100 livres à lire d’Europe de l’Est et d’Asie centrale – The Calvert Journal


Soul et autres histoires (1935)

par Andrey Platonov, Traduit par Robert et Elizabeth Chandler avec Katia Grigoruk, Angela Livingstone, Olga Meerson et Eric Naiman

Après avoir lu celui d’Andrei Platonov Âme dans ma jeunesse, je suis tombé malade. Avant cela, cela ne m’était arrivé qu’en lisant Anna Karénine, et deux fois plus tard, après avoir lu La métamorphose par Kafka et L’étranger par Camus. Si vous écrivez vous-même, vous voulez abandonner votre écriture après avoir lu ces livres, car il semble que tout a déjà été dit par ces auteurs et que vous n’avez plus rien à ajouter.

L’histoire se concentre sur le sort du peuple fictif Dzhan: des mendiants, des orphelins et des fugitifs qui se sont autrefois installés dans le désert de Sary-Kamysh entre l’Ouzbékistan et le Turkménistan, et sont maintenant sur le point de disparaître complètement. Le protagoniste de l’histoire, Nazar Chagataev, un jeune économiste avec une formation moscovite, est chargé par le Parti de trouver ces personnes et de les ramener à une existence humaine digne. Après de longues errances le long du désert (une forte référence aux motifs bibliques et soufis), le peuple Dzhan atteint finalement la vallée de l’Ust-Urt, qui, selon le plan de Chagataev, est destinée à devenir le berceau d’une tribu renouvelée et heureuse.

Le livre peut être lu comme un traité soufi, un manifeste soviétique raté, un évangile postmoderne – ou la quintessence de la grande littérature russe.

Hamid Ismailov, romancier et journaliste


Satantango (1985)

par Laszlo Krasznahorkai, traduit par George Szirtes

László Krasznahorkai Satantango se déroule dans les derniers jours de la Hongrie communiste, mais pourrait également être lu comme une fable pour notre présent mouvementé. Le livre suit les opportunistes Irimias et Petrina, qui retournent dans un village désolé en promettant une vision utopique pour l’avenir. Il y a ici des allusions claires au communisme, mais cela reste une vague critique de toute idéologie basée sur l’exploitation. Kraszknahorkai montre avec brio la ligne mince entre l’espoir et l’auto-tromperie tout en vivant dans des conditions désespérées, et la facilité avec laquelle la grande rhétorique peut manipuler les vulnérables. Une épigraphe, attribuée à Kafka, parle de cette idée même: « Je vais manquer la chose en l’attendant. » En d’autres termes, à quelle réalité subjective renonçait-on en poursuivant les fantasmes des autres?

Sur le plan artistique, la prose de Krasznahorkai est dans une catégorie à part; ses phrases expansives et peu ponctuées sont à la fois déroutantes, électrisantes et éclairantes, comme toute grande littérature devrait l’être. Il décrit par accumulation, construit son monde à travers ce qui ressemble à une énergie destructrice, étirant le langage à ses limites dans l’espoir de créer quelque chose de nouveau. Et pendant que quelque chose reste insaisissable, il est toujours là, une sorte de promesse désorientante et chatoyante à l’horizon, comme la société utopique Irimias et Petrina promettent aux villageois.

Matthew Janney, écrivain


Le visage non féminin de la guerre (1985)

par Svetlana Alexievich, traduit par Richard Pevear et Larissa Volokhonsky

Au cœur du «roman collectif» de la lauréate du prix Nobel Svetlana Alexievich Le visage non féminin de la guerre est l’expérience humaine d’une catastrophe et la recherche d’un langage pour la décrire. Le visage non féminin de la guerre est clair: le visage de la guerre est un visage de femme et la voix venant du milieu de la Seconde Guerre mondiale est une voix de femme. De nombreux soldats masculins survivants sont restés muets en refusant de parler de leur expérience sur le front. Le récit d’une victoire héroïque a été offert comme sous-titres de leur silence. Alexievich a poursuivi en enregistrant les témoignages de femmes soldats et d’infirmières militaires, qui, pensant que le langage de l’héroïsme masculin n’était pas le leur, ont parlé de leur expérience en termes intimes, se concentrant souvent sur de petits détails. Évitant les formules toutes faites, ils ont formulé un langage pour un témoignage qui, avec une vraie clarté, perçant la question: «qu’est-ce que cela signifie d’être un être humain pendant la guerre».

Valzhyna Mort, poète


La fiction complète de Bruno Schulz: La rue des crocodiles, Sanatorium sous le signe du sablier (1934-197)

par Bruno Schulz, traduit par Celina Wieniewska

Bruno Schulz est un auteur profondément émouvant, et parfois même euphorique. Ses rythmes et ses pulsations verbales vous attirent en tant que lecteur. Une fois que vous avez savouré cette écriture, vous ne pouvez plus vous en arracher. Schulz crée une mythologie personnelle qui, comme une mosaïque, comprend de petits fragments de mythologies mondiales fondamentales, des traditions judaïques et chrétiennes aux motifs hindous et gréco-romains. Il transforme la ville galicienne de Drohobycz (qui fait partie de l’Ukraine moderne), où il est né et a vécu toute sa vie, en un royaume cohérent de fantaisie, saturé d’exaltation ironique et d’un exaltisme particulier – dans une histoire, les crocodiles font leur chemin les rues de la ville. S’il existe une littérature d’Europe centrale, Schulz en est un classique incontesté. Abattu au milieu de sa ville natale par un officier SS, le Juif polonais de 50 ans est devenu plus tard une métaphore tragique de la destruction totale de l’altérité et du gaspillage de la vie que l’on a appelé l’Holocauste.

Yuri Andrukhovych, poète et romancier


Lettre F: Nouvelle poésie féministe russe (2020)

édité par Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky et Ainsley Morse

Du poème d’ouverture de l’anthologie Lettre F: Nouvelle poésie féministe russe, publié en 2020, j’avais l’impression de lire quelque chose de remarquable. De Lida Yusupova Une minute raconte l’histoire d’une femme invitée à avoir des relations sexuelles avec une jeune recrue nerveuse de l’armée sur le point de partir pour l’Afghanistan, une nuit blanche dans les années 1980 à Leningrad. Le poème est sans excuse dans sa granularité. Il est graphique, triste, mais aussi sombre et humoristique, représentant une vignette aux yeux clairs et distinctement féminine d’une des périodes les plus troublées de l’Union soviétique. Dans un autre poème, Nastya Denisova se souvient, en bref, de vers interrompus, au moment où elle oublie le nom qu’elle avait donné à son bébé à naître, perdu dans une fausse couche («comment perdre quelque chose à partir de rien»). Pendant ce temps, Ekaterina Simonova imagine avec tendresse ce que ce serait de vieillir avec son amante lesbienne secrète dans un avenir étrange que nous sommes susceptibles de vivre, dans lequel la plupart des personnes qu’elle suit sur Instagram sont mortes.

En parcourant la collection, j’avais l’impression d’ouvrir une porte dans un monde caché que nous apercevons rarement en Russie – un monde vibrant, spirituel, honnête, aimant, à la fois souffrant de longue durée et extrêmement résilient. Compte tenu de la détérioration de la situation des femmes et des homosexuels en Russie, une telle anthologie n’a jamais été aussi opportune. Bien qu’il ne s’agisse pas de la première collection d’écrivains russes contemporains, c’est la seule anthologie expressément féministe de ce genre. La collection se présente sous la forme d’un petit livre qui tient directement dans la paume de la main – un guide de poche pour la révolution féministe post-soviétique.

Francesca Ebel, journaliste


Carbure (2015)

par Andriy Lyubka, traduit par Reilly Costigan-Humes et Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

Un roman sauvage et rusé avec la douleur dans son cœur, Andriy Lyubka Carbure aborde le sujet de la place de l’Ukraine en Europe sur le côté, ou plutôt sous terre. Ici, le rêve national d’intégration dans l’UE, qui a explosé pendant la révolution de Maïdan en 2014 et a été contrecarré par l’annexion de la Crimée par la Russie et son incursion dans le Donbass, alimente le plan farfelu d’un homme pour faufiler toute la population ukrainienne en Europe occidentale au moyen d’un tunnel. . Avec sa vanité épique, son sens aigu de la folie humaine et son mélange de comédie et de tragédie, Carbure remonte aux racines mêmes de la littérature ukrainienne, rappelant le récit simulé-héroïque d’Ivan Kotlyarevsky de Virgile Énéide, le Eneyida (1798), qui a pleuré et immortalisé sournoisement le passé cosaque vaincu de la nation. Les cosaques zaporozhiens d’Ukraine n’ont jamais retrouvé leur autonomie après avoir été dissous par les Russes, mais nous pouvons toujours espérer que les aspirations européennes des Ukrainiens modernes produiront de meilleurs résultats dans la vie que dans le roman animé de Lyubka, qui est maintenant disponible dans Reilly Costigan-Humes et Isaac. La traduction tout aussi vivante de Stackhouse Wheeler.

Boris Dralyuk, traducteur


Le ministère de la douleur (2004)

par Dubravka Ugrešić, traduit par Michael Henry Heim

Dubravka Ugrešić est une tornade littéraire: un écrivain aux vues fortes et intransigeantes, au talent énorme et à l’énergie créatrice, capable d’extraire la fiction des moindres détails. Quand je l’ai rencontrée et interviewée lors d’un festival littéraire, elle était tout aussi spectaculaire en personne qu’elle l’est dans ses livres: une ardente défenseure de la liberté d’expression et de pensée, une femme courageuse et exilée qui ne cesse de démystifier le nationalisme et refuse de s’identifier à quoi que ce soit. mais un écrivain. Le ministère de la douleur est un livre historique sur le passé alambiqué de la Yougoslavie, ainsi qu’une chronique réaliste, comique et émouvante de la vie d’un groupe de réfugiés des Balkans qui étudient aux Pays-Bas, guidés par leur jeune enseignante Tanja Lucić. Chacun a sa propre raison de fuir son pays d’origine après la chute de la Yougoslavie, avec la montée du nationalisme, le désarroi, la guerre et les meurtres qui ont suivi. Ce livre dense et lourd, mais brillant et divertissant sur yugonostalgie, l’exil et le droit de récupérer notre passé, est une fête littéraire, puisant dans l’Orient blessé.

Alina Purcaru, poète et critique


La steppe silencieuse: l’histoire d’un nomade kazakh sous Stalin (1999)

par Mukhamet Shayakhmetov, traduit par Jan Butler

Né dans une famille de nomades kazakhs en 1922, Shayakhmetov avait 7 ans lorsque l’agriculture au Kazakhstan a été désastreusement collectivisée. Les familles pastorales nomades ont été contraintes de sovkhoz (fermes d’État) ou kolkhoz (fermes collectives) et leurs animaux – leur source de nourriture, de vêtements, de compagnie et d’identité – ont été réquisitionnés. Pas d’animaux, pas de lait et pas de viande, et dans ce chaos, une famine mortelle – les Asharshylyk – a été déclenchée, tuant au moins 1,5 million de Kazakhs entre les années 1930-1933. Des centaines de milliers de Kazakhs ont fui vers les pays voisins. Le Kazakhstan a perdu la plupart de son bétail, tandis que sa population a perdu à jamais son mode de vie traditionnel. Une telle collectivisation a également déclenché une famine généralisée en Russie et en Biélorussie, ainsi que des famines meurtrières tuant plusieurs millions de personnes en Moldavie et en Ukraine, où elle est connue sous le nom d’Holomodor. Les chiffres sont si terribles et énormes qu’ils sont insondables. Certains Kazakhs estiment à juste titre que cet épisode tragique a été sous-estimé et ignoré par le monde. Comme me l’a dit un magnat du lait des temps modernes à Karaganda, «apprenez la nourriture et vous apprendrez l’histoire». Vous ne pouvez pas séparer l’histoire du lait et de la viande du Kazakhstan de son passé moderne et ancien. Ce livre est essentiel pour comprendre le Kazakhstan et sa longue histoire de nomadisme et d’élevage dans la steppe.

Caroline Eden, écrivain


J’ai servi le roi d’Angleterre (1971)

par Bohumil Hrabal, traduit par Paul Wilson

Dans Le Hôtel Grand Budapest (2014), Wes Anderson prend la fantaisie fluide de Bohumil Hrabal et la réduit à la consistance d’une bizarrerie sirupeuse et sucrée. J’ai servi le roi d’Angleterre mérite mieux, et il obtient sa contribution dans la traduction légère de Paul Wilson. C’est l’un des grands romans hôteliers d’Europe centrale, plein d’esprit et profond, se déroulant à Prague, et les clones provinciaux de la ville. La pompe des halls d’hôtels et des restaurants sert de toile de fond pour dépeindre la petitesse d’une personne prise dans le tourbillon de l’histoire, forcée de se démener, de subir des pertes, de faire des mauvais jugements et de conclure des marchés faustiens. La chronologie est aussi épique – de l’entre-deux-guerres à l’occupation nazie de la Tchécoslovaquie et aux poussées d’anti-germination d’après-guerre au début du communisme – que le protagoniste est minuscule, de stature, de classe et de nom (Dítě signifie «enfant» en tchèque). Picaro classique, Dítě courtise la fortune et slalome à travers les malheurs. Parfois, il est sans scrupules; à d’autres moments, courageux. Il monte les échelons de l’hospitalité, remportant accidentellement une médaille «pour service exemplaire rendu au trône de l’empereur d’Éthiopie» de Haile Selassie (servir le roi d’Angleterre reste une métaphore de la poussière magique des aspirations). Cela devient l’événement déterminant de sa vie qu’aucune autre improbable tournure du sort ne peut surmonter: ne pas épouser un sympathisant nazi et travailler dans une station de reproduction «aryenne»; ne pas perdre la tête de sa femme dans un attentat à la bombe; ne pas s’enrichir du contenu de la valise qu’elle a trouvée serrée dans la mort (une rare collection de timbres volée aux Juifs déportés); ne pas ouvrir son propre hôtel, pour le perdre par expropriation et se retrouver dans un établissement correctionnel. La médaille, «le plus bas en degré mais la plus grande en taille» (et donc strictement symbolique), brille sur lui à travers tout cela, comme un soleil. Puissions-nous tous avoir une lumière à moitié aussi brillante.

