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The ten best Eastern Europen books you've never heard of

BY JEFFREY ZUCKERMAN, THE AIRSHIP, May 13, 2013

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 . .



 

Albania

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.

 

Croatia

Ranko Marinković, Cyclops

Translated from Serbo-Croatian by Vlada StojiljkovicBilled 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.

 

Czech Republic

Bohumil Hrabal, Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age

Translated from Czech by Michael Henry HeimThere 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.

 

Hungary

Deszö Kosztolányi, Kornel Esti

Translated from Hungarian by Bernard AdamsWhen 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.

 

Poland

Olga Tokarczuk, Primeval and Other Times

Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-JonesThis 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.

 

Romania

Gabriela Adameșteanu, Wasted Morning

Translated from Romanian by Patrick CamillerSince 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.

 

Russia

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby

Translated from Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna SummersHer name isn’t thathard 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

 

Serbia

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.

 

Slovenia

Maja Novak, The Feline Plague

Translated from Slovenian by Maja Visenjak-LimonThere’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.

 

Ukraine

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.

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Zagreb Classic Open Air Festival Kicks Off on June 23rd

Zagreb’s annual Open Air Classic Festival kicks off this week. The festival encompasses a series of classical music concerts and will take place downtown in Tomislav Park, with the beautiful backdrop of the Art Pavilion. The festival runs from June 23rd to June 29th, 2022.


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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.

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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 .

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Sandorf Publishing House Launches American Branch

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Zagreb Festivals and Cultural Events

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

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