Tag Archives: Istros Books

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: http://istrosbooks.com/products/authors/muharem-bazdulj-68/#sthash.xWNOQwUS.dpuf

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Review: Diary of a Short-sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Istros Books.

My Review:
Short Sighted AdolescentAs a seventeen-year old adolescent living in the capitol of Romania in the twentieth century, Eliade faces the typical struggles of every teenage boy.  Eliade records his thoughts in his diaries with the hopes that he will eventually turn his writings into a novel.  When the entries in this diary begin, he is spending most of his time attending school at the lycee, hanging around with his friends and reading voraciously in his bedroom attic.  He is trying to figure out what the plot of his novel will be and decides he wants to have a hero as the center character of his novel.  He introduces us to his friends, especially Robert and Dinu, whom he contemplates basing the novel of his hero on.

Eliade also wants to include some sort of a romantic relationship in his novel but his lack of experience with girls frustrates him.  He asks a female cousin for advise and uses his imagination to dream about possibilities of a romantic plot line in his book.  Eliade believes that he is ugly and awkward and he often dwells on his lack of self-esteem throughout his diary.  His ignorance of the opposite sex, as evidenced by a few hilarious and awkward episodes that are described in his diary,  further increase his insecurity.

The struggles Eliade encounters at the lycee are, in my experience as a teacher, fairly typical of a teenage boy.  He would rather be doing a million other things than attending classes and he is easily distracted by his friends and his favorite books.  Eliade’s most dreaded classes are math and German.  He tells us the story of a humiliating experience in which he is called by the math teacher to solve a homework problem on the blackboard.  Eliade didn’t even attempt the homework and has no idea what he is doing.  When he can’t manage to copy the problem correctly the teacher becomes exasperated with him and makes he retake his seat.  He encounters similar stressful episodes in his German classes.  Despite failing grades and disappointed teachers, Eliade is never motivated to be more studious with his school work.

Eliade’s procrastination is a common theme throughout his diaries and his struggle against this procrastination makes for some funny scenes.  He decides that he will cram for his math exams and makes a strict schedule to reread his math book in the few days leading up to his exam.  He always finds something to distract him from his studies; he reads a book, talks a walk, has a nap and basically does anything but study for his exam.  His novel, likewise, never comes to fruition despite his plans that are outlined at the beginning of his diary.  As his diary entries continue, he mentions the novel less and less frequently.  The one thing in his life that keeps his attention are his books.  As a rabid bibliophile myself, I related to Eliade’s obsessive love of books.

Eliade shows us that adolescence is a struggle that all humans experience as a rite of passage.  We have all gone through that awkward phase during which we are still considered children but are looking forward to adulthood and the responsibilities that are not far away.  At one point in the diary Eliade is playing cops and robbers and throwing dirt at his friends.  In another episode he is frustrated with his lack of romantic and physical relationships so he seeks out prostitutes to fulfill his desires.  The end of the diary takes on a more melancholy tone as Eliade realizes that he will soon be graduating from the lycee and the comforting space of his attic room will not always be his.

This book is a philosophical commentary on what it means to step out of childhood and into the dark and scary world of adulthood.  Sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative, and sometimes sad this book will appeal to a wide range of readers.   Thanks to Istros Books for bringing this timeless classic to a new generation of English readers.

About the Author:
mircea-eliade-young_56d0650fb2d02_250x800rMircea Eliade was born in 1907 in Bucharest, the son of an army officer. He lived in India from 1928-1932, after which he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on yoga, and taught at the University of Bucharest for seven years. During the war he was a cultural attaché in London and Lisbon, and from 1945 taught at the École des haut études in Paris and several other European universities.

