Nestled between Europe proper and Asia Minor, the Balkan Peninsula has witnessed countless nations form and dissolve. It has served not only as a crucible of European and Asian peoples and cultures, but a crossroads where Eastern and Western civilizations came together, whether in war or in peace, to share different ideas and beliefs in the same space. This complicated coexistence, at times either harmonious or tense, has given the Balkans its unique multicultural identity, and is reflected in the modern literature of the region, which is rich in reference to these various intersecting and interlocking cultures. Here is my "Balkan literature starter pack" of five novels, each written by a personally-chosen representative of the most numerous of Balkan nations.
DEATH AND THE DERVISH by MEŠA SELIMOVIĆ (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1966)
Translated by BOGDAN RAKIĆ AND STEPHEN M. DICKEY
Born into a Muslim family in today’s Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1910, Meša is one of the most important writers and intellectuals of Yugoslavia. Highly acclaimed and widely read, he is the author of numerous novels, two of which have been translated into English, with one of them winning him recognition in Yugoslavia and abroad.
Death and the Dervish is set in Bosnia during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Time and place are scarcely, if at all, mentioned—a literary device aimed to serve the universality of the work. It is a story about a Muslim mystic—a dervish—named Nuruddin, who goes in search of his brother after hearing of his detainment. Not a single person of authority gives him a satisfying clue as to his brother’s whereabouts and the crime with which he is charged. The decadence of the legal and political system is wrought clear. As his unsuccessful search progresses, the dervish finds himself in an ongoing philosophical internal dialogue, investigating the meaning of life and interrogating his obedience to the system he eventually understands to be corrupt. After taking part in the rebellion which was unleashed as a result of the people's dissatisfaction, an interesting chain of events takes place which leads to him being proclaimed the chief judge of the region—a position of which he was previously critical. In order to maintain the stability of the region, he questions whether he is repeating the same mistakes as the preceding corrupt officials. In the end, he falls prey to political intrigue and is awaiting execution, still pondering the meaning and absurdity of life.
The PALACE OF DREAMS BY ISMAIL KADARE (ARCADE PUBLISHING, 1993)
TRANSLATED BY BARBARA BRAY
Considered the most famous Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare has been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. While each of his novels are quite memorable, The Palace of Dreams is perhaps his most acclaimed.
The Palace of Dreams portrays the famous feudal Qyprili family whose members are torn between the Ottoman agenda—which perpetuates Islamic values above all else—and the family’s own Albanian roots (which they tend to disregard, as nationalism is contradictory to the state’s agenda). As a result of the Qyprili’s discomfort with adhering to their national identities, they are perceived as collaborators and blindly-obedient tyrants who are of no benefit to most of their countrymen. The novel explores ideas of nationalism and freedom, while its setting and narrative can be said to be allegorically critical of the draconian communist regime and Albania’s bondage to the Soviet Union.
THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA by ivo andriĆ (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 1977)
translated by lovett f. edwards
Born and raised in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatian parents, Adrić later resettled in Belgrade where he served as a state official. Since he wrote in the Serbian dialect, all three sides have laid claim to his heritage. He is the only Yugoslav writer to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.
Like his other novels, The Bridge on the Drina focuses on the history of Bosnia under Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian dominance. The narrative covers five centuries of history focusing on and around the town of Višegrad. Due to its wide span and lack of central character, the novel is sometimes regarded as a chronicle. Particularly symbolic is the bridge that spans across the wide and rampant Drina River (after which the novel gets its name), as it bears witness to the changing times, as tumultuous as the flow of its own waters. It explores the daily lives of primarily Muslim Bosniak and Orthodox Christian Serb subjects and their coexistence and interaction. Since it was published on the eve of creating a socialist Yugoslavia, one could argue that it reexamines the possibility of different ethnicities and religions coexisting in a shared state. Some scholars have voiced concern over the novel’s subtle nationalistic ideological agenda and polarizing views. Nonetheless, it is this novel that brought Andrić the Nobel Prize, and has since become an obligatory part of ex-Yugoslav education curriculum.
MY NAME IS RED by ORHAN PAMUK (Faber & Faber, 2002)
TRANSLATED BY ERDAG GOKNAR
The most prominent and recognized Turkish author, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Orhan Pamuk was born in Istanbul in 1952. His novels explore Turkey’s past, with a particular focus on Istanbul and its historical development. My Name is Red is his most acclaimed novel.
My Name is Red is set in the late 16th century and centers around a handful Ottoman miniaturists. Its postmodern realization provides multiple turn-shifting narrators as each character attempts to uncover (or, in the case of one of the characters, to cover up) the murder of one of the fellow miniaturists. Some of the narrators are neither human nor necessarily living, thus permeating the narrative with metafiction and magic realism. It is interesting to delve into Pamuk’s literary imagination and find a speaking coin, a dead soul, the color red personified and alive. The central theme of the novel is the miniature painting, its significance, symbolism, beauty, and in one of the cases, its sacrilege. It is a symbol of timeless beauty that compels the reader to vividly imagine the past, future, or the unoccupied space between the two. My Name is Red is certain to captivate its readers, and just perhaps, encourage them to create imaginative narrations for themselves to occupy.
STORK MOUNTAIN by miroslav penkov (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
The last novel to complete our list of five is certainly not the least, and comes from the imagination of the University of Arkansas’ own MFA graduate, Miroslav Penkov. Penkov was born in Bulgaria and emigrated to the US in 2001. He has received multiple awards for his literary achievements, including The BBC International Short Story Award. He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas and the Editor-in-chief of the American Literary Review.
Stork Mountain follows the story of a young boy, who, in search of his grandfather, returns to a remote village in Bulgaria close to Turkish and Greek borders. The boy is reintroduced to his native folklore as he explores the customs and mysteries of his mystical village. He falls in love with a Muslim girl who seems out of his reach, since mixed marriages were frowned upon in their traditional society. As the boy traces the controversial history and politics of the region, he eventually recognizes his grandfather’s past in his own experience.
The reader will immediately notice a recurring reference to the Ottomans in all five novels. This is not by accident. Except for Pamuk, who I've added to the list to serve as an admittedly limited but necessary representative of a larger, and quite diverse, Turkish voice, all other writers in one way or another explore the collective identity of their respective nations under Ottoman rule. Since most of the Balkan Peninsula was dominated by the Ottomans—in some regions for up to 500 years—the people of the Balkans came to see the Turks as the “Other,” and it is against them that the national sentiment and identity are formed in the 19th century. Though the Ottoman Empire has long since collapsed, this binary identification continues to this day. The elegance of the prose, the philosophical and existential questions investigated, and the novels' attempts at interrogating, archiving, and even reifying national consciousness makes each of these works not only relevant and intriguing, but well worth exploring for any reader interested in better understanding an otherwise complicated region.
SAIT IBIŠI was born and raised in Kosovo and received his BA in English Language and Literature from Fatih University in Istanbul in 2015. Sait is currently completing his MA in English at the University of Arkansas.