indeed to make an annual best-of list worthwhile.  And the fact that I can “only” find four books to put in my list is a sign that things are looking up, not a recognition of defeat.

 

 

Ivana Bodrožić We Trade Our Night For Someone Else’s Day (trans. Celia Hawkesworth)

A noir thriller set in Vukovar in around 2010, two decades after the siege that laid waste to the town and killed or scattered its inhabitants, this deftly written thriller brings together all the open wounds of small-town Croatia: economically depressed, ethnically divided, and ruled over by nationalist cliques. The story centres on a female journalist sent to Vukovar to profile a woman imprisoned for a murder she has confessed to, but can’t possibly have committed. Confronting corruption, political clientelism and the impotence of local residents, it’s a book that reveals just how well-suited the noir format is in uncovering the failings of transitional society and the human wreckage it leaves behind. It also tackles the genre from a feminist perspective, juggling a cast of strong female characters and hinting at a patriarchal culture that re-seeds itself in generation after generation. Above all it is a pacey, disciplined and tightly-structured piece of work, virtues which in Croatian literary fiction are frequently in short supply. The use of Vukovar as a setting is more than just a thriller-writer’s instinct for evocative scenery. Vukovar is Bodrožič’s native town; her characters have the flesh-and-blood authenticity of people drawn from life; and the book is propelled by an emotional rawness that other noir writers struggle to find. 

 

Tatjana Gromača Divine Child (trans. Will Firth)

Narrated by the daughter of a woman with mental problems, this is both a moving portrait of a family hit by long-term illness and a searing picture of a society rent by ethnic division and economic change. Appearing between the lines rather than narrated in black and white, it is the breakup of Yugoslavia that kick-starts the narrative – the main protagonist’s mother suddenly finds herself shunned by friends and colleagues as an outsider, an “easterner”, cast out by a society that seems to have lost its bearings. What follows is just as disorienting, society’s fabric unravelled further by communist-to-capitalist transformation. The narrator makes creative play out of the idea that society is one big mental hospital, but the underlying message is a sobering one: Croatia is a deeply traumatized society whose long-term ills remain unresolved. The relationship between social and individual madness is dealt with subtly and with precision, unlocking a sense of dystopian unease with the hyper-materialist world in which all of us now live. The narrator rails against living “by the dictate emitted by ubiquitous large screens, illuminated signs, devices that read people’s thoughts.” A world in which “each and every brain” is “diligently washed.”  Gromača’s protagonist speaks in elegantly sculpted, geometric paragraphs, the literary equivalent of a perfectly-trimmed hedge – once pricked by its sharp edges, however, you’ll feel compelled to carry on reading.

 

Robert Perišić Horror and Huge Expenses (trans. Will Firth)

Translated literature is often something of a time machine, providing the Anglophone public a belated glimpse of something that was written years, perhaps decades previously in its country of origin. Does it really matter? In this case absolutely not. This cult collection of short stories from novelist, poet and screenwriter Robert Perišić first saw the light of day in 2002, when a young Perišić was being feted as one of the first writers to speak for Croatia’s post-independence generation. Thanks to two decades of political turbulence, financial crisis and a pandemic, we are still living in transitional times, and the cast of characters brought to life by Perišić are still very much with us. While some of the 24 stories in this collection are clearly autobiographical in inspiration, Perišić deploys a dizzying range of protagonists drawn from all walks of life, and he has an unrivalled ear for dialogue - his stories have the feel of conversations overheard in neighbourhood bars from which we cannot tear ourselves away. His tales deal with the unpredictable dramas of everyday life, the fateful meetings and epiphanies we experience while swimming in the sea, waiting for ferries, visiting relations in the hospital, or attempting to look up friends in distant suburbs. When it comes to evoking the vast panorama of Croatian life, Perišić has few rivals.

 

Miroslav Krleža Journey to Russia. (trans. Will Firth)

Finally getting its US release in spring 2021, a full 95 years after it was first published, this is as good a reason as any to keep reading Krleža. The account of a trip to the Soviet Union, then a young state only just coming to terms with its own creation, the book abounds in lyrical description and insightful comment, all told in the kind of electric prose that reads like something from 2025 rather than a whole century earlier. A large part of the book’s appeal comes from the fact that the Soviet 1920s are less well known than the revolutionary period that preceded it or the Stalinist epoch that came after – Krleža is taking us into the heart of a time and place we still know little about. Krleža is over-enthusiastic about Lenin and his doctrines, but this has a lot to do with his disappointment at the way the rest of Europe turned out – the author’s disdain for an impoverished continent of dysfunctional nation states still makes for challenging reading. 

 

 

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Ines Kosturin: Izbor iz poezije

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Bojana Guberac: Izbor iz poezije

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Ivana Caktaš: Život u roku

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Marija Skočibušić: Izbor iz poezije

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