In 1957 he took up the chair of history of religion at the University of Chicago, a post that he held until his death in 1986. Fluent in eight languages, his extensive body of work includes includes studies of religion and the religious experience that remain influential, such as The Sacred and the Profane, and numerous works of literature, including The Forbidden Forest, Bengal Nights and Youth without Youth, both of which were adapted for the screen. – See more at: http://istrosbooks.com/products/authors/mircea-eliade-67/#sthash.bpqkp6oR.dpuf

 

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Review: Farewell, Cowboy by Olja Savicevic

I received a review copy of this title from the publisher, Istros Books.  They are a small, independent British press that specializes in bringing the best literature from Eastern Europe into English translations.  Please visit their website for more information and additional titles: http://www.istrosbooks.com

My Review:
Farewell, CowboyDada has grown up in a small town in Croatia from which she escaped as soon a she could at the age of eighteen.  But she is drawn back to this bizarre town by the horrible suicide of her younger brother, Daniel.  The book is told from Dada’s point of view and we are given information about her life and hometown as Dada remembers it.  She speaks of memory being like a tape that “rolls forward and backwards.  Fw-stop-rew-stop-rec-play-stop, it stops at important places, some images flicker dimly frozen in a permanent pause, unclear.”  The narrative runs in the same way that Dada describes a tape: sometimes we get a passage that is an old memory and then all-of-sudden we are thrust into her present; Dada also likes to fast forward to her future and speculate on what she will do next.

The setting is a coastal town in Croatia which is hot, dirty and badly polluted.  Dada’s own father died from an acute case of asbestos poisoning.  People in the town, especially the children, love old westerns and when they were young,  Dada and her brother Daniel act out scenes from the westerns they have watched at the local movie theater.  Like a typical American western that takes place on the border between civilization and the vastly unorganized territory, Croatia at the time also occupies a space somewhere between civilization and a strange wilderness.  The western theme is fitting for a place like Croatia which was torn apart by war in the Balkans and it is Dada’s generation that is still trying to recover from this conflict.

Dada describes many eccentric characters that she has known since childhood; many residents of this town that she calls the “Old Settlement” do not seem to conform to what most would consider normal social behavior.  For example, her great-grandmother, who was a diabetic invalid, is described as the “insatiable one” because of her reputation for sex.  Professor Herr, a neighbor of Dada’s family and the local vet, has his home ransacked by a group of young people and he mysteriously disappears soon after.  It also seems that he is the only one who has any answers about Daniel’s mysterious and puzzling death.

The cowboy and western theme is further developed when a group of actors and extras show up to film a western-style movie.  All of the extras hang around the Old Settlement with their big hats and belt buckles.  Some of them even start shooting chickens with their pistols.  Dada has a very brief and passionate affair with one of these extras named Angelo.  It appears that Angelo also knew Dada’s brother Daniel and although he denies it, he might have some knowledge about Daniel’s mysterious death.

The final part of the book comes to a very fast-paced and dramatic conclusion.  The circumstances of Daniel’s death are revealed amidst a showdown between the fake cowboys and one of the eccentric villagers.  I was not surprised to learn that this author is also a poet since many of the lines in this book blur the distinction between lyric and prose.  In the end, we are reminded that cowboys, although a nice fantasy as a short distraction, are not real and that oftentimes there will never be a hero riding into town on that white horse.  Sometimes the bad guys do win.

 

About the Author:
oljasavicevic_514b20764bd97_250x800rOlja Savičević is an awarded poet and novelist, who burst onto the authorial stage with her short story collection Make the Dog Laugh in 2006. Last year, her collection of poems Mamasafari and Other Things was short-listed for the ‘Kiklop Award for Best Collection of 2012’, awarded annually by the Pula Book Fair. Her best-selling book Farewell, Cowboy has already achieved great success in the region, and was even adapted into a stage play. The book was translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Istros Books in April, 2015.

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Review: Dry Season by Gabriela Babnik

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Istros Books.  Dry Season was the winner of the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013.  This book was originally written in Slovene and this English translation has been done by Rawley Grau.

My Review:
dry-season-cover_54aff6fb99d92_250x800rI have to admit that before I read this book I really knew nothing about the small West African nation of Burkina Faso.  The setting alone of this story in this small and politically volatile country taught me so many things, but the book as a whole is also a fantastic read.

