Above: Morelle's photo of a stork in Latvia

Balkan Bombshells
An anthology of women's writing from Serbia & Montenegro

translated by Will Firth
published by Istros Books

Istros Books is a small independent publisher focusing on translated writing from South East Europe & the Balkans. Reading about different places is the next best thing to going there, and it has been especially soul saving in the covid years of travel restrictions. This anthology is one of Istros Books more recent publications, introducing you to 17 writers. Only a few of them, such as Jelena Lengold & Olja Knežević have previously been published by Istros Books, and it was good to read more from them, like meeting up with old friends. But most of the writers were new to me, and I hope that more of their work will be translated soon.


As the translator Will Firth says in his introduction, there are many different styles and themes in this anthology of stories from seventeen Serbian and Montenegrin women writers. What struck me most about this collection of different writings was the unexpectedness, the singularity of each one, there was no sense of conformity to an idea of what a short story should be. Some of them are excerpts from longer works, and some are uncategorizable texts, which I particularly like because they clearly feel they do not have to conform to any style or formula.

This sense of the unexpected can come from topic or from form, as almost all the stories have a determined trajectory of their own. They will not bring you the happy ending you might desire, and not necessarily the ‘twist at the end’ either. Some of these writings are like impassioned cries or pleas; sometimes, like cleverly camouflaged exquisite little parcels of revenge, and sometimes the kind of wandering path you might expect from a river, a path not determined in advance, a path that will take you through luxurious countryside or abandoned and beaten up or partially destroyed urban sites.

We don’t often get to the seaside in these narratives, but it is present in Small Death by Katarina Mitrović which perceptively introduces a deep sense of insecurity at the start which later turns chilling, despite the hot summer temperatures. And it is remembered with nostalgia in Young Pioneers we are seaweed by Andrea Popov-Miletić. This short discursive piece of writing is an excerpt from a longer text – which I fervently hope will be translated in full – and it meanders among descriptions, commentaries, places, memories, blurring the boundaries between imagined and actual.
‘The feeling of the sea in everyday life – is there any such course, any such hypnosis? It’s not about going to the sea but rediscovering the feeling you had back then, relocating the sea in yourself and around you; it’s about your life being like at sea and in the sea.’

Zhenya – by Lena Ruth Stefanović, also part of a longer work – begins with a description of small town conventional life and becomes intriguing with the appearance of a hip urbane Muscovite, the back stories of his family, and the culture clash between him and the eponymous main character.
‘Fashion trends which in Moscow changed with the seasons, resisted time in Ignoransk; as in the past women wore cotton dresses, plain on ordinary days and with a floral pattern on holidays; ….Vilior felt he’d landed in the middle of a filmset for a historical movie. All the props were there: Stalinist architecture, women in chintz dresses, a Youth Centre and organised dances.’
The narrative then veers into the speculative realm of ideas – about literature, particular writers & whether writers will necessarily reflect traits of particular religions or nationalities in which they grew up. ‘Will Montenegro ever produce easy writers or are we doomed to big topics?’
The narrative voice is ironic, humorous, slightly mocking of itself & its culture, its surroundings, its past & most particularly, its political leaders, a mixture of venal traits & dim witted intelligence.

Two startlingly dystopian but highly atmospheric stories are Awakened by Mariana Čanak – which features an unusual, energetic and rebellious young woman. Sent to live with her aunt as her parents cannot control her, she gets her revenge on the various men who have mistreated her, from her father and brothers, to the school teacher with perverted & abusive tendencies.
Something at least by Zvonka Gazivoda
This begins as a story about a group of young people exploring a house that’s unfinished but apparently abandoned. They drink alcohol, take drugs. It becomes threatening, then nightmarish. Reality distorts into an atmosphere of utter alienation.

Trapped by Olja Knežević begins with a more domestic setting. It grabs your attention immediately with the first words ‘”I’m trapped” he complained as soon as Magda entered the apartment.’ So the scene is set for the husband who sees himself as a victim and needs his wife to be his audience. A complaining husband, a character not totally unfamiliar to some women. So the pressure builds up. Magda barricades herself against this unrelenting complaining by putting on ‘a dressing gown over comfortable pyjamas instead of a coat over a body-hugging dress and stayed in it for a year, three years then five, ten …...Her husband believes that she is therefore free, while he is trapped.’
I found myself willing something quite different to happen – the quiet unaggressive woman to turn into a warrior brandishing a sword maybe – the end is not like that but is still unexpected, with a sense of (divine) justice by a deity with a sense of humour.

Do you remember me? by Jelena Lengold. I definitely remembered this story, it lingered in my mind. Infused with a sense of ‘almost remembering’ (on the part of Tomi, the main character) it is like a current which carries you, the reader, along, like a vibrant wave. There are so many possibilities but you, the reader, sweep them aside, impatient to find out why this otherwise quite ordinary person is suffering from a bout of amnesia. Or – if he hasn’t lost his memory, has perhaps been mistaken for someone else. Who knows? We don’t, but we follow his bizarre attempts to find out, as he follows the ‘almost remembered’ woman in the street. Does she know he is following him? At this point we can only guess. ‘he was chasing an unknown woman in a direction completely opposite to the one he should have been going. Please, please go into one of the buildings and show me where you live, Tomi thought. Show me who you are and I’ll never forget you again.’ This story cleverly plays with our realities but also hints at a darkness underneath. Or is it darkness? Is it possibly the kind of acte gratuit that Gide wrote about, the gratuitous act, one made for no reason? The reader will judge that, and is unlikely to forget this story. Because of all the questions it raises, this would be a good text for discussion in a literature or creative writing class.

Morelle Smith