Category Archives: Istros Books

Review: Panorama by Dušan Šarotar

I received a review copy of this title from Istros Books .  It was published in the original Slovenian in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Rawley Grau.

My Review:
panoramaFiction, poetry, travelogue, history, short story, memoir, photo essay. Šarotar’s latest work, translated into English from Slovenian for Istros Books as part of their World Series venture with Peter Owens Publishers, defines categorization into a single,  specific genre.  The unnamed narrator, whose own biography resembles that of  Šarotar himself, opens this piece with a poetic description of his journey through the landscapes he encounters while in Ireland.  The moods and textures of the Irish landscape, with a focus on the sea, dominate his literary illustrations.  The narrator also describes a trip to Belgium where he encounters some follow writers and translators who are expats from his part of the world.  Everywhere he travels, this unnamed narrator captures the plight of the immigrant in his writing as he encounters men and women who are displaced from their homes either by force or by choice.

The narrator is a writer who has journeyed from his home in Slovenia to Galway in order to find time and inspiration to finish writing a manuscript.  He gives us snapshots of his surroundings through his disjointed stories and through his camera lens.  In the first scene our writer is sitting in his damp and cold third floor room in Galway listening to a storm raging outside and in the next scene he is walking along the Galway Bay and looking at a plaque with the names of all the families who had escaped the famine via the ocean between 1847 and 1853.  In another moment he is passing by the Aquarium, a glass semicircular building,  when he encounters a an old pier with diving platforms.  The sea is the dominant force in this landscape and he captures its focal point in a variety of unique vignettes.  For visual interest the narrator also includes photos that serve to enhance the written descriptions throughout the text:

People are really swimming, I thought and was delighted by the chance of seeing somebody dive into the cold, rolling Atlantic Ocean, although at the thought of swimming I felt a chill, in spite of the sun, which was glowing like a white spot on a blue eye.  I sat down on the wet, black rocks beneath the pier and watched a sparse procession of bathers, both male and female, all older townspeople who had probably been bathing here since childhood; they walked in silence, backs straight, with the practiced poise of swimmers, the men in simple blue linen knee-length trunks, the women in black one-piece swimsuits, everyone with close fitting rubber caps on their heads;


Embedded with the narrator’s story of his journey, is the story of his tour guide and driver through the Connemara region, an Albanian immigrant named Gjini.  Throughout the course of Panorama, the narrator picks up the thread of different pieces of Gjini’s story who leaves his wife and children behind in Albania in an attempt to make a better living in Ireland.  When he arrives on the island, he doesn’t know a word of English so he begins by working at the bus station selling sandwiches during the day and cleaning offices at night.  He gradually learns enough English to pass the language test and enroll as a student in Irish cultural heritage studies.  Gjini’s reflections on being a foreigner, as he is viewing the empty landscape of the peat bogs with the narrator, are profound, enlightening and timely:

Although I was a foreigner, an immigrant, and still learning the jargon of high academia, and was moreover the oldest student in the group, a person who with some effort and for his own survival was merely skillfully concealing his homesickness, swallowing his anger, the disappointment and despair of the refugee, which were still mixed with will, with determination for a new beginning, and with inconsolable nostalgia, which, in fact, appeared and found its true name only later, when I had somehow got on my feet, as soon as I sensed that we would somehow make it, would be able to transplant ourselves, put down at least shallow roots in new soil, and even later, when I would come back again and stop here, mostly on my own but occasionally with my family, and take long walks, when my second education, if you will, was successfully behind me….—that’s when I realized we were in some ways alike, we can’t hide or suppress our background, no matter where we are from or where we are born, we’re made out of a substance, like soil or an island, and on top of it, nostalgia, Gjini said, and the Irish understand this.

The history of Kylemore Abbey is also woven into the narrator’s text and serves as a bridge between his journeys to Ireland and Belgium.  The Benedictine Order arrived at the Abbey in 1920 after their own abbey in Ypres, Belgium was burned to the ground during World War I.  The nuns flight on foot to Paris is mentioned in the narrative and Gjini tells the story of how they settled at Kylemore and restored the castle and the garden.  The narrator himself makes this trek in reverse as he travels to Belgium after his trip to Ireland.  He is giving a talk in Ghent and while on his trip he meets up with a woman named Spomenka who tells him the story of her escape from the dangerous wars in Sarajevo.  There is a deep, underlying sadness in her story because she feels as if she is forced to leave her home with her young daughter in order to escape the violence and bloodshed that broke out all around her.  A kind neighbor helps Spomenka to escape and she never goes back.

Finally, a comment must be made about the style of writing that Šarotar employs for his narrative.  The meandering nature of his story reflects his own restlessness as he journeys throughout Europe and encounters others who have been displaced from their native homes.   Different threads and characters are brought up and dropped; some of the threads are brought up again and others are left without a conclusion.  Šarotar is a master at using vignettes to capture the struggle of immigrants and refugees who are attempting to find a place in the world that feels safe and like home.