Yuliya Komska, universitaire


Le pont sur la Drina (1945)

par Ivo Andrić, traduit par Lovett F Edwards

«Chaque génération humaine a ses propres illusions sur la civilisation; certains croient participer à son essor, d’autres qu’ils sont témoins de son extinction. En fait, il brûle et brûle toujours et s’éteint, selon le lieu et l’angle de vue.

Il semble opportun, en 2021, de revenir à l’écrivain yougoslave Ivo Andrić Le pont sur la Drina. Cela commence avec un jeune garçon serbe de Višegrad, pris de force à sa mère pendant l’occupation ottomane et converti à l’islam, avant de gravir les échelons militaires. En 1566, il ordonne la construction d’un pont à l’endroit de la rivière Drina où il l’a vue pour la dernière fois. Au cours des quatre siècles suivants, les guerres font rage et les empires montent et tombent, mais le pont reste imperméable, un témoin silencieux de la vie quotidienne, des désirs et des destinées des habitants de Višegrad: Turcs, Serbes, Juifs séfarades et Roms.

Andrić lui-même était une personne exceptionnellement privée qui refusait les entretiens et commentait rarement son travail. Dans son discours d’acceptation du prix Nobel, il a à peine prononcé le mot «je», se référant plutôt à lui-même comme «un écrivain d’un petit pays». C’est très révélateur de ses priorités – il a choisi d’immortaliser une communauté et la relation d’un peuple à l’histoire, plutôt que de vanter des héros ou des hommes forts. Cette vision du passé, fictive ou non, nous est aujourd’hui plus utile que jamais pour comprendre le présent.

Hannah Weber, écrivain


La huitième vie (2014)

par Nino Haratishvili, traduit par Charlotte Collins et Ruth Martin

Salué comme « la Géorgie Guerre et Paix»Par le monde de l’édition, 936 pages de Nino Haratishvili La huitième vie est arrivé sur les étagères du Royaume-Uni l’année dernière avec un bruit sourd. C’était un bruit sourd particulièrement bienvenu pour moi personnellement, une chance de lire sur le monde que mon grand-père aurait habité s’il n’avait pas fui la Géorgie avant l’occupation bolchevique. Détaillant les luttes d’une famille, les Jashis, pendant le «siècle rouge», La huitième vie est le roman historique le plus complet du passé soviétique de Géorgie traduit en anglais, autant une histoire des atrocités de Staline que de protestations populaires. Rempli de personnages richement dessinés – des membres renommés du Politburo aux connaissances de passage – le roman joue contre les événements majeurs du siècle, combinant habilement le politique et le personnel, l’historique et le contingent. Alors que chaque nouvelle génération apporte l’espoir d’un changement, Haratisvhili révèle que les schémas cruels de l’histoire ne sont jamais loin d’être visibles. Les Jashis vont-ils se libérer de cette malédiction invisible? Haratishvili nous laisse deviner jusqu’à la dernière page.

Matthew Janney, écrivain


Klotsvog (2019)

par Margarita Khemlin, traduit par Lisa C. Hayden

«La littérature russe a une mauvaise tradition [of being] consacré à la description des amours infructueuses », a écrit le critique littéraire russe Viktor Shklovsky. Le passe-temps national de la souffrance romantique est au cœur du chef-d’œuvre familial sans faille de Margarita Khemlin, Klotsvog, présélectionnée pour le Russian Booker Prize en 2009. Situé au lendemain des pogroms soviétiques et de l’Holocauste, au milieu des rumeurs selon lesquelles Staline prépare sa propre «solution finale», la jeune protagoniste Maya tombe accidentellement enceinte d’une affaire secrète. Laissée avec son fils, Misha, Maya s’emmêle avec une chaîne d’amoureux dans une étrange telenovela de survie. Mais la poursuite agile de Maya de la romance à la négligence de son fils révèle un trouble générationnel plus profond. «Nous n’avions pas d’exemples à suivre par amour», confie Maya dans les premières pages. La lignée du traumatisme imprègne une belle poésie. «J’ai rêvé de Misha, qu’il ne savait pas nager et avait peur», concède plus tard Maya. Lorsque son troisième mari fait installer un téléphone dans leur appartement de Moscou, Maya le prend régulièrement en privé sans appeler personne et avoue énoncés désespérés et inintelligibles au récepteur mort. Klotsvog est une lecture incontournable, pour sa finesse effrayante, sa compréhension inégalée de l’antisémitisme soviétique et l’angoisse héritée du manque d’amour.

Yelena Moskovich, romancière


Un réveil pour les vivants (2004)

par Radmila Lazić, traduit par Charles Simic

« Je suis sensible, mon amour, comme une chienne enceinte », lance une ligne d’un poème dans Un réveil pour les vivants, Premier recueil de poésie de Radmila Lazić disponible en anglais. Forte, intransigeante et pleine d’humour intelligent, la poète serbe écrit avec franchise sur ce que signifie être une femme dans la société d’aujourd’hui, ainsi que dans les liens familiaux, les relations amoureuses et sexuelles, et par rapport à elle-même. S’opposant aux structures et aux formes sociales, idéologiques et littéraires traditionnelles, son vers est sans vergogne autobiographique, et une critique de l’époque dans laquelle nous vivons tous. La poésie de Lazić est aussi une réponse aux réalités serbes des années 90: critique du nationalisme de son pays, régime de Milosević, Les guerres yougoslaves et la transition vers le capitalisme dans les Balkans, la voix de Lazić crie contre les terreurs, physiques et psychologiques, politiques et anthropologiques. Bien qu’elle soit obsédée par la mort, c’est l’attitude existentielle de Lazić face à la vie qui la relie aux grandes poètes de la littérature mondiale du XXe siècle.

Lidija Dimkovska, poète, romancière et traductrice


Un petit manuel sur la frontière (2006)

par Gazmend Kapllani, traduit par Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife

Écrit en grec par un écrivain albanais alors qu’il vivait à Athènes en tant qu’immigrant, ce roman humoristique et émotionnel est l’histoire autobiographique d’un Européen de l’Est traversant la frontière à pied en 1991, pour être confronté à l’écart entre ses fantasmes sur l’Occident. la vie, (mal) informée par des séries télévisées glamour, et la terrible réalité à laquelle il est confronté.

Pour ceux qui n’ont pas connu la dystopie réelle de l’Albanie avant 1990, certains des faits décrits dans le roman, comme sa cousine décorant sa porcelaine avec une bouteille de détergent vide qui s’était échouée sur une plage, peuvent sembler être exagéré. Ils ne sont pas. Bien qu’il y ait est fiction ici, Kapllani est d’une honnêteté sobre en regardant en arrière la perception albanaise communiste des produits de base. Il le fait avec la clarté de quelqu’un qui est à la fois à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur des choses, traversant constamment la frontière.

Le livre est le premier roman de Kapllani, qui suit un recueil de poèmes, de nombreux articles médiatiques et des essais. Un petit manuel sur la frontière tient ce que son titre promet et plus encore: avec un humour noir, il explore les frontières et la migration d’un point de vue éblouissant et à plusieurs niveaux. Kapllani se penche sur les thèmes de l’identité, de l’appartenance, de la patrie et du patrimoine, sans hésiter à franchir des limites douloureuses et à dire des vérités choquantes.

Manjola Nasi, poète


Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire (1927)

par Vera Figner, traduit par Camilla Chapin Daniels

Vera Figner’s Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire est le meilleur exemple de la pureté morale du mouvement révolutionnaire en Russie et de la souffrance et de l’abnégation qu’il a inspirées à nombre de ses partisans. Figner, l’une des nombreuses jeunes femmes aisées qui trouvaient les inégalités, l’oppression et l’exploitation de l’autocratie tsariste insupportables, et qui se sont d’abord tournées vers la propagande pacifique dans l’espoir de susciter des réformes, Figner a rejoint le comité exécutif du révolutionnaire. organisation The People’s Will, responsable de l’assassinat du tsar Alexandre II en 1881. Arrêtée en 1883, elle a été condamnée à mort, commuée aux travaux forcés à vie et a passé 20 ans dans la plus célèbre institution pénale de la Russie impériale, la forteresse de Shlisselburg près de Saint-Pétersbourg. Dans la première moitié de ses mémoires, Figner retrace son évolution révolutionnaire, y compris une défense éloquente du virage du mouvement vers les tactiques terroristes. La seconde moitié décrit ses longues années d’incarcération, qui a commencé dans des conditions extrêmement dures d’isolement total, mais s’est ensuite détendue pour permettre aux prisonniers de se rencontrer, de travailler et d’étudier ensemble et de prendre soin les uns des autres. J’ai d’abord lu Mémoires d’un révolutionnaire dans le cadre de mes recherches sur l’écriture des prisons russes, en recherchant des références dans les mémoires du Goulag d’Evgeniia Ginzburg Dans le tourbillon. J’ai été immédiatement séduit par l’image que Figner peint de la résilience et du courage des détenus, et de la vie de prison exemplaire qu’ils ont construite.

Sarah Young, universitaire


La génération disparue: foi et soulèvement dans l’Ouzbékistan moderne (2019)

par Bagila Bukharbayeva

Le tourisme en Ouzbékistan est en hausse. (Ou du moins c’était avant que Covid-19 ne claque les frontières internationales.) En 2019, les arrivées internationales ont été impressionnantes, avec un chiffre officiel supérieur à six millions. Sous le règne controversé de 27 ans de l’ancien président Islam Karimov, ses politiques restrictives de style soviétique ont rendu les touristes – et les investisseurs étrangers – méfiants. En conséquence, pendant ces années difficiles et paranoïaques, le développement du pays a été lent, presque suspendu dans le temps. Maintenant, il est parti, et il y a une forte pression pour accueillir les visiteurs et développer le potentiel touristique du pays. Mais, pour ceux qui arrivent, il est également important d’être conscient des oppressions et des défis très récents dont les Ouzbeks ont souffert et souffrent encore aujourd’hui. Bien que certaines choses aient changé, beaucoup sont restées les mêmes. Bukharbayeva est une journaliste d’Ouzbékistan – ayant travaillé pour la BBC et Associated Press – et son livre, avec ses paragraphes journalistiques agiles et ses récits intimes à la première personne, est une lecture essentielle. En tant que journaliste, Boukharbayeva a été témoin de près de l’autoritarisme, ainsi que des tentatives du pays de construire une nation après l’indépendance. En particulier, elle examine les terribles injustices infligées aux pieux musulmans d’Ouzbékistan. Elle a également été l’une des rares journalistes présentes au massacre d’Andijan en 2005, lorsque les forces gouvernementales ouzbèkes ont tué des centaines de personnes non armées. Une lecture importante, plus que jamais.

Caroline Eden, écrivain


Trans-Atlantyk (1994)

par Witold Gombrowicz, traduit par Carolyn French et Nina Karsov

Y a-t-il une meilleure année pour lire ou relire un roman sur un homme échoué à l’étranger lorsqu’une guerre éclate dans son propre pays? (C’est une question rhétorique.) Gombrowicz fictionnalise sa propre expérience en Argentine en 1939, la rendant à peine reconnaissable grâce à la langue baroque, aux tas de sarcasmes et aux rebondissements que Carolyn French et Nina Karsov réinventent dans un véritable tour de force de traduction . Cela dit, quiconque s’attend à une Robinsonade repartirait profondément déçu. Buenos Aires de Gombrowicz est très densément peuplée, avec trop d’Argentins et encore plus de Polonais pour se fâcher, se défoulant dans des diatribes hilarantes et des duels verbaux (et pas seulement verbaux). Une sublimation délicieuse de tant de sentiments à la fois.

Yuliya Komska, universitaire


Journal, 1935-1944 (1996)

par Mihail Sebastian, traduit par Patrick Camiller

L’œuvre de l’auteur juif-roumain Mihail Sebastian a déclenché de grands scandales littéraires de sa vie et à titre posthume. Ses articles de journal datant de 1935-1944 ont été publiés pour la première fois en 1996, 41 ans après la mort de l’auteur dans un accident de voiture, prenant d’assaut la scène culturelle roumaine. Encore plus vivant et magnifiquement écrit que les romans et les pièces de théâtre de Sebastian, le journal montre la montée de l’antisémitisme en temps réel dans la Roumanie de l’entre-deux-guerres et les horreurs de la Seconde Guerre mondiale, l’élite littéraire du pays – les amis de Sebastian – se révélant chauvine. . Au-delà du paysage politique, le journal capture Sébastien tour à tour animé et torturé par sa vie amoureuse bohème, glissant parfois dans des remarques objectivantes malheureuses sur les femmes qu’il rencontre. Dans d’autres parties, l’auteur médite sur son écriture sur l’un de ses romans, L’accident, un merveilleux hymne au ski, une réflexion sur la façon de surmonter un ex, et un roman qu’il a dû réécrire après avoir perdu le manuscrit. Il réfléchit également à l’indignation suscitée par son précédent roman, Deux mille ans, préfacé par son mentor antisémite, le philosophe Nae Ionesco, et son essai répondant au scandale, Comment je suis devenu un voyou. Avec Journal, 1935-1944 Sebastian consolide sa place posthume comme l’un des classiques absolus de la Roumanie.

