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. 

 

 

panorama

Fall into Zagreb

From unmissable concerts to jazz and art happenings, film festivals, and events for the littles ones, see what early autumn in Zagreb has to offer in the link below.

panorama

Rebecca Duran's Take on Modern Day Life in Pazin (Istria)

Croatia is a small, charming country known today as a prime European tourist destination. However, it has a complicated often turbulent history and is seemingly always destined to be at the crossroads of empires, religions and worldviews, with its current identity and culture incorporating elements from its former Communist, Slavic, Austrian-Hungarian, Catholic, Mediterranean, and European traditions.

review

Review of Dubravka Ugrešić's Age of Skin

Dubravka Ugrešić is one of the most internationally recognizable writers from Croatia, but she has a contentious relationship with her home country, having gone into self-exile in the early 90s. Her recently translated collection of essays, The Age of Skin, touches on topics of of exile and displacement, among others. Read a review of Ugrešić’s latest work of non-fiction, expertly translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac, in the link below .

panorama

Vlaho Bukovac Exhibition in Zagreb Will Run Through May

Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922) is arguably Croatia's most renowned painter. Born in the south in Cavtat, he spent some of his most impressionable teenage years in New York with his uncle and his first career was as a sailor, but he soon gave that up due to injury. He went on to receive an education in the fine arts in Paris and began his artistic career there. He lived at various times in New York, San Francisco, Peru, Paris, Cavtat, Zagreb and Prague. His painting style could be classified as Impressionism which incorporated various techniques such as pointilism.

An exhibition dedicated to the works of Vlaho Bukovac will be running in Klovićevi dvori Gallery in Gornji Grad, Zagreb through May 22nd, 2022.

review

Review of Neva Lukić's Endless Endings

Read a review of Neva Lukić's collection of short stories, Endless Endings, recently translated into English, in World Literature Today.

panorama

A Guide to Zagreb's Street Art

Zagreb has its fair share of graffiti, often startling passersby when it pops up on say a crumbling fortress wall in the historical center of the city. Along with some well-known street murals are the legendary street artists themselves. Check out the article below for a definitive guide to Zagreb's best street art.

panorama

Beloved Croatian Children's Show Professor Balthazar Now Available in English on YouTube

The colorful, eclectic and much beloved Croatian children's cartoon Professor Balthazar was created by Zlatko Grgić and produced from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Now newer generations will be able to enjoy the Professor's magic, whether they speak Croatian or English.

panorama

New Book on Croatian Football Legend Robert Prosinečki

Robert Prosinečki's long and fabled football career includes winning third place in the 1998 World Cup as part of the Croatian national team, stints in Real Madrid and FC Barcelona as well as managerial roles for the Croatian national team, Red Star Belgrade, the Azerbaijani national team and the Bosnian Hercegovinian national team.

news

Sandorf Publishing House Launches American Branch

Croatian publishing house Sandorf launched their American branch called Sandorf Passage earlier this year.

panorama

Jonathan Bousfield on the Seedy Side of the Seaside

From strange tales of mysterious murders to suspected criminals hiding out to scams, duels and gambling, Opatija, a favourite seaside escape for Central Europeans at the turn of the last century, routinely filled Austrian headlines and the public's imagination in the early 20th century.

review

Review of new English translation of Grigor Vitez's AntonTon

Hailed as the father of 20th century Croatian children's literature, Grigor Vitez (1911-1966) is well known and loved in his homeland. With a new English translation of one of his classic tales AntonTon (AntunTun in Croatian), children around the world can now experience the author's delightful depiction of the strong-minded and silly AntonTon. The Grigor Vitez Award is an annual prize given to the best Croatian children's book of the year.

news

The Best of New Eastern European Literature

Have an overabundance of free time, thanks to the pandemic and lockdowns? Yearning to travel but unable to do so safely? Discover the rhythm of life and thought in multiple Eastern European countries through exciting new literature translated into English. From war-torn Ukraine to tales from Gulag inmates to the search for identity by Eastern Europeans driven away from their home countries because of the economic or political situations but still drawn back to their cultural hearths, this list offers many new worlds to explore.

panorama

More Zagreb Street Art

Explore TimeOut's gallery of fascinating and at times thought-provoking art in the great open air gallery of the streets of Zagreb.

panorama

Welcome to Zagreb's Hangover Museum

Partied too hard last night? Drop by Zagreb's Hangover Museum to feel more normal. People share their craziest hangover stories and visitors can even try on beer goggles to experience how the world looks like through drunken eyes.