About the Author:

Dušan Šarotar is a Slovenian writer, poet, screenwriter and photographer. He has published five novels (Potapljanje na dah/ Island of the Dead, 1999, Nočitev z zajtrkom/Bed and Breakfast, 2003, Biljard v Dobrayu/Billiards at the Hotel Dobray, 2007, Ostani z mano, duša moja/ Stay with me, my dear, 2011 and Panorama, 2015), two collections of short stories (Mrtvi kot/ Blind Spot, 2002, and Nostalgia, 2010), three poetry collections (Občutek za veter/Feel for the Wind, 2004, Krajina v molu/ Landscape in Minor, 2006 and Hiša mojega sina/ The House of My Son, 2009) and book of essays (Ne morje ne zemlja/Not Sea Not Earth, 2012). Šarotar is also author of fifteen screenplays for documentary and feature films. His short film, Mario was watching the sea with love, based on authors short stories from the collection “Blind Spot” and on his screenplay, won in 2016 Global short film award in New York and the first prize in Ningbo, China, for the “best short film” in selection of Central and East European film selection. Šarotar has also a several photographic exhibition in national galleries and abroad. Photographies from his series “Souls” was included in permanent collection in Art gallerie of Prekmurje.


Filed under Istros Books, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation

Review: Byron and the Beauty by Muharem Bazdulj

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Istros Books.  This English version has been translated by John K. Cox.

My Review:
byron-and-the-beauty_55f97422708f7_250x800rThis latest release from Istros Books is a fictional account of Lord Byron’s tour around parts of the Ottoman Empire in 1809 during which trip he is the guest of a local Albanian ruler, Ali Pasha.  The story takes place during a period of two weeks on his travels when Byron is accompanied by a retinue of English servants as well as his good friend John Hobhouse.  As they reach the city of Ali Pasha, they are greeted by a severed arm that is hanging from a tree and being slowly eaten by birds of prey.  There is an undercurrent of uneasiness throughout their stay in Yannina as they immediately understand that the political and social landscape of The Ottoman Empire is very different from England.

When Byron and his retinue arrive in Yannina, Ali Pasha is not at his palace because he is off in the north fending off one of his enemies.  So Byron is entertained and shown around the town by a man named Isak, who is a personal doctor of this local despot.  Isak has lived all over Europe and his English is quite good so he serves as Byron’s interpreter.  He also tells Byron many stories about the Balkans and also educates him about Eastern European customs.  The most important lesson Isak teaches Byron is about the Balkan words Dert and Sevdah, which mean a yearning and a craving desire, love and passion.  In the Balkans there is a woman born once every three hundred years, Isak tells him,  who are known for their beauty throughout the Empire.  Men feel Dert and Sevdah if they are lucky enough to set their eyes on one these beauties who are usually hidden by their families until they are given away to a Prince for marriage.

One such woman, whose name is Zuleiha, is rumored to be in the vicinity of Yannina.  Isak starts acting very strangely when he hears this rumor and he disappears for long periods of time in an attempt to get information on her whereabouts.  Byron listens to Isak’s story about this beautiful woman, but to him it is just a story, just a myth, until Byron sets eyes on Zuleiha himself.

It is apparent that Ali Pasha will not make it home in time to greet his British guest, so he invites them to his palace in the north.  Byron and his fellow travelers are accompanied by Isak on a long, arduous journey during the rainy season through the Balkans.  The rain is so intense at one point that they have to take shelter in a cave and then in a han, which is the Balkan word for hotel.  It is at this han that Byron gets a glimpse at the rare beauty of Zuleiha.  Byron is instantly smitten with her and at the sight of this woman he fully comprehends the meanings of Dert and Sevdah.

The exciting culmination of the book deals with Byron’s crazy plan to win Zuleiha as his wife.  I thoroughly enjoyed the entire story which, although brief, brought to life the personal details about this famous English poet.  We experience the fascinating mythology, cultural and landscape of the Balkans through Byron’s point-of-view and we better understand its influence on Byron’s writings.  When I was reading this book the image of Byron in his elaborate Albanian costume, which in the book is given to him as a gift, kept coming to mind.

About the Author:
m bazduljMuharem Bazdulj, born in 1977, is one of the leading writers of the younger generation to appear in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. He writes in a wide variety of genres, including novels, short stories, poetry, and essays; he is also active as a journalist and a translator. Bazdulj’s work has been published `Best European Fiction 2012´ (Ed. Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press) alongside Milan Kundera, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Vladimir Sorokin, Victor Pelevin, Péter Esterházy and Andrzej Stasiuk. Short stories and essays in `World Literature Today´, `Creative Nonfiction´, `Habitus´, `Absinthe´ etc.Translations:One of his short story collections has appeared in English (The Second Book, Northwestern University Press, 2005). Bazdulj is the author of nine books in all, including his most recent set of stories, Magic. He currently lives in Travnik and Sarajevo. – See more at:


Filed under Istros Books, Literature in Translation