Paula Erizanu, Le Journal Calvert Éditeur de culture


La punaise de lit et la poésie choisie (1929)

par Vladimir Mayakovsky, traduit par Max Hayward et George Reavey

Mayakovsky! «Chaque mot, chaque plaisanterie, que sa bouche brûlante crache, saute comme une prostituée nue d’un bordel en feu! La voix tonitruante de ce poète soviétique est tout simplement trop amusante pour être laissée aux seuls érudits – même si ce sont des savants que nous devons remercier pour ce beau livre bilingue. Le rendu de Max Hayward et George Reavey évite le son guindé et la syntaxe surdimensionnée que l’on rencontre si souvent dans la poésie traduite, tandis que l’introduction de Patricia Blake fournit un contexte précieux, en particulier pour la manière profondément ambivalente de Mayakovsky de voir l’État soviétique. Alors qu’il se considérait comme le serviteur d’un mouvement de masse, il reconnaissait le rôle d’un esprit créatif comme fondamentalement individualiste et écrivait du point de vue d’un tel narcissisme imposant que Trotsky l’appelait de façon mémorable un «Mayako-morphiste». Il s’attendait pleinement à être dévoré par la révolution qu’il chantait. Ce livre raconte cette histoire dans son intégralité en incluant le poème final que Mayakovsky a écrit avant son suicide, ainsi que sa pièce La punaise de lit, qui représente une personne du temps du poète se trouvant dans un avenir communiste qui ne lui sert à rien.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poète et traducteur


Soirées dans une ferme près de Dikanka (1831)

par Nikolai Gogol, traduit par Christopher anglais

Publié alors qu’il n’avait que 22 ans, ce recueil de nouvelles (souvent appelé les contes ukrainiens de Gogol) annonçait un nouveau talent indéniable sur la scène littéraire russe. Raconté à travers la perspective d’un apiculteur analphabète, Soirées dans une ferme près de Dikanka a montré des éclairs de ce qui allait devenir le style de signature de Gogol consistant à mélanger la bande dessinée avec le grotesque. Né en Ukraine, Gogol a déménagé dans la capitale russe de Saint-Pétersbourg alors qu’il n’avait que 19 ans dans l’espoir de se faire un nom en tant qu’écrivain. À l’époque, il y avait un intérêt enragé pour le folklore ukrainien parmi les lecteurs russes qui cherchaient une sorte de rencontre culturelle authentique avec un groupe de personnes qu’ils considéraient comme arriérés. L’Ukrainien Gogol a habilement joué là-dedans, remplissant son histoire du genre d’éléments folkloriques dont ses lecteurs russes aspiraient. Ce faisant, il s’est catapulté des marges d’une communauté littéraire vers son centre et, ce faisant, a forcé tout le monde à reconnaître le niveau de génie que l’on pouvait trouver dans un marigot impérial.

Jennifer Wilson, écrivain


Je m’appelle Aram (1937)

par William Saroyan

Véritable classique de la littérature de la diaspora arménienne, le livre de nouvelles de William Saroyan de 1937 est, en un mot, délicieux. Racontée du point de vue d’un jeune garçon nommé Aram Garoghlanian, chaque histoire fournit une description unique et vivante de la vie quotidienne des membres de la communauté arménienne dans et autour de Fresno, en Californie. Dans une histoire, l’oncle d’Aram achète des terres agricoles et plante des grenadiers, les entretenant avec beaucoup de soin pendant plusieurs années dans le sol désertique impitoyable, seulement pour constater qu’il n’y a pas de marché pour les grenades aux États-Unis. Dans un autre, Aram et son ami Pandro Kolkhozian se retrouvent à chanter dans une chorale d’église à la suite de la tentative d’un voisin de les «sauver» après qu’elle les ait entendus jurer – mais ils négocient avec elle et la persuadent de les payer pour cela. (Dans son ignorance délibérée, elle les appelle «Eugene» et «Pedro».) Bien qu’il y ait une certaine tragédie inhérente aux histoires de Saroyan et à leur toile de fond de l’ère de la dépression, son thème global est l’optimisme débridé – la représentation ultime du rêve américain.

Elena Goukassian, écrivain


Walker sur l’eau (2014)

par Kristiina Ehin, traduit par Ilmar Lehtpere

Walker sur l’eau par l’écrivain estonien Kristiina Ehin se compose d’histoires courtes – ou peut-être serait-il préférable de dire, d’éclairs intenses de surréalisme, se déroulant au rythme soutenu des contes de fées. Ces histoires sont toutes apparemment liées, bien que le sexe, les traits de personnalité et la trame de fond du narrateur changent à des moments imperceptibles. Une femme sur une ferme côtière essaie de s’apprendre à marcher sur l’eau; une autre mord les bras de ses amants à des moments inattendus; quelqu’un écrit une grammaire fantastiquement réussie de la langue des oiseaux …

Ehin est surtout connue comme poète, et ces histoires présentent plusieurs des mêmes caractéristiques que sa poésie: déplacées dans le temps, lumineuses dans l’imagerie, mais imprégnées d’une légère ironie; même à leur plus éloigné de tout repère apparent, ils se caractérisent par la logique de fer et convaincante des rêves.

Le livre me rappelle d’une manière étrange beaucoup de choses que j’aime à propos de l’Estonie, notamment les constructions inattendues de sa langue non indo-européenne – «à côté de» étant littéralement «à l’oreille de» (kõrval) – et les nuits blanches de juin sur le golfe de Finlande, une période tachée de lumière où tout le monde et tout semble un peu fou.

Will Mawhood, journaliste et traducteur


Démons (1871)

par Fyodor Dostoïevski, traduit par Robert Maguire

Dostoïevski a été mon point de départ en tant que chercheur et je ne m’éloignerai jamais trop de lui. Une plongée profonde dans les idées éthiques, existentielles et métaphysiques, Démons, également traduit par les diables et Les possédés, a été inspiré par un événement de la vie réelle: le meurtre d’un étudiant par un groupe de révolutionnaires potentiels à l’initiative de l’opportuniste Sergei Nechaev, qui a persuadé ses partisans qu’ils formaient une cellule dans un réseau révolutionnaire plus large. Dans l’intrigue qui tourne la page de Dostoïevski, la conspiration meurtrière engloutit une ville de province dans le chaos, tandis que nous sommes laissés pour comprendre le véritable rôle de l’énigmatique protagoniste Stavroguine et des acolytes qui vivent – et meurent – pour ses idées rejetées.

Dans la narration peu fiable typique de Dostoïevski, les révolutionnaires – et peut-être même le narrateur – s’emparent des histoires et les manipulent à leur propre fin, avec des résultats horribles, y compris le nombre le plus élevé de tous les romans de Dostoïevski. Sa résonance à l’ère des fausses nouvelles est difficile à manquer. En même temps, malgré toutes ses ténèbres, Démons est la plus drôle des longues œuvres de Dostoïevski. From the gossipy narrator, to the appallingly self-satisfied author Karmazinov (a wicked caricature of the novelist Ivan Turgenev), and especially the absurd hypochondriac Stepan Verkhovensky — a liberal intellectual, representative of the fathers’ generation, and undeniably responsible for the sins of the sons — it makes me laugh out loud every time I read it.

Sarah Young, academic


The Moscoviad (1993)

by Yuri Andrukhovych, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky

With interest in the trippy magical-realist literature Ukraine produced in the post-Soviet period currently growing in the English-language world, now is the time to revisit what can, without qualification, be called one of the movement’s classics. This novel follows Ukrainian poet Otto Vilgelmovych von F. on a magical mystery tour through Moscow during the death throes of the Soviet empire. His mounting intoxication propels a picaresque narrative through increasingly hallucinatory encounters, ending with a descent into the metro tunnels where he confronts a vision of the rotting empire reasserting itself. Our own historical moment makes this book as timely as it ever was. It would be difficult to imagine a more challenging text to translate, but Vitaly Chernetsky truly rises to the occasion.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poet and translator


Of Strangers and Bees (2019)

by Hamid Ismailov, translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega

I came to Of Strangers and Bees after a number of brief interactions with Sufism in contemporary fiction, from 18th-century Bosnia (Mesa Selimovic) to present-day Dagestan (Alisa Ganieva). While other authors laid the foundation for my curiosity, Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov achieved no less than a complete overhaul of my ideas about narrative. This labyrinthine novel follows an unusual trio: the medieval Persian polymath and philosopher Avicenna; an Uzbek writer navigating life in exile; and a young anthropomorphic bee. Their stories are linked by one of the central maxims of Sufism — destroying one’s ego to experience life instead through the eyes of the “Other” — fulfilling the purest form of empathy. Avicenna surfaces repeatedly as “the Stranger”, without a name; the writer loses his sense of identity through emigration; and the bee demonstrates a complete self-abnegation, with an entire lifetime dedicated to the hive. The stories collapse into one another; time often appears irrelevant, and philosophy and fiction meld together seamlessly. Ishmailov’s descriptions are spell-binding, like something out of Calvino’s Invisible Cities, while his dialogue is exceedingly witty. Ismailov’s work cultivated my interest in the diverse Muslim world in Central Asia, which persisted under Soviet rule and is now faced with new challenges in a complex post-Soviet era. Despite drawing on ancient philosophical ideas, this is also a book about the pang of modern migration. “It is boundlessly difficult to be a stranger,”writes Ishmailov, an author in exile himself. “Your usual ways of behaving bear no fruit. »

Hannah Weber, writer


Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian (1895)

by Aleko Konstantinov, translated by Victor A. Friedman, Christina E. Kramer, Grace E. Fielder, and Catherine Rudin

I don’t meet many Bulgarians, but when I do, I usually mention my love of Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian by Aleko Konstantinov. My comment is often met with shame and delight, the same reactions the work has provoked since its publication in 1895. Bai Ganyo is a collection of feuilletons told from the perspective of Bulgarian college students who’ve encountered their compatriot Ganyo Balkanski abroad. Uncouth, manipulative, and distrustful, Bai Ganyo is a traveling rose-oil salesman always on the lookout for keyif — pleasure — and kelepir — a free lunch. With his Belgian frock coat on top of his oriental dress, Bai Ganyo’s clothes represent the ambiguity of Bulgarian culture and the seemingly crude imitative nature of the country’s Europeanisation. In the second half of the book, Bai Ganyo returns to Bulgaria to take what he learned abroad and apply it back home. He employs a crew of drunk thugs and starts a libelous newspaper in order to gain a seat in government — a means to attaining power in post-independence Bulgaria in 1895, which has remained relevant today. Bai Ganyo might be a social parasite who embodies the worst stereotypes about the Balkans, but Aleko (beloved, Konstantinov is referred to by first name only in Bulgaria) uses these stereotypes to create an uproarious and highly ambiguous text that is still open to new interpretations today.

Daniel Petrick, writer


The Natashas (2016)

by Yelena Moskovich

Yelena Moskovich’s debut novel The Natashas tackles the heavy topic of human trafficking of Eastern European women in the West — but not in a way the reader would expect. Natashas are people “who leave their bodies and continue living without them”, a choir which observes the intertwined lives of the book’s two protagonists: Parisian jazz singer Béatrice, and a Mexican actor called César. As both characters battle and dance with their inner demons, the novel unfolds like a labyrinth of unknown city streets, a vortex of voices, a game which twists conventional narration, and a delicious string of sentences which get under your skin. Dans The Natashas, the Soviet-Jewish, Ukrainian-born and Paris-based Moskovich explores themes that she carries into her two subsequent novels: queerness, gender, sexuality, and desire, the complicated question of agency over one’s body, as well as the impact of political historical events over individual lives, memory, and the boundaries of text itself. Through her protagonists, Moskovich gives agency and voice to the marginalised, who usually only get used as a mere backdrop to mainstream stories: migrants, queers, and the countless anonymous Natashas.

Anastasiia Fedorova, writer and curator


Oh, These Times (1772)

by Catherine the Great, translated by Lurana Donnels O’Malley

Catherine the Great’s plays, of which she wrote many, were hilarious and ridiculous, but they rarely seem to come up in discussions of her life and political legacy. I sometimes wonder if people have an easier time believing that a woman was capable of running an empire than of being funny. She wrote 14 comedies for the stage and considered theatre a vital medium to inform and instruct her subjects. “Theatre is a national school,” she proclaimed, “[and] I am the senior teacher in this school.” While Catherine claimed that her writing was just a diversion (“I consider all my writings trifles,”) in reality, she used them to settle scores (usually with the Masons), to chastise people for expecting too much of their sovereign, and to mock habits she considered out of step with the Enlightened age. In her comedy, Oh! The Times, Catherine writes about a rational man of the new era, the subtly named Mr Notshallow, who is trying to negotiate the marriage of his friend to a young woman whose grandmother (a Mrs Sanctimonious) is constantly pointing out to so-called bad omens to claim the match is cursed. In reality, she is stingy and does not want to pay a dowry. Catherine also makes sure her anti-heroine spouts off ideas about government responsibility: “The government should establish a process whereby it, rather than we, would provide for our servants’ marriages”, only to be rebuked by Notshallow, the figure of reason: “The government has enough cares and expenses…”

Jennifer Wilson, writer


Quiet flows the Una (2011)

by Faruk Šehić, translated by Will Firth

I was not ready for Quiet flows the Una: its complex, bold prose hits deep and unexpectedly straight from the opening of the book. “My memories are ugly and dirty,” writes Sehic in the first chapter, as if to warn the reader of what is to come. But the thoughts of the Bosnian war veteran and poet flow like a river, a sort of meditation, drifting as memory does through various periods of his life. His rich, lyrical vocabulary takes the reader through a maze of visions from his past, as if to archive them, and make sense of the fracture of his identity. The river’s presence is constant, with the stone from its bed even forming the walls of his grandmother’s house. “It would make sense for me to go back to our origins: to the water we’re made of and the swirling currents of the underwater epic.” The recurring eruption of violence into the text is at times viscerally disturbing: “Beneath my balcony lay a town that I still couldn’t feel was my own (…) — a soft town like warm vomit in the sun.” Quiet flows the Una, Sehic’s first novel, is a beautiful and scorching exploration of war trauma, and the consequent explosion of the self. Awarded the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013, its power lies in the tension between the personal experience of conflict, and its wider resonance.

Madeleine Nosworthy, The Calvert Journal Marketing Coordinator


The Good Life Elsewhere (2008)

par Vladimir Lorchenkov, translated by Ross Ufberg

Under communism, the literature of Central and Eastern Europe became particularly associated in the West with a kind of absurdism, antic and dystopian by turns, in which the distortions and evasions of the official system were clearly mimicked. In many places, the transition to a particularly dog-eat-dog form of capitalism has thrown up plentiful absurdities of its own — perhaps nowhere more than Moldova, which has struggled with economic collapse, industrial-scale corruption, and unusually complex questions of history and identity.

The Good Life Elsewhere by the Russian-speaking Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov takes the resulting mass emigration as its central theme and amps up the absurdity while doing so, painting a picture of a country where even the president is trying desperately to get out. Following the residents of a Moldovan village who hatch a ludicrous plan to emigrate to a comically hyperbolic version of Italy, it takes cartoonish sideswipes at contemporary Moldova and just about everything else.

Its scattershot approach leads to misfires, but it is very funny and at times oddly poignant, and captures something of the cynicism and despair that arises when you feel that you live in a place that everyone is trying to leave.

Will Mawhood, journalist and translator


Medea and Her Children (1996)

by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, translated by Arch Tait

Lyudmila Ulitskaya is one of my favourite writers, particularly because of her deft observations on human emotions, and the fragility of the bonds we share with one another. In ancient myth, Medea is a murderous figure, yet in this narrative, set in Crimea, the character is both a strong and kind woman, a bridge between generations and the changing Soviet epochs.

This is a rich novel about the epic joys and sorrows of life, family, and the land upon which personal histories intertwine and play out. In the light of Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea, the ending is especially bittersweet. That’s not the most important thing about this book, though. I recommend it, above all, for the great warmth of the prose, something that might defy prejudices about Russian writers, or Russia, being harsh. If some books have a heart of darkness, this one has a heart of sun.

Natalia Antonova, journalist


A Spare Life (2016)

by Lidija Dimkovksa, translated by Christina E. Kramer

The alloy formed by Srebra (Silver) and Zlata (Gold), the two twin sisters with conjoined heads at the centre of this coming-of-age novel, is not good currency for an easy existence. Dimkovska’s flowing narration takes us inside the sisters’ life and their efforts to survive and thrive in a world that is neither accepting, nor forgiving of shortcomings. Things we might take for granted, such as spending time alone, or having a bath, proves challenging for the two sisters. Compromises are part of their daily existence, whether that’s choosing what to study at university, being intimate with someone, or getting married. With dark humour, and no hint of prejudice or entitlement, Zlata’s frank and intelligent narration walks us through her bleak reality and relationship with her sister and her parents.

But only concentrating on the sisters’ captivating story or the masterful character building would not do justice to Dimkovska’s work: poverty, political changes, emigration, religion, nationalism, tragic loss, survivor’s guilt, are all part of this complex and brilliantly crafted novel, which subtly draws parallels between the twins’ separation surgery and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As Dimkovska writes, “when we awoke, we would be independent, free, each with her own constitution, and then only the most cynical and malicious people would call us the ‘former sisters-with-conjoined-heads’.” Indeed, a staple feature of Dimkovska’s writing, in both prose and poetry, is her acute awareness of the way individual lives are affected by, and contribute to, the bigger political and social picture.

Manjola Nasi, poet


Zuleikha (2015)

by Guzel Yakhina, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

The plight of the Tatars under Joseph Stalin, as well as anybody else who was labeled a “kulak,” is the inspiration for this 2015 novel. It’s richly detailed, mesmerising even, and it deals in paradoxes that define the human experience — how a murderer can become a saviour, or how you can discover your own humanity when you are forced to live in dehumanising conditions.

I see the Soviet Union is frequently romanticised these days. I personally even have Stalin’s Western fan club constantly screaming at me on Twitter — so you can imagine why I’d want to recommend this novel. The historic lessons it teaches are important, but so is its quiet, un-showy, and ultimately powerful feminism.

Natalia Antonova, journalist


The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

by Milan Kundera, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Any first-year philosophy student could dream up the erotic gambol with existentialism in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but only sui-generis Czech writer Milan Kundera could have animated its heart. In it, an amiable, omniscient narrator recounts the lives and inner thoughts of two couples during the 1968 Prague Spring: photographer Tereza falls for Tomáš, a surgeon who finds commitment impossible, while his mistress, an artist, watches while her other lover’s most decent qualities come to cost him everything. While grappling with questions of love and intimacy, the characters are also drawn into the country’s political upheaval — a period of mass protest and liberalisation, followed by a swift suppression by the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact members. Tereza gets caught up in dissident photojournalism as the Soviet tanks roll in, and Tomáš faces the end of his career after writing a letter comparing the Czech Communists to Oedipus. The novel asks no less than whether life itself is heavy or light — whether our decisions are important or unimportant — and discovers both of these options are too difficult to bear. Kundera probes eternal questions with an amusing detachment and a uniquely playful voice in what has come to be his most loved book. Kundera’s use of the expression einmal is keinmal (“once is never”) will stay with me forever, since my adolescent self was moved enough to have it tattooed.

Hannah Weber, writer


Out of the Fire (1980)

by Ales Adamovich, Yanka Bryl, and Vladimir Kolesnik, translated by Angelia Graf and Nina Belenkaya

Can we find words to describe a human catastrophe? What are the ways of speaking about the unspeakable? Ales Adamovich and his mentee, Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievch, gave us the “collective novel,” or documentary non-fiction, which — in a country of either destroyed or locked archives — is an archive made from private lives, the most fragile historical material. Adamovich rejected the idea of writing fiction about the experience of the Second World War in Belarus. The testimony of “the people’s choir”, of private testimonies, took precedence. Today, we know that 9,200 Belarusian villages were burned to the ground during the three years of German occupation; more than half of them were burned together with all their civilian inhabitants: children, women, and the elderly. In the course of the four post-war years, Adamovich, Kalesnik, and Bryl found and interviewed more than 300 survivors of these massacres. Out of the Fire manages to speak the unspeakable that to this day often remains unreadable to the heirs of this history. The fact that Out of the Fire is not an easy book to find in English (and in other European languages) shows a great gap in Europe’s knowledge of itself. How does this gap affect the way Europeans relate to the ongoing violence in Belarus, I wonder?

Valzhyna Mort, poet


White Shroud (1958)

par Antanas Škėma, translated by Karla Gruodis

Lithuanian author Antanas Škėma (1910-1961) became personally and directly entangled in the grim brutality of the Soviet and then Nazi occupations, eventually leaving his country in 1945 and settling in the US. White Shroud is a shockingly autobiographical novel, involving the life stories of émigré Lithuanians, as well as of those who had been left behind, in Škėma’s Eastern European past. The book has reached cult status for generations of Lithuanians who saw it as a guide for spiritual survival in an exciting, yet alien world. In this extravagant literary experiment, Škėma skilfully blends the styles of a documentary narrative, a diary, a Lithuanian folk tale, and an erotic farce. And yet, precisely because of its originality and outlandish character, the novel had to wait 60 years for its translation into other languages. It was sophisticatedly rendered into English in 2018, by Karla Gruodis.

Zinovy Zinik, novelist


The Zone (1982)

by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Anne Frydman

While classic literary treatments of the Soviet gulag system by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, or Lisa Hayden’s recent translation of Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha, deserve the tremendous interest they garner from English language readers, Sergei Dovlatov’s semi-autobiographical novel of his experience as a guard at a camp for criminals rather than political prisoners has merits that are uniquely its own. This book offers a fascinating exploration of prison language and culture, but it also has something more consequential to say; for Dovlatov, the camp is a microcosm of the Soviet Union. Its absurdities are those of broader Soviet society, and its inmates have more in common with the guards than official ideology would care to admit. Metafictional elements lend this unique novel a further layer of texture, and Anne Frydman’s able translation ensures that the black humour of the original is not lost.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poet and translator


A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976)

par Danilo Kiš, translated by Duška Mikić-Mitchell

Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš grew up on the Serbian border of Yugoslavia with Hungary, and spent a large chunk of his later life in France. He died relatively young, leaving only a few books. Yet his writings are of jewel-like intricacy and reward repeated reading in multiple languages. A Tomb for Boris Davidovich is a masterful cycle of seven ostensibly unrelated but actually strikingly intertwined stories that keep circling problems of faith, ideology, and violence. Though Kiš sometimes recalls Borges in the omnisciently masterful tone and serious dealings with the uncanny, I find his stories suffused with a melancholy and weariness that seems natural to their setting: often anonymous Balkan and Eastern European locations with measureless histories of conquering and being conquered, thick palimpsests of successive cultures left to mould in storehouses or burned in lieu of firewood, trampled in the mud by yet another invading army. To wit, a related recommendation might be the first of Kiš’s trio of cryptic, beautiful autobiographical novels, which bears the suggestive title Garden, Ashes.

Ainsley Morse, academic and translator


Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996)

by Oksana Zabuzhko, translated by Halyna Hryn

To augment one of Tolstoy’s most popular quotes: all happy countries are alike; each unhappy country is unhappy in its own way. Called “the most influential Ukrainian book in 15 years of independence,” Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex manages to capture so much of this idea, with its sharp, honest, and painful depiction of Ukrainian culture and its damaging effects on a woman’s becoming. Narrated in first-person streams of consciousness by a Ukrainian female poet who bears the name of the author and who is also a visiting professor of Slavic studies at Harvard, the novel sets forth the protagonist’s identity crisis as she struggles to understand and overcome the constraints and stereotypes she was raised with. The trigger of this troubling and straightforward introspection is the recovery process from an abusive relationship, and the vicious behaviour of her lover, who reminds her of her country’s culture of fear, trauma, and repression of women. True to its title, the novel is masterful in its use of sex as a tool to both portray characters and construct the plot, an aspect that counterbalances what Ukrainian and Eastern European male writers have done in this concern but in a rather macho manner.

Anastasia Gavrilovici, poet


Natural Novel (1999)

by Georgi Gospodinov, translated by Zornitsa Hristova

Poet Georgi Gospodinov’s first work of fiction, Natural Novel, was a big hit when it came out in Bulgaria in 1999. It was also my personal reintroduction to Bulgarian literature. Having emigrated from Bulgaria to the US as a young child in 1991, I grew up familiar with only the great writers of yore, the likes of Ivan Vasov and Elin Pelin. At one point, I asked my mom to bring me back a contemporary novel on her next trip, and she gave me this one. It was a revelation, a book that calls itself a novel but is more like a seemingly random selection of stories, thoughts, snippets of conversations, even lists. The plot revolves around a writer in the midst of divorcing his wife because she’s pregnant by another man, yet this mostly serves as a framework for various musings on subjects like the inner lives of animals (flies in particular), methods of writing (a novel completely made up of verbs, for example, or one made up of only beginnings), and, of course, love, and personal apocalypses. A blend of humour and melancholy, dream and reality, Natural Novel captures a magical realism that’s uniquely Bulgarian.

Elena Goukassian, writer


The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-6

par Ivan Chistyakov, translated by Arch Tait

Anonymously donated to the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow in two battered exercise books, Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries detail his life as a senior guard at the Baikal Amur Corrective Labour Camp, where thousands of convicts, many of them political prisoners, toiled in desperate conditions to build the Baikal Amur Mainline. Like most stories written by anti-heroes, there is something deeply compelling in Christyakov’s words. His terse, functional prose is not designed to elicit sympathy, but it is difficult not to empathise with his plight. Paragraphs are interspersed with a level of detail to fascinate amateur historians and drive home the endless, grinding mundanity of it all, including the trudge from one outpost to another, detailed to the exact kilometre. Often, Christyakov pines for his former, more cultured life from before the revolution. In many ways, it feels as if he is as trapped as those he guards.

Yet this is not a straightforward read. Christyakov complains endlessly about the prisoners he guards, the wind-blasted barracks where he is forced to sleep, the petty malice of his superiors. As you are drawn into the callousness and grievances of camp life, it is all too easy to forget: if this is Christyakov’s life, then what must conditions be like for thousands of prisoners?

His diaries serve to help us capture a true image of the early Soviet Union — including all of those who conformed, who kept their heads down, who contemplated suicide on lonely evenings, but ultimately carried on. In the end, they illustrate a system which squeezed humanity from all with which it came into contact — regardless of which side of the line they stood.

Katie Marie Davies, The Calvert Journal Features Editor


The Harvest of Chronos (2018)

by Mojca Kumerdej, translated by Rawley Grau

This substantial genre-bending historical novel is set in Central Europe in the 1600s, during the Counter-Reformation and when Slovenian Inner Austria was part of the Holy Roman Empire. The novel depicts a world in which the scientific revolution kicked off, living alongside widespread superstition, and accusations of heresy and paganism was motivated not by religious purity, so much as by revenge, jealousy, and even lust for entertainment. Clergymen, aristocrats, “witches”, and peasants all make their appearance in this uniquely funny historical novel, accompanied by merciful social commentary. Full of intrigue, The Harvest of Chronos embraces a flamboyant style, with long and chiselled sentences, teeming with irony and sarcasm. Receiving two major Slovenian literary awards, the book has been translated into five languages in two years. Kumerdej’s second novel consolidates the writer’s place at the forefront of Slovene literature today.

Andrej Pleterski, translator


Three Apples Fell From the Sky (2015)

by Narine Abgaryan, translated by Lisa C. Hayden

“And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the eavesdropper”. With this Armenian proverb, Narine Abgaryan opens her fable-like book, an ode to intergenerational trauma and timeless folk traditions.

In the ancient highland village of Maran on the slopes of Mount Manish-Kar, Anatolia Sevoyants lays down for her last breath. After suffering natural disasters of biblical magnitude in recent years, Maran has been consigned to oblivion. A war in the remote, outside world raged for years, and now only 23 families still populate the village. As Anatolia reflects on her fate, the saga of curses, local myths, catastrophes, tragedies, love, and loss that befell Maran unravels. In an entrancing, omniscient narrative voice that oscillates between past and present, Abgaryan recounts the relationships and misfortunes of Marnians through idiosyncratic characters, and, even if plot points are scarce, their story comes alive through magical realism-esque vivid imagery.

Although fictional, the intergenerational sense of tragedy and loss in Abgaryan’s award-winning book, published in 2015 in Russian and translated into English in 2019, mirrors that of the Armenian psyche across the world today. Riveting and fresh, Abgaryan’s Three Apples masterfully succeeds at sketching the soul of a nation within the fables of a magical, timeless world.

Lucia de la Torre, The Calvert Journal staff writer


Imperium (1993)

by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by Klara Glowczewska

Ryszard Kapuściński’s Imperium is a human history of the Soviet Union. Born in Pinsk in 1932, Kapuściński became Poland’s preeminent foreign correspondent writing on political events in Iran, Ethiopia, and Angola during the 20th century. Imperium is his kaleidoscopic account of life in the Soviet Union, from the arrival of the NKVD in his hometown in 1939, to the splintering of the empire in the early 90s by way of trips to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia’s Far East. What separates Kapuściński’s work from other historical accounts is the plurality of realities he depicts, and the intimate exchanges he describes — from meeting the first Tajik woman to receive an academic degree, to a philosophical babushka in Yakutsk. The result is a vast compendium of stories written by the hand of a journalist with the touch of a poet. Scattered throughout Kapuściński’s work — in among the tales of hardship and cruelty — I discovered flickers of wisdom and light that I couldn’t help but highlight or underline: “If one were to collect the energy of suffering emitted by the millions of people here and transform it into the power of creation, one could turn our planet into a flowering garden.”

Matthew Janney, writer


Voroshilovgrad (2009)

by Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler

Serhiy Zhadan is one of Ukraine’s rockstar writers. His readings, book launches, and post-punk concerts gather audiences of thousands. Born near Voroshilovgrad (the Soviet name for today’s Luhansk in east Ukraine), just like the novel’s protagonist, Zhadan became an iconic voice in the country’s Maidan demonstrations. Written with wit, Voroshilovgrad (titled as Jazz in Donbas in some translations) tells the story of 33-years-old Herman’s return home from the city in order to attend to his missing brother’s gas station in the middle of nowhere. The trip sucks the young man with “a useless degree”, “dubious job”, and “enough money to support the lifestyle” he is used to, into a feud between a local baron and the employees of the station: Herman’s old friends, men with “bodies battered by hard lives and the fists of their rivals” who beg him not to sell the business. With strong literary echoes from both Homer’s Odyssey and classic road novels, Voroshilovgrad is a masculine hymn to friendship and integrity in provincial post-communist Ukraine, a place where money buys most things, and the law is absent.

Paula Erizanu, The Calvert Journal Culture Editor


Flight from the USSR (Jeans Generation) (2008)

by Dato Turashvili, translated by Maya Kiasashvili

Born in 1966, David Turashvili is perhaps Georgia’s most famous writer, and an undisputed leading voice of contemporary Georgian prose. His novel Flight from the USSR (Jeans Generation) was written during the Russian military invasion of Georgia in 2008. The short historical novel, which became an outright bestseller in his country, is a free reconstruction of a real event that happened in the late autumn of 1983. A group of young Georgians, including a pregnant woman, planned to flee to an American military base in Turkey with a hijacked Aeroflot plane. The group, however, were mostly artists and total dilettantes, and nothing in the plan worked out. Carrying out an “anti-terrorist operation,” Russian special forces detained and shot the plane at Tbilisi airport, killing five and injuring almost three dozen of its passengers. All the surviving “terrorists” were later sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad rather quickly. The pregnant woman was forced to have an abortion in prison so that she couldn’t be granted clemency for her condition. This book is a wonderful reminder to those who have forgotten just how criminally sadistic the Soviet system was.

Yuri Andrukhovych, poet and novelist


There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby (2009)

par Ludmila Petrushevskaya, translated by Anna Summers and Keith Gessen

I highly recommend everything by Petrushevskaya. We are very lucky that she and Anna Summers have worked together on four or five books in English, all available in wide release (Keith Gessen has helped to translate at least one other one as well). I picked There Once Lived a Woman… because it’s subtitled “scary fairy tales,” which is not an inaccurate description of the book. Until the end of the Soviet Union, Petrushevskaya was something of a persona non grata, subsisting at the margins of officially published literature, her work practically unknown and considered too dark by the editors who read it. Today she is known as an eccentric writer and performer (she loves to dress up and perform cabaret songs), and there is definitely something a little witchy about her. The stories in this particular collection draw on urban folklore and dystopian fantasy, but the “realistic” worlds evoked in other works of hers can be just as spooky, shining a grisly flashlight into the murky depths of human nature (particularly in its poverty-ridden, housing-shortaged, miserable war-of-the-sexes Soviet variety). Petrushevskaya’s work is meanwhile rife with a bleak and macabre humour that keeps you reading even as you cringe.

Ainsley Morse, academic and translator


Flights (2007)

by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Some of the criticisms leveled at this book are that it is ‘not a novel’ or, rather unhelpfully, ‘not a book’. It’s true, the fragments in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights create more of a mood than a cohesive narrative, but that is part of its brilliance. It contains facets of biography, essay, traditional storytelling, and even cartography. The Polish title of the book is Bieguni, a Slavic sect that lived in constant movement in order to avoid evil. The word bieguni also refers to wandering or, in many Slavic languages, running or jogging. Similarly, the word ‘flights’ has many interpretations and so Flights reveals a multitude of stories: a Dutch anatomist dissects his own amputated leg; Chopin’s heart makes its way from Paris to Warsaw; a woman reflects that humans have always “slogged around with them millions of bacteria, viruses and diseases”; when its owner departs on a trip, an apartment quietly wonders what has happened — is the owner dead? In one thought-provoking snippet, we follow a plane that leaves Irkutsk at 8:00 and arrives in Moscow at precisely the same time — the entire flight occurs at dawn. In my conversation with Tokarczuk in 2018, she returned again and again to motion and its place in Eastern Europe, where freedom of movement was restricted for decades. I came away from Flights without answers, only more questions. For me, it was the perfect balance of the playful and profound — an invitation to stay restless and keep searching.

Hannah Weber, writer


The Master and Margarita (1966)

by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Diana Burgin & Katherine Tieren O’Connor

This classic novel is an absolute riot. Satan descends on Moscow with his entourage, including a hitman and an enormous talking cat with a vodka problem, and later puts on magic shows for the city’s elite. A writer known only as the Master is locked in an insane asylum after writing a book on Pontius Pilate; his lover flies naked around the USSR after being turned into a witch. There is a great deal of frolicking, alcohol, and flashbacks to first century Jerusalem — all of which makes complete sense in context.

Mikhail Bulgakov drew on the absurd and frightening realities of living in Moscow at the time — he was protected from arrest and execution by Stalin’s favour, but his writing was thwarted by increasingly complex bureaucratic functions at every turn. He burned his initial manuscript and wrote the subsequent drafts “for the drawer”, assuming it would not be safe to publish it in his lifetime. After a private reading, one friend recalled: “Everyone was silent… Everyone sat paralysed. Everything scared them.” The Master and Margarita paints a world where anything is possible but nothing is permitted, inviting us to see what is ludicrous and laughable — the alternative to laughter, of course, is tears.

Hannah Weber, writer


Dervish and the Death (1966)

by Mesa Selimovic, translated by Bogdan Rakic and Stephen M. Dickey

In my public speeches and interviews, I often talk about the dominance of two to three “big” literatures over all other literatures in the world — especially over the literatures of small nations. And this “canon” has nothing to do with the quality of literature. On the contrary. If, for example, the Bosnian writer Mesa Selimovic were a representative of Anglo-, Franco- or Spanish-language literature, he would have been studied by all the literary departments of all universities of the world. But alas, very few people know him, and his major novel is maybe the most underestimated masterpiece of European literature.

The events of the novel unfold in Bosnia during the Ottoman rule. Ahmed Nuruddin is a 40-year-old Sufi Master of the Mevlevi order of dervishes. He lives a secluded life devoted to Allah. However, the unfair trial of his brother and his death overturns everything in his life. He returns to the world of human passions, political intrigue and liberation movement. Tangled by the intrigues of experienced enemies and irritated by internal conflicts, Ahmed Nuruddin ultimately finds hope in a young guy who came from his native village and is probably his son. With him comes acceptance of the death.

Hamid Ismailov, novelist and journalist


Each Day Catches Fire (1971)

par Imants Ziedonis, translated by Bitite Vinklers

Latvia is a country where poetry continues to have an enviably privileged place within culture, with Imants Ziedonis perhaps the most significant and beloved poet of recent decades.

Each Day Catches Fire is a slim volume with poems drawn from throughout Ziedonis’s 50-year career, which began while he was doing odd jobs in Soviet-occupied Latvia in the 1960s. He is most celebrated for his “epiphanies’’ — “little impulses, sparks, in the light of which some moments in our life appear in particularly sharp relief” — and his writing expresses a worldview thrown wide open to experience and the universe, at points reaching a kind of pantheism. One of the most vivid epiphanies replays a childhood journey by horse with his parents, when he became convinced that he had seen God embodied in a field of clover, then in the bees flying over it.

There’s something for me about Ziedonis and his short, beautiful sentences that I cannot untangle from the Latvian language itself, which I speak and love: a language which is laconic and often blunt, but which is infused with a lilting melody, and is particularly well-equipped for describing the natural world.

Will Mawhood, journalist and translator


Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories (2007-19)

by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk and others

For many years, Maxim Osipov worked in a provincial hospital. As a result, he’s garnered a profound understanding of contemporary Russian life, down to the seediest moments, which he conveys without a hint of didacticism. What makes him a great writer, though, is the subtlety with which he allows the many voices in his stories to respond to one another — like a string quartet.

One voice in the title story is that of a well-meaning retired teacher of Russian literature; the second is that of Ksenia — a businesswoman who unfairly blames this teacher for her daughter’s suicide and is set on revenge; the third is that of Ksenia’s most trusted employee, a determined, highly intelligent but taciturn Tajik, called Roxana. All three are drawn to fundamentalisms of different kinds. The teacher believes in the saving power of literature; Ksenia is ready to embrace any faith that might offer her firm ground to stand on. Roxana, too, was once a literature teacher, with a PhD on the work of Andrey Platonov. When civil war destroyed both her family and her country, she embraced Islam with fierce conviction. There was nothing else left in her world.

You often hear people criticise anti-terrorist programmes, taking the UK as an example, for being over-ready to assume that Islamic terrorists are all stupid and uneducated. This story has helped me to understand how and why, when their world seems wrecked, even the most intelligent and highly educated can fall for one of the many kinds of fundamentalism now on offer.