From all outward appearances, the two main characters of this story could not be more different.  Anna is a 62-year-old white woman from Slovenia who has had a successful career as a textile artist.  Ismael is a 27-year-old black man from Burkina Faso who has grown up on the streets and has never had any real job or career.  It is surprising, even shocking that Anna and Ismael become lovers, but the author weaves their tales together so perfectly that in the end we are convinced that this relationship has had a powerful impact on both of them.

The narrative alternates between the point of view of both main characters.  We learn that Anna was rescued from an orphanage by her parents who, in a last ditch effort to save their marriage, agree to adopt a child since they cannot have one of their own.  But her parent’s strained relationship takes an emotional toll on her as a little girl as she is mostly left to be raised by a housekeeper.  Anna’s father is busy with his multitude of extramarital affairs and Anna’s mother remains aloof from her daughter while she constantly works at her sewing machine making women’s lingerie.  Anna eventually falls into an unhappy marriage with a man whom her mother chose for her and her only son from this marriage ends up in a mental institution.  Anna abandons her home, her family and her past to find some peace and quiet in Africa.

Ismael, when he was very young, lived in a remote African village with his mother who was an outcast.  Ismael never knew who his father was and he is constantly witnessing his mother being abused by fellow villagers as she is tied to the “shaming pole” and spit upon.  We are never told exactly what his mother’s sin is in the eyes of the villagers, but there is reason to suspect it has something to do with Ismael’s lack of a father.  Ismael and his mother eventually migrate to the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, where they live in cardboard boxes under a bridge.  When Ismael’s mother is killed and he is left alone in a city full of dangerous people, he is taken in by strangers who never really fulfill the role of a family for him.  He stays with an “ebony” woman and her husband for a while who have lost their own son and are trying to keep Ismael as their surrogate child.  Ismael also stays with a man named Baba who has been the only positive male role model in his life.  But Ismael gets pulled into the illegal and dangerous activities of Baba’s son Malik.

Even though they are born on different continents and decades apart there are some important ties that bind Anna and Ismael together.   They both feel abandoned and isolated, neither of them knows their real father and both of their mothers are emotionally distant. Anna and Ismael have separate and distinct stories told in alternating chapters, but the way in which the author gradually weaves together their stories is brilliant.  At first appearance it would seem that Anna and Ismael are using their sexual relationship to suppress their feelings of abandonment and isolation.  But as they share their stories with one another a deeper, emotional bond is forged.

Set against the backdrop of the harmattan, the dry season in West Africa, this novel  is a must read for anyone who enjoys brilliant literary writing with strong and intense characters.  I kept asking myself throughout the novel why, of all places on earth, Anna would pick this obscure West African country to flee to.  The dry season is one of extremes: extreme amounts of dust, extreme changes in temperatures, extreme fog and eventually extreme downpours of rain when the season ends.  This is the perfect setting for two characters who are, much like the dry season itself, both going through the extremes experiences of human existence.

This is my first title from Istros Books, an Independent British publisher that specializes in translating books from Eastern Europe into English,  and I am very excited to see what else they have in their catalogue.

About the Author:
gabriela-babnik_54d0fce19b0a4_250x800rGabriela Babnik was born in 1979 in Göppingen, Germany. After finishing her studies at Ljubljana University, she spent some time in Nigeria before working on a master’s degree on the modern Nigerian novel. Since 2002, she has regularly contributed articles to all major daily and weekly publications in Slovenia. In 2005, Babnik graduated in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Ljubljana.

Her first novel Koža iz bombaža (Cotton Skin) was published in 2007 and was awarded the Best Debut Novel by the Union of Slovenian Publishers at the Slovenian Book Fair. In 2009, her second novel V visoki travi (In the Tall Grass) was published, which was shortlisted for the Kresnik Award in 2010.

Babnik lives with her family in Ljubljana.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation