PART OF A SERIES ON THE BALKANS
I’m writing this on my phone, sat in a cheap Montenegrin hotel in a town called Berane. You won’t have heard of it, it isn’t famous. It doesn’t even have an entry on happycow.com, the main way I’ve been finding food to eat as I stalk the Balkans, meeting writers from Istros Books‘ roster for Triumph of the Now TV, my foolish, vapid1, web series. This morning (6th April) I met Faruk Sehic (author of Quiet Flows The Una and a book of poetry translated into English too [add link when review up]) in a bookshop in Sarajevo. We chatted for about 90 minutes, which is now my longest interview to date. Straight afterwards, I climbed into a car and drove through the glorious Bosnian, then Serbian, then Montenegrin, countryside until I arrived here.
Nothing of import happened on the way, other than seeing lots of feral dogs up until my arrival into Montenegro, where I saw a big dead one by the side of the road and no more. There was a pack of about ten dogs by the Serbian border, leaving the country. I saw a Serbian border guard kick a small, cute, friendly, one in the face.
I didn’t eat from 9am until 7pm, when all I had was nuts and crisps from a poorly stocked (in terms of range, though not number of the items within it) mini-supermarket opposite the hotel. I also had a beer, which I know I shouldn’t have done, but it was just one and I don’t even really want any more.2 I had some wine at the weekend, too, while in gorgeous – in a very different way – Dubrovnik. Other than today (though it is still a couple of hours until bed time) I’ve had daily panic attacks since. The fact that alcohol exacerbates something within me is something I am desperate to disprove, I do not want to be teetotal but nor do I want to drink how I was drinking before. Maybe now, as a “printed” reviewer3 who’s been shortlisted for an award, maybe now I can feel a little happier in myself? Probably not, though. These are minor, unremunerative, achievements and though they improve my sense of value, they don’t actually provide a basis on which to hang a pleasing life. Driving around the Balkans interviewing writers with a <€30 a day food and lodging budget is great, though this can't last forever. Life, alas, life cracks on. To the book.
Tomorrow morning I will wake shortly after dawn and begin the 250km drive to Skopje, via Kosovo, with the hope of arriving in time for a late lunch. I am meeting Aleksandar Prokopiev at the Skopje Book Fair for an interview, though we have yet to set an exact time and location, which worries me but I’ll get over it. If I make a fruitless two day trip I’ll whinge but do little more. Driving around the Balkans is pleasant, and I’d wanted to see all of these places I’ve passed through anyway.
Prokopiev is an established Macedonian cultural figure who’s written numerous books and scripts and was a rockstar back in the 80s. Homunculus is the only work of his that I have read, and – to the best of my research – his only book to have been translated into English (certainly the only one that has been published in the UK, I’ll research harder or ask him directly tomorrow). It doesn’t matter though, because it’s great (somewhat of a relief having arranged to meet him without having read more than a tiny excerpt). The book contains 16 short stories that are better described as fairy tales or, as the subtitle has it, Fairy Tales from the Left Pocket. (I don’t know what this means and, of course, this is top of my questions list for our interview).
Some of the stories are retellings of tales I know well (Peter Pan, Snow White), whilst the vast majority felt very new to me. They are of varying lengths and incorporate an impressive range of voices (though almost 100% male, which is always a disappointment), with geographical and chronological settings across Europe and from the Middle Ages through to the now.
We meet artists who slip though time, men who are half eagles (though not the right half to allow flying without aid), former Lost Boys beginning to become Old, sex-addled huntsmen throwing off the yoke of desire and not killing in exchange for fuck; we meet kings dressed as rockers, babies born covered in hair, lonely men who find solace with a pet and grieving parents following a childhood death.
There is a lot of emotion here, I laughed several times but I felt distinctly moved on many occasions, both in the most original and the most trad-feeling of the tales. There is pilgrimage and greed, power and jealousy, ageing and remorse, in fact all of the big themes of literature soak through these pages, except for war. Prokopiev manages to evoke here a collection that is perhaps escapist if we consider contemporary/recent history, but otherwise is incredibly exploratory and human and connected. It does exactly what good fairy tales have always done, and tells us something truly important about ourselves without being patronising or boring. An impressive collection.
I read it as an eBook, hence the lack of book in photograph.
NB: See my recent review of Liam Hogan’s Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed for notes on another collection of contemporary fairy tales. Hogan’s work is a lot of fun, but doesn’t quite have the heft of Prokopiev’s.
NB: Homuculus is translated by Will Firth.
1. Not that foolish or vapid, really; I’ve been shortlisted for Best Reviewer at this year’s Saboteur Awards. I know, I don’t really know what that means either, but there are actually people with literary jobs in the running against me, so I think I’m out of my depth, lol. The email I received telling me that I’d been shortlisted presumed – yah hear that, PRESUMED – that I had published books I could sell at the awards event. Lol. I may have to make a pamphlet of short reviews. Maybe I’ll rip off Piece of Paper Press and do the exact same thing they do. Or something else equally as cheap, equally as #lofi, equally as achievable. ↩
2. I desperately want ten more. ↩
3. I haven’t mentioned that on here before and I’m giving no details now. ↩