Robert Chandler, translator


Night Circus and Other Stories (2002-2004)

by Ursula Kovalyk, translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood

In this brilliantly surreal collection of feminist short stories, contemporary Slovak author Ursula Kovalyk sets out to redefine gender. “I was fascinated by his masculine yet tiny body, his perfectly formed buttocks and beautifully shaped feet. They never smelled,” says one female narrator who falls in love with a tiny male “creature” she finds by the rubbish bin, and dresses in ballerina skirts; all magic is lost, and the boyfriend dissolves in the rain once her ex teaches the little creature how to drink beer and be a “real man”. Another story introduces us to a female sexual predator who seduces every man she ever wants but ends up married to the wrong partner (her clit is “too large, it’s not normal!” he tells her). Kovalyk’s writing is alternately gentle and brutal, yet full of fresh images, as this opening sentence to a third story shows: “After I committed suicide in my bathroom on 8 May at four in the morning, my soul slipped out of my body like a bar of wet soap from the hands of a clumsy child.” Rich and multifaceted, Night Circus and Other Stories plays to Kovalyk’s strengths, following her acclaimed coming of age debut novel The Equestrian, which tells the story of a girl growing up during the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

Paula Erizanu, Culture Editor of The Calvert Journal


Helping Verbs of the Heart (1985)

by Péter Esterházy, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Inventive and witty, acerbic and moving, provocative, scandalous and metaphysically profound, Péter Esterházy was hailed as a luminary of world literature when he first published his 700-page opus magnum Harmonia Caelestis. Helping Verbs of the Heart is his much earlier and slimmer work, which has no reflection on its depth or conceptual audacity. Written in communist Hungary in the late Kádár years, this mosaic-of-a-novel is impressive for the gravity of the subject matter and the lightness of its narrative. The plot revolves around a mother’s death — specifically, a cruel death in a horrifying state hospital. Esterházy’s writing is incredibly precise in detail but this is peppered with humour and wit, with moments of being painstakingly restrained. Challenging linear time, and depicting scenes of a mother gradually moving towards non-existence in non-chronological order, Esterházy augments his storytelling with random quotes from dozens of his favorite authors and books. The novel becomes permeated with a polyphony of senses and we end up smack in the centre of the mystery of being.

Yuri Andrukhovych, poet and novelist


Other Russias (2016)

by Victoria Lomasko, translated by Thomas Campbell

This is a brilliant and persuasively angry book, truly at the crossroads of journalism and activism. Victoria Lomasko’s graphic reportage conveys a sense of urgency and intimacy that is unique and instantly recognisable. She often draws right on the comic panel, with quotes scribbled alongside in a hurried Russian hand. “I felt the need to complete my drawings on the spot,” she has said, “to serve as a conductor for the energy generated by events as they happened.” As the name suggests, Other Russias gives voice to the people more often left out of the story, both on the international stage and at home — rural villagers, sex workers, inmates in a juvenile prison, long-haul truckers protesting in Khimki — resulting in a rich tapestry of experiences and ideologies. It is the first book I recommend to anyone who is interested in Russia today, or the more widely applicable chasm between people and power. Her portraits imply a different kind of listening than that of regular journalism — listening that is compassionate even in disagreement and that is atune to body language, expression, and a person’s surroundings. The attention to detail, and even which details she chooses to include, say much more about the situation than mere words ever could.

Hannah Weber, writer


Life Begins on Friday (2009)

by Ioana Pârvulescu, translated by Alistair Ian Blythe

Parodying the polite salon language of the 19th century, the novel Life Begins on Friday can be read as a thriller, a historical novel, and a fantasy time-travel story. The book revolves around a journalist and the world he writes about. It follows Dan Creţu, or Dan Kretzu, as he returns from the beginning of the 21st century back to 1897 Bucharest. At the start, we find him in the woods, where he is half-dead and dressed strangely. From here onwards, we take a big dive into Romania’s Belle Époque, an era of peace, prosperity, and great optimism. Juxtaposing that era with the more unstable present day, Life Begins on Friday offers a critique of today’s Romania, a country that is “like an orchestra, rehearsing all the time on instruments while there is still no announcement for a concert”. Winning the European Union Prize for Literature in 2013, the novel is Ioana Părvulescu’s fiction debut, which follows two decades of non-fiction writing, including a book on the everyday life and cultural history of 19th century Romania.

Lidija Dimkovska, poet, novelist and translator


The White Ship (1970)

by Chinghiz Aitmatov, translated by Mirra Ginsburg

Kyrgyzstan’s literary son, Chingiz Aitmatov, is most famous for his 1958 novel Jamila, which the French surrealist poet Louis Aragon breathlessly declared “the most beautiful love story in the world”. But Aitmatov was not a romantic. He was clear-eyed, often writing of cruelty, injustice, and greed. Published in 1970, The White Ship tackles big topics, such as our need to belong, and environmental disasters. In the story, an orphan dreams of morphing into a fish. That way, he can meet his father who, he believes, sails the white ship on Kyrgyzstan’s lake Issyk-Kul, an area of outstanding beauty, known during Soviet-era as ”the pearl of Kirghizia”. While this may sound whimsical, the story is gritty: there is the tyrant Orozkul who sells logs from the precious Forest Preserve, and then there is the climax, where the suicide of the book’s hero, a seven‐year‐old boy, sees Aitmatov step into the novel and question his own role and artistic integrity as a writer. Writing in both his native Kyrgyz and in Russian, Aitmatov was translated into more than 150 languages. He died in 2008, the same year Turkey nominated him, as a writer of Kyrgyz, a Turkic language, for the 2008 Nobel prize for literature. Today, monuments, schools, and theatres are named after him in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city. If you write about Central Asia, it is vital to read Aitmatov, as to read him is to begin to understand Kyrgyzstan, from its complicated clan structures to its sweeping mysticism.

Caroline Eden, writer


Negative Space (2012-2015)

by Luljeta Lleshanaku, translated by Ani Gjika

“Children dragged church bells by the tongue. / (Why didn’t they think of this before?) / Overnight, the dome was demolished, instantly revealing / a myriad of nameless stars that chased the crowd / like flies on a dead horse”, Luljeta Lleshanaku writes, with rich cadences and haunting beauty, in her poem “Negative Space”. Coming from a family persecuted by the Hoxha regime, Lleshanaku grew up under house arrest, experiencing early on what it meant to be a state enemy in a society disfigured by dictatorship. She notes the experience in her more overtly political lines: “I grew up in a big house/ where weakness and expressions of joy/ deserved punishment./ And I was raised on the via politica/ with the grease of yesterday’s glories,” she writes in Via Politica, while also expanding on mass Albanian migration and its discontents, “And those in particular who went farthest away/ never speak of their annoying history/ of wretched survival, burying it/ in the darkest crevices on their being./ Unfortunately, as with perfume, its scent/ lingers there for much, much longer.” Constantly moving between the remote past and the fleeting present, between complex science and the mundane, the personal, the collective, and the imagined, what strikes me about Lleshanaku’s poetry, and about this collection in particular, is a remarkable and often bitter acceptance of fate, as the following lines from “Water and Carbon” show: “But this doesn’t fit chemistry laws. Water and carbon’s only mission/ is to stay alive at all costs./ And to stay alive they need just basic instincts,/ basic like words and phrases in a small pocket dictionary/ tourists use in foreign lands.

Manjola Nasi, poet


The Captive Mind (1953)

by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Jane Zielonko

Many fine works by the so-called dissent writers of the communist world have fallen out of favour since the end of the Cold War, but it would be an unforgivable travesty if this fate befell The Captive Mind, a truly indispensable book by great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz. It is many things: a compelling memoir of its author’s own experiences in a dark period of Polish history, an account of the lives of four literary figures of his time (referred to using the pseudonyms alpha, beta, gamma, and delta), and, most importantly, a meditation on the actual internal realities of writers and intellectuals in a Stalinist space. The experience of reading the poet’s unforgettable description of how a liberal humanist can become a convinced Stalinist is a crucible that every thoughtful person owes it to themselves— and their fellow citizens — to undergo.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poet and translator


The Life of Arseniev (1927-33)

by Ivan Bunin, translated by Gleb Struve and Hamish Miles

Next to the likes of Chekhov and Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin is often overlooked by modern readers, despite the fact that he literally won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 1933 — and was, in fact, the first Russian writer to do so. Bunin is a fantastic short story writer, but he is equally terrific as a novelist, which is where The Life of Arseniev comes in.

The Life of Arseniev is often described as an autobiographical novel, but I think it’s best to approach it as a work of pure fiction, with only a few autobiographical details thrown in. The book captures Bunin’s joie-de-vivre with brutal honesty about life’s imperfect, never fully wholesome texture, and captures a dream-like vision of a Russia that’s gone forever. Bunin’s prose is vivid, startling, and almost unbearably emotionally honest, without falling into sentimentality — I first read it in a hammock under the stars with a flashlight for company, while visiting friends in the Russian countryside, knowing right then and there that the experience would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Natalia Antonova, journalist


Nostalgia (1989)

by Mircea Cărtărescu, translated by Julian Semilian

This is a collection of magical realist short stories that are both timeless and rooted in Bucharest’s streets, concrete socialist tower blocks, courtyards, and trenches. The stories are told from the perspectives of a variety of unconnected characters: a dying, pre-war Russian roulette player; a communist-era, Messiah-like child figure entrancing his peers in their block of flats; an adolescent couple whose gender identities fuse in an echo of Plato’s myth of the Androgynous. When I read it as a teenager, I was hooked by the visceral, fresh language that brings the stories together, as well as Nostalgia’s daring depiction of child and adolescent social dynamics and sexuality. A mesmerising read, parts of Nostalgia were first published in Romania in 1989 under the title The Dream, followed by a full publication in 1993. Given Romanian literature’s unjustly small presence in the English language book market, it took until 2005 for Nostalgia to be translated into English in the US, where it was marketed as a “postmodern novel”. In the UK, the book is being reprinted by Penguin in their World Classics collection in May 2021.

Paula Erizanu, Culture Editor of The Calvert Journal


Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead (2009)

by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

I discovered the writings of Olga Tokarczuk as a student and have since been fascinated by the unique way in which she managed to pour political content into the form of a sophisticated and original literary experiment. Drive your plough over the bones of the dead mixes the hypnotic intricacy of literary fiction with the subversive energy of a political manifesto, producing an all-encompassing marvel. Set in the rural wilderness of Poland, the story borrows the mechanisms of detectives and thrillers to address a range of themes, including our relationship with nature, greed, and consumption, alternative sources of knowledge, the power of friendship and, last but not least, the joys and sorrows of feminism. Tokarczuk is masterful and surprising in her tongue-in-cheek play with the archetypal heroes and villains of old fairy tales, and their carnavalesque rise and fall.

Alina Purcaru, critic and journalist


Alindarka’s Children (2014)

by Alhierld Bakharevich, translated by Jim Dingley and Petra Reid

“What language does the witness speak?” asks contemporary Belarusian author Alhierld Bakharevich in his novel Alindarka’s Children, which explores the painful loss of one’s mother tongue. The protagonists of this novel are children treated inside special conversion camps installed in order to rid them of their genetic disease: the Belarusian language. What does it mean to send out a Belarusian-speaking child into the Russian-speaking Belarusian society that sees everything native as a pathology? According to a medical theory presented by one character, a doctor, Belarusian children are born with a particular kind of swelling under their tongue, predisposing them to the “unhealthy Belarusian language”, which, he argues, needs to be surgically removed. But what would happen if one were to hide their child from the tongue-snipping authorities? Alindarka’s Children blends fairy tale, non-fiction, poetry, and a dystopia rooted in the experience and imagination of post-independence Belarus. Language and trauma are intertwined, in Bakharevich’s eyes. While the wounds of the past remain unspeakable, they manifest themselves in the present as the choice between the mother tongue and the language of the empire. Bakharevich reminds us that, while we may have a desire to speak about memory, history, and trauma, we are stalled at the mouth, which, whether silenced or speaking, remains a place of political conflict.

Valzhyna Mort, poet


Days in the Caucasus (1945)

by Banine, translated by Anne Thompson-Ahmadova

Ummulbanu Asadullayeva’s 1945 memoir Days in the Caucasus, published in Paris under the nom de plume Banine, opens with a series of admissions that could come off as either chilling or maudlin, if it had been written by anybody else. But the remarkably world-wise Banine takes a different tack. Born in 1905 — a year “full of strikes, pogroms, massacres, and other displays of human genius” — to an Azerbaijani family made fabulously rich by the discovery of oil on their “stony land” some decades earlier, the author admits full responsibility for her role in the violence of that historical moment: “No one would have considered me capable of taking part in the work of destruction, but I clearly was, since I killed my mother as I came into the world.” Many more hardships and losses are to follow (the Bolshevik takeover of Baku, a coerced marriage to a much older man, a perilous flight to the West), but it is all made bearable by the buoyancy of Banine’s prose, her eye for the absurd, her tart, yet tender wit. A worthy younger contemporary of Teffi, who praised Days of the Caucuses when it first appeared, Banine offers us an invaluable, irresistibly readable portrait of a way of life eclipsed by the cataclysms of the 20th century. On my own shelf, Anne Thompson-Ahmadova’s graceful translation from the French sits comfortably beside the English edition of Teffi’s own Memories, beautifully rendered from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Anne Marie Jackson, and Irina Steinberg, and also published by Pushkin Press.

Boris Dralyuk, translator


Odessa Stories (1931)

by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk

Isaac Babel deserves to be called the poster-child of the mad and intoxicating Soviet 1920s. The narrator of his best-known collection, Red Cavalry, a geeky, shortsighted, and effete Jewish intellectual strongly reminiscent of Babel himself, has embraced the Bolshevik cause and enthusiastically tags along with the Red Army on its ecstatic blood-stained course through the ruined landscapes of the Civil War that followed the 1917 revolution. At the same time, Babel also wrote the Odessa Stories but he mostly set the tales in the pre-revolutionary world of the Jewish quarter of Odesa (a mellow seaport on the Black Sea). The stories contain some of the same casually brutal violence that pervades the Cavalry stories, but the perpetrators are outrageously charming Jewish gangsters and their equally vivid fellow citizens. Babel’s prose is a gorgeous expressionist free-for-all, and the melancholy and hilarious Yiddish-inflected dialogues in the Odessa Stories are to die for. I probably love both of these collections equally, but Odessa Stories has been the beneficiary of a spectacular translation by Boris Dralyuk. A native son of Odesa himself, Boris has devoted considerable energy to translating the piquant and distinctive Odesan sense of humor into English. He gets a real boost from the fact that quite a few Yiddish-speakers from his home region ended up in the US, particularly New York, more or less around the same time Babel was writing; Dralyuk brilliantly mines this 1920s-30s idiom to make his Odesan gangsters sound simultaneously Moldovankan and Al Caponeish.