panorama

Jonathan Bousfield on the Future as Imagined in 1960s Socialist Yugoslavia

How will the futuristic world of 2060 look? How far will technology have advanced, and how will those advancements affect how we live our everyday lives? These are the questions the Zagreb-based magazine Globus asked in a series of articles in 1960, when conceptualizing what advancements society would make 40 years in the future, the then far-off year of 2000. The articles used fantastical predictions about the future to highlight the technological advancements already made by the then socialist Yugoslavia. Take a trip with guide, Jonathan Bousfield, back to the future as envisioned by journalists in 1960s Yugoslavia.

panorama

Untranslatable Croatian Phrases

What’s the best way for an open-minded foreigner to get straight to the heart of another culture and get a feel for what makes people tick? Don’t just sample the local food and drink and see the major sights, perk up your ears and listen. There’s nothing that gives away the local flavor of a culture more than the common phrases people use, especially ones that have no direct translation.

Check out a quirky list of untranslatable Croatian phrases from Croatian cultural guide extraordinaire, Andrea Pisac, in the link below:

panorama

Jonathon Bousfield on the Museum of Broken Relationships

Just got out of a serious relationship and don't know what to do with all those keepsakes and mementos of your former loved one? The very popular and probably most unique museum in Zagreb, the Museum of Broken Relationships, dedicated to preserving keepsakes alongside the diverse stories of relationships gone wrong, will gladly take them. Find out how the museum got started and take an in-depth look at some of its quirkiest pieces in the link below.

panorama

Cool Things To Do in Zagreb

Zagreb is Croatia’s relaxed, charming and pedestrian-friendly capital. Check out Time Out’s definitive Zagreb guide for a diverse set of options of what to explore in the city from unusual museums to legendary flea markets and everything in between.

panorama

Jonathan Bousfield on Diocletian's Legacy in Split

Diocletian’s Palace is the main attraction in Split, the heart and soul of the city. Because of the palace, Split’s city center can be described as a living museum and it draws in the thousands of tourists that visit the city annually. But how much do we really know about the palace’s namesake who built it, the last ruler of a receding empire? Jonathan Bousfield contends that history only gives us a partial answer.

interview

The Poetry of Zagreb

Cities have served as sources of inspiration, frustration, and discovery for millennia. The subject of sonnets, stories, plays, the power centers of entire cultures, hotbeds of innovation, and the cause of wars, cities are mainstays of the present and the future with millions more people flocking to them every year.

Let the poet, Zagreb native Tomica Bajsić, take you on a lyrical tour of the city. Walk the streets conjured by his graceful words and take in the gentle beauty of the Zagreb of his childhood memories and present day observation.

panorama

You Haven't Experienced Zagreb if You Haven't Been to the Dolac Market

Dolac, the main city market, is a Zagreb institution. Selling all the fresh ingredients you need to whip up a fabulous dinner, from fruits and vegetables to fish, meat and homemade cheese and sausages, the sellers come from all over Croatia. Positioned right above the main square, the colorful market is a beacon of a simpler way of life and is just as bustling as it was a century ago.

panorama

Croatian Phrases Translated into English

Do you find phrases and sayings give personality and flair to a language? Have you ever pondered how the culture and history of a place shape the common phrases? Check out some common sayings in Croatian with their literal translations and actual meanings below.

panorama

Discover Croatia's Archaeological Secrets

Discover Croatia’s rich archaeological secrets, from the well known ancient Roman city of Salona near Split or the Neanderthal museum in Krapina to the often overlooked Andautonia Archaeological Park, just outside of Zagreb, which boasts the excavated ruins of a Roman town or the oldest continuously inhabited town in Europe, Vinkovci.

panorama

Croatian Sites on UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List

A little know fact is that Croatia, together with Spain, have the most cultural and historical heritage under the protection of UNESCO, and Croatia has the highest number of UNESCO intangible goods of any European country.

panorama

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

The National Theater in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is one of those things which always finds its way to every visitor’s busy schedule.

panorama

Zagreb's Street Art

So you're visiting Zagreb and are curious about it's underground art scene? Check out this guide to Zagreb's street art and explore all the best graffiti artists' work for yourself on your next walk through the city.

panorama

Zagreb Festivals and Cultural Events

Numerous festivals, shows and exhibitions are held annually in Zagreb. Search our what's on guide to arts & entertainment.

Authors' pages

Književna Republika Relations PRAVOnaPROFESIJU LitLink mk zg