Ainsley Morse, academic and translator


Five Plays (The Black Hole, Shades of Babel, Sarajevo, Odysseus, Figurae Veneris Historiae) (1987-2014)

by Goran Stefanovski, translated by Patricia Marsh

Poking fun at his own nationality, the Balkans, the tragicomical history of Eastern Europe, and the myths of the West, Five Plays, by leading Macedonian playwright Goran Stefanovski, pries open the locked drawers of the human soul, posing existential questions, and giving nuanced life-affirming answers. Stefanovski’s plays do not moralise or justify the actions of his heroes. Instead, they explore the conflict between his characters and the world, often-times landing in the arena of identity politics. His plays are rich in references to literature of the past: 1980s’ “The Black Hole” is based on a Macedonian folk tale about a young man, Silyan, cursed by his parents to wander restlessly after disrespecting them. Stefanovski’s last performed play, the 2014 “Figurae Veneris Historiae”, is an original and ironic answer to German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld’s question of whether authentic love and sex is possible in today’s society.

Lidija Dimkovska, poet, novelist and translator


Childe Harold of Dysna (1928–1933)

by Moyshe Kulbak, translated by Robert Adler Peckerar

Most contemporary Anglophone readers will still see Yiddish culture and its literary legacy through the lens of Fiddler on the Roof: shtetl-bound, traditional, sentimental. Any such reader who chances upon Moyshe Kulbak’s high-modern Childe Harold of Dysna (1928–1933) is in for a dizzying surprise. This Byronic tale of a well-read but not especially practical young man’s sojourn in Weimar Berlin not only reveals the flexibility of Yiddish as a literary language, but is also, put simply, a pleasure to read. Neither the revelation, nor the pleasure would be accessible to Anglophone readers were it not for an electrifying new translation by Robert Adler Peckerar. Open the book at random and get a jolt: “O Wond’rous Land! Where electricity passes / Through wires, and through arteries — champagne — / Where Marx and Engels cheer the working masses / And shop-keeps swear by Kant’s immortal name.” Read it straight through, and see the promise of artistic and economic freedom succumb to the forces of bourgeois hypocrisy and capitalist exploitation. Kulbak’s poem was written in Soviet Minsk, to which he had immigrated in pursuit of that same promise of freedom. He was arrested and killed in the Stalinist Purges of 1937, but his Childe Harold remains resolutely, irrepressibly vital in both Yiddish and English.

Boris Dralyuk, translator


The Mountain and the Wall (2012)

by Alisa Ganieva, translated by Carol Apollonio

With her debut novel The Mountain and the Wall, Alisa Ganieva became the first Dagestani author to have their work translated into English. The dystopian tale follows a community in turmoil amid rumours that the Russian government plans to build a wall cutting off the Caucasus’ Muslim provinces from the rest of the country. Ganieva’s writing fizzes with the tense energy of a community beginning to grasp that a catastrophe is nearly upon them. The novel ostensibly follows Shmil, a Dagestani journalist, and his veiled girlfriend Madina, but documenting individual lives is never more important for Ganieva than exploring the power and personality of the crowd; her work is at once amusing and down to earth, contemporary and prescient.

Nadia Beard, editor-in-chief of The Calvert Journal


Thank You For Not Reading (1996-2000)

by Dubravka Ugrešić, translated by Celia Hawkesworth

Dubravka Ugrešić’s collection of essays Thank You For Not Reading is a biting commentary on our contemporary world. Through a series of sharp, acerbic essays — such as “Eco among the Nudists”, “How I Could Have Been Ivana Trump and Where I Went Wrong” and “The Role of Kirk Douglas in My Life” — the Croatian author laments the decline of the world’s literature into a commercial enterprise propped up by mediocre agents, ostentatious book fairs, and vain editors who pose for photos in front of bookshelves to look important. Political and polemical, she suggests that the best way to secure a book deal is to be a sportsman or the girlfriend of a renowned murderer, as opposed to a serious author. Ugrešić might be described as a disobedient author; she playfully shines a light into the corners of truth the cultural establishment would rather not acknowledge. But don’t trust this blurb or my sales pitch, as Ugrešić would attest. Read the book, even if she tells you not to.

Matthew Janney, writer


The Lost Country (2002)

by Luminița Cioabă, translated by Adam J. Sorkin and Cristina Cirstea

This magical collection of fairy tales transports readers to a world of spells, intense passion, and overbearing customs, all shared from a female perspective. Romany and Romanian-language author, Luminița Cioabă, is one of the few remaining Roma-Romanians born within a semi-nomadic community, and the stories in the book were passed down to Cioabă by her grandmother. Using vivid prose and images, the book opens up the traditions of these lost nomadic Roma communities through fairy tales and legends. They include stories of the nightingale who gifted her song to Roma people, founding their rich music tradition, or fables used to teach the importance of ancient Roma customs. Cioabă herself is also a poet, researcher, filmmaker, and translator. She has recently translated the Bible into Romany language for the first time, and has had her autobiographical debut novel published — a book that tells both her own story, and the story of her father, an influential Romany Romanian king, famous for having persuaded the post-communist Romanian government to return the gold stolen from Roma communities during the persecutions of Ceaușescu’s regime. Cioabă is also one of the first writers to publish a book of interviews with Roma Holocaust survivors in Romania.

Paula Erizanu, Culture Editor of The Calvert Journal


Russia is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War (1939-1950)

edited by Maria Bloshteyn

A vast amount of poetry was published in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, in mass-circulation army and civilian newspapers, in journals, and in books. Not all of it was mere propaganda. Most widely read of all were Konstantin Simonov’s love poems. In the words of one of his editors, “In February 1942, when the Germans were being driven back from Moscow, Pravda published a poem which immediately won the hearts of our troops, called “Wait for me!”. Soldiers cut it out of the paper, copied it out as they sat in the trenches, learned it by heart, and sent it back in letters to wives and girlfriends; it was found in the breast pockets of the killed and wounded. In the history of Russian poetry, it would be hard to find a poem which had been so widespread. Maria Bloshteyn’s bilingual anthology includes well-known names like Simonov, as well as verses written by front-line soldiers, by civilians in besieged Leningrad, by Gulag inmates and by prisoners-of-war. To me, it was an eye-opener. As the main translator of Vasily Grossman’s war novels, I need to be able to see the German-Soviet war from as many different perspectives as possible. And, in a world where poetry seems ever more irrelevant to most people, it is a reminder of how potent a force it can be.

Robert Chandler, translator


Dancing in Odessa (2004)

by Ilya Kaminsky

Arguably the Brodsky heir of émigré poets, the Soviet Jewish Ilya Kaminsky immigrated to the States with his family under political asylum as a teenager, leaving his native Odesa behind. Only a year later, the young Kaminsky was already writing poems in English. Dancing in Odessa, his first full-length poetry collection published in 2004, won the Whiting Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, and the Dorset Prize, earning a reputation as an early masterpiece. Kaminsky is often lauded for the way he makes the English language sing — a notable feat for the exiled prodigy who went deaf at the age of four. This rare book is an ode not only to Odesa the city, but Odesa as a placeholder in time, a shelter for the separated self, where the outdated and outlived still move to the tempo of memory. “The city trembled, /a ghost-ship setting sail. / And my classmate invented twenty names for Jew. / He was an angel, he had no name, /we wrestled, yes,” one poem goes.

Yelena Moskovich, novelist


On Sunday Morning She Gathered Herbs (1909)

by Olha Kobylianska, translated by Mary Skrypnyk

Gathering herbs on a Sunday morning sounds like something undeniably wholesome and healing. But what can heal can also kill. This is a leitmotif in the work of Olha Kobylianska, a preeminent Ukrainian classic who remains woefully under-read and under-translated abroad, and this slim novel from 1909 is no exception. Her herbs refer to the stuff of magical potions and poisons, the property of enchanters and enchantresses. The plot, which derives from a famous folk song about a love triangle culminating in the man’s lethal poisoning (with the said herbs) by one of his two female lovers, is pure melodrama with a moral lesson. And one could certainly read it as such — the embedded musical scenes and the refrain-like repetitions of fraught dialogue are only too obliging. But reading for the unique nuances is much more interesting. Take Kobylianska’s cast of strong yet ambivalent female protagonists, one Romani, one pegged down as “Turkic,” one naively blue-eyed. Or her brief but sultry descriptions of the magical-by-default Carpathian setting, which gives much of modern-day fantasy a run for its money. Or, perhaps most significantly, nowadays, for her attempts to negotiate otherness, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes provocatively, and sometimes laced with love and empathy.

Yuliya Komska, academic


Resurrection (1899)

by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Anthony Briggs

Published in 1899, Tolstoy’s last novel, Resurrection, is a sharp critique of the punitive and bureaucratic nature of the judiciary and jury system, which was first implemented in Russia in 1864. In one trial, which decides the fate of one poor young woman’s fate, the judge seems more concerned with his upcoming lunch than the defendant. One member of the jury, meanwhile, experiences a moral awakening, as he realises that the woman being falsely accused of murder is, in fact, the maid he had fallen in love with as a young man, and later raped. Tolstoy’s masterful psychological insights, omniscient narration, and page-turning plot come together in full force to promote his late Christian anarchic beliefs and lifestyle, and attack institutionalised religion for its perpetuation of cruelty — a view, for which he got excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church two years later. Indeed, one of Tolstoy’s disagreeable characters, Toporov, who manages the religious Synod in the novel, is based on the real-life conservative advisor to the Tsar Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the mastermind behind pre-revolutionary repressions (and the inspiration for Karenin in Anna Karenina). Tandis que Resurrection was Tolstoy’s best sold novel during his lifetime, it’s a pity it is now lesser known than his other writings.

Paula Erizanu, The Calvert Journal Culture Editor


Notes from the Blockade (1988)

by Lydia Ginzburg, translated by Alan Meyers and Angela Livingstone

Lydia Ginzburg was born in 1902 but spent most of her formidably long life in St Petersburg/Leningrad, experiencing the infamous 900 days of the Siege of Leningrad that took place between 1941–1944, during which over half a million people succumbed to hunger and bombings. Notes from the Blockade contains her extraordinarily estranged and intellectual account of this experience, titled “Notes of a Blockade Person”. A writer and literary scholar, Ginzburg studied with the great Formalist critics Viktor Shklovsky and Yuri Tynianov. Written in the Formalist tradition, her Notes are a methodical analysis of the indignities and horrors of day-to-day life during the Siege: the hunger, ubiquitous death, inhumanity, and indifference that the narrator N. observes in himself and those around him. Amazingly — perhaps because of the distance afforded by N. — a wry, dry sense of humour is retained throughout. This edition contains several other pieces written on the same and adjacent subjects, and offers a view into Ginzburg’s fascinating, genre-resistant writing, little else of which has been translated.

Ainsley Morse, academic and translator


The King of the Rattling Spirits (2001)

par Miha Mazzini, translated by Maja Visenjak-Limon

Set in Yugoslavia, in 1973, the novel follows a 12-year-old boy living in a small industrial Slovenian town with his single mother and grandmother — who are in conflict with one another. Tito’s images are everywhere. The mother is emotionally neglectful of Egon, while his madly religious granny, traumatised by the First World War, keeps having hallucinations of dead souls, making the boy apologise for stepping on them all the time. Besides his fraught domestic situation, Egon is sexually abused by his sadistic gym teacher at school. The boy finds solace in escapism: he strives to forge a new identity as the king of the rattling spirits, while also desperately trying to find a new record player to get popular with girls. Despite the dark subject matter, the novel recognises the funny moments in life and draws heavily on human folly throughout. Based on the award-winning Slovenian feature film Sweet Dreams (2001), the book, published that same year, has been translated into six languages, most recently into French.

Andrej Pleterski, translator


The Life Written by Himself (1660)

by the Archpriest Avvakum, translated by Kenneth N. Brostrom

I am, in some ways, in disbelief that I have even read these memoirs of a 17th-century Russian priest written from a prison cell in the Russian Arctic. Though upon reflection, it seems stranger that more people, particularly those with an interest in Russia’s relationship to the West, have not given these some serious attention. Avvakum was arrested (and eventually burned at the stake) for his part in a movement that came to be known as the “Old Believers.” Principally, they resisted the Patriarch’s efforts to reform the Russian Orthodox Church so as to bring it closer in line with Western religious practices. Avvakum threads the story of his life with damning indictments of how eager his contemporaries were to absorb the tastes and predilections of the West, a path he believed would lead to spiritual bankruptcy. No wonder then that though written in the 1670s, Avvakum’s memoirs were not published until 1861, when they offered fresh grist for the polemics between the Slavophiles and Westernisers.

Jennifer Wilson, writer


Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry (1952-63)

by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris

“Black milk of morning we drink you evenings/ we drink you at noon and mornings/ we drink you at night/ we drink and we drink/ we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease,” goes one poem in this collection of Paul Celan’s first four volumes of poetry, published in an English translation by Pierre Joris, making the German-writing Jewish Romanian poet’s entire corpus available in English for the first time. One of the greatest poets of postwar Germany, Celan wrote on the horrors of the war, to great acclaim, but this new translation brings into light his wider work. His poetry creates a complex and dark world, where layers of meaning keep appearing with each reading. The publication of Celan’s poems in the order he meant them to be read makes his recurring themes more apparent, with nature and theology, or the question of the existence of God, standing out as persistent motifs. Born in a Jewish family in multilingual Chernivtsi in 1920, then part of Romania, Celan’s mastery of and love for language are visible throughout his writing. His agility with it is shown in his invention of compound nouns, or opening up worlds of meaning for simple words, creating an innovative language that was significant in reimagining the world after the Holocaust — which he survived, but his parents did not.

Madeleine Nosworthy, The Calvert Journal Marketing Coordinator


Panorama (2007)

by Dušan Šarotar, translated by Rawley Grau

This memoir-like book on exile from a distinguished Slovenian writer, poet, and screenwriter begins in present-day Ireland, moves to Belgium, and eventually ends up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The protagonist is a writer gone abroad to work on his manuscript, meeting emigrants and/or travellers coming largely from the former Yugoslavia. The narrator confronts their experiences with his own quest for self-discovery, meditating upon the feelings of longing and belonging, as landscapes change in the backdrop. Punctuated by flashbacks, the writing feels therapeutic, an author’s attempt to reach inner peace. Šarotar’s gracefully undulating sentences are perfectly in line with the novel’s melancholic mood. For good measure, the atmosphere of this somewhat atypical novel without chapters is accentuated by black-and-white photos taken by the author. In just four years, Panorama has been translated into seven languages. He has also enjoyed international success with his more classical historical novel Billiards at the Hotel Dobray marked by the same poetic style.

Andrej Pleterski, translator


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962)

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Ralph Parker

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, a novel depicting the horrors of the communist Gulag, was published in 1962, in the November issue of the literary magazine Novyi Mir. Its publication was not only the literary decision of its author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or of the editorial board of the magazine, but of Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev himself.

For Khruschev, this was a political ploy designed to dismantle the myth of Stalin; by showing the horrors of the Stalinist detention camps. Solzhenitsyn was not the only writer involved in it; also in November 1962, the magazine Izvestia published another, even more naturalistic novel describing the same horrors, Georgi Shelest’s Kolyma Notes.

If we remember have practically completely forgotten Shelest’s books, yet we admire One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, this is due to Solzhenitsyn’ Tolstoyan realism. The book is Tolstoy descended in the communist inferno, telling his tale with a tremendous force, historical and human truth behind every character and every page.

Ivan Denisovitch was the first novel to expose the cruelty of the communist Gulag in the western world; and, when Khruschev realised his strategical error, he tried to stop it by banning Solzhenitsyn. But it was too late. As Solzhenitsyn writes in his memoirs, Behind Two Millstones, sometimes a grain is enough to block the millstones.

Radu Vancu, poet, writer and academic


The Snows of Yesteryear (1989)

par Gregor von Rezzori, translated by H. F. Broch de Rothermann,

Despite its extended intervals in Vienna and Transylvania, The Snows of Yesteryear is, more than anything else, a story of Bukovina: a region now split between Romania and Ukraine, which was once the far-flung crown land of Austria. The author and sometime actor Gregor von Rezzori had an extraordinary and bizarre life, from serving in the interwar Romanian Army, to presenting a light entertainment show on Austrian TV. But he returned again and again in his fiction to Bukovina and its capital Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi), where he was born in 1914. Back then, this was a multiethnic region of Jews, Germans, Ukrainians, Romanians, Poles, and many other ethnicities and faiths — a place where, as von Rezzori puts it, “there was no majority”. A few years afterwards, Bukovina found itself a remote, multicultural fringe of Greater Romania; one war later, and Czernowitz was under Soviet control, much of its diversity just a memory.

The Snows of Yesteryear is made up of impressionistic portraits of the wildly eccentric members of his family, German-speaking, and thus awkwardly post-imperial in interwar Czernowitz. Relationships are fraught and mutually damaging, history and prejudice reach deep into — and distort — personalities; but the descriptions of the landscapes and peoples of Bukovina are intoxicating: loving, meticulously crafted, and delighting in their particularity.

Will Mawhood, journalist


The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1949)

by Victor Serge, translated by Willard R. Trask

Born in Belgium, and officially stateless, Victor Serge was very much shaped by his Russian origins and the 1917 revolution. From anarchist beginnings, Serge arrived in Petrograd in 1919, and joined the Bolsheviks, serving in the Communist International, and working closely with the revolutionary leadership. An ally of Trotsky and consistent opponent of Stalin, he was expelled from the party at the end of the 1920s, served time in prison and internal exile, and left the Soviet Union in 1936. Following a precarious life in France, Serge died in Mexico City in 1947. Like Dostoevsky, Serge combined novels of ideas with adventure stories. He does that nowhere better than in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, which I’d recommend as the best place to start exploring his works. The novel isn’t by any means a roman à clef, though it’s easy to see the murder of the popular Leningrad party boss Sergei Kirov as its inspiration. It is nevertheless the novel that to my mind most perfectly captures the process and impact of the Stalinist terror. A contagious suspicion, it spreads from one victim to the next, resembling an epidemic. In its exploration of the complexities of innocence and guilt, and the effects of arrest on the inner lives of victims and perpetrators, Serge’s ability to place himself in the minds of his characters has no better expression.

Sarah Young, academic


The Temptation to Exist (1956)

par Emil Cioran, translated by Richard Howard

I became an addicted reader of Emil Cioran (1901-1995) a decade ago, following my visit to the Romanian town of Sibiu, where the philosopher grew up. After emigrating to Paris in 1937, he spent the rest of his life in the French capital, renouncing his Romanian past as a nationalistic delusion. Cioran’s The Temptation to Exist (1956) is a collection of 11 essays, full of dark insights and bitter irony, in which he paradoxically extols the experience of alienation and exile, loss of faith, death, and political tyranny, as creative factors of spiritual survival. “In continual rebellion against my ancestry, I have spent my whole life wanting to be something else: Spanish, Russian, cannibal — anything, except what I was,” he declared in one essay, “The Trouble with Being Born”. Translated from French by the poet Richard Howard 10 years after they were first published, these essays could now be interpreted as Cioran’s self-exposure and recantation of his youthful crypto-Fascist ideological obsessions in Romania of the 1920s and 1930s.

Zinovy Zinik, writer


My Husband (2014)

by Rumena Bužarovska, translated by Paul Filev

Rumena Bužarovska’s stories constitute a powerful, angry, sometimes grotesque, and comic response to the patriarchy stifling the women of North Macedonia. My Husband, translated into English in 2019, consists of 11 short stories told from a range of women’s perspectives, which expose the lies, hypocrisy, and violence that result from (and then help perpetuate) the patriarchy. Bužarovska’s narrators marry vainglorious poets, creepy gynecologists, brutish control freaks, and emotionally distant adulterers, and then take years to fully recognise the nausea-inducing relationships they’re in. Trapped in these relationships for economic or social reasons, many of the women turn their bitterness and hatred towards other women. While the world Bužarovska portrays is bleak, it is also a world that readers across the former Yugoslavia recognise all too well. Indeed, her last two collections of short stories are bestsellers across the region. It is fitting, then, that Bužarovska was one of the founders of the Macedonian online #MeToo movement a few years back. While her stories might come from an activist’s political rage, they are complex, conflicted, and don’t offer easy answers. Like American novelist Flannery O’Connor, Bužarovska takes pleasure in punishing her characters and saves much of her venom for her narrators.

Daniel Petrick, journalist


Life Went On Anyway (2019)

by Oleg Sentsov, translated by Uilleam Blacker

Known mainly as a Ukrainian filmmaker and activist, Sentsov drew worldwide attention on Russian corruption after he went on a 145-day hunger strike in 2018 to protest the incarceration of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. He was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament for his act of courage. He himself was imprisoned for five years, being released the next year. His short story collection, Life Went On Anyway, could well be the maxim for the post-Soviet climate at large, but the autobiographical prose doesn’t speak a word on his Euromaidan activism, or militancy for justice, but rather takes on the delicate axioms of childhood with a weightless honesty. “Everybody says that childhood is the happiest time in your life. Agreed,” begins the short story entitled “Childhood”, an unexpected homage to unguarded innocence. Others, like “Hospital”, “School”, and “Grandma”, tell deceptively simple stories that remodel the essence of narrative as a practice of accountability and reckoning with shame. “I would never have thought it would be harder to bury my dog than my father,” Sentsov admits in “Dog”. This sparse, pristine collection exemplifies the power of storytelling in the face of a culture of Goliaths, which glorifies toxic masculinity.

Yelena Moskovich, novelist


Hurramabad (2000)

by Andrei Volos, translated by Arch Tait

Named after a mythical city of joy and happiness, Andrei Volos’ Hurramabad is a towering work of art constructed of seven interlinked novellas following the Russian community in Tajikistan after the collapse of the USSR. Inspired by Chekhovian realism, Volos’s vivid prose captures the everyday life of fictional Hurramabad, with snippets of overheard conversations at a market, gossip from the elderly of the neighbourhood, and the trials and tribulations of the Tajiks and Russians. From the Russian woman who, after settling with her husband by the banks of the Amur-Daria river, is forced to leave her beloved’s grave and her home for good, to the scientist who, after falling in love with Dushanbe, loses his job in a research institute to work in the bazaar, or the man who takes up arms when the Tajik civil war forces him to abandon his home, Volos’s colourful imagery evokes a portrait of the idiosyncrasies of Tajik society, while denouncing the authorities that stood by and watched the early swell of conflict. Born in Dushanbe into a Russian family, Volos wrote Hurramabad in 1998, a few years after his family was evicted from Tajikistan. Beyond the layers of nostalgia for an idealised place that no longer exists, Hurramabad is a gripping testimony of the pandemonium of Tajik society on the brink of war.

Lucia de la Torre, The Calvert Journal staff writer


A Dream in Polar Fog (1970)

par Yuri Rytkheu, translated by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse

I studied Russian literature as both an undergraduate and a PhD student, which is to say — a lifetime. Over that period, I was never assigned a single work by an indigenous author. Siberia was by and large presented as a barren stretch of earth where political prisoners — seemingly the only people who ever stepped foot there — were sent. There are an estimated 180 ethnic groups in Russia, with about 40 recognised as indigenous, many of which reside in the Russian North and Siberia. Their economy and way of life has been deeply impacted by climate change and Putin’s Arctic ambitions. As such, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more writing by indigenous authors from Russia, starting with the Chukchi novelist Yuri Rytkheu. Right now, I am reading his A Dream in Polar Fog. It is about a Canadian sailor who is shipwrecked off the coast of the Chukotka peninsula and is rescued by the local community. The novel is in many ways a typical Arctic adventure tale, but within it is a heartfelt ethnographic portrait of Chukchi culture and history.

Jennifer Wilson, writer


Heirs to the great sinner Sheikh San’on (2010)

by Erkin A’zam, translated by A’zam Abidov and Carol Ermakova

Erkin A’zam is one of the leading contemporary Uzbek writers. At the same time, he is a screenwriter of many award-winning films, as well as a playwright, whose plays are shown on the stages of Uzbekistan’s best known theatres. The book Heirs to the great sinner Sheikh San’on presents various sides of Erkin A’zam’s work, including the novel Din, several novellas, and short stories. The collection’s core work, Din tells the story of an Uzbek writer who came to Moscow in the early 1990s for medical treatment. As a result of flu complications, he developed an unbearable noise in his ears. This noise becomes a metaphor for what is happening in the collapsing Soviet Empire. That world is falling apart, the usual way of life is destroyed, human families and destinies are broken. In addition to this chaotic kaleidoscope, the famous legend about the Sufi Sheikh San’on, who, in his old age, fell in love with a giaour girl and therefore renounced his faith, rises like an arch. Modernity and history, reportage and myth, Empire and man, all merge together in this beautifully orchestrated Din.

Hamid Ismailov, novelist and journalist


Shadows on the Tundra (1991)

by Dalia Grinkevičiutė, translated by Delija Valiukenas

Following the forced annexation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union in 1940, 14-year-old Dalia Grinkevičiūtė is deported to Siberia with her mother and brother, like tens of thousands of others. They end up on an island called Trofimovsk deep inside the Arctic Circle. Tasked with punishing manual labour in impossible conditions, the deportees are tormented by hunger, disease, and the harshness of winter.

For all its bleakness, moments of despair, and justified anger, images of people broken down to the essentials of their character, it’s an admirably fair book, one that always seems to judge without prejudice: not only the Lithuanian, and Finnish deportees, but the Russians, Yakuts, and others who live alongside them, those who exploit them, or try to help them.

The book was retrieved from the ground after a 50-year interval. In 1949, Grinkevičiūtė illegally fled back to Lithuania with her dying mother; in Kaunas, she hurriedly wrote down her memories of exile, before burying them, suspecting she was being watched by the security services. They were discovered only in 1991, four years after her death, just as a restored Lithuania was being recognised internationally, and has since become part of the postwar Lithuanian canon.

Will Mawhood, journalist


Invitation to a Beheading (1935)

written and translated by Vladimir Nabokov

According to Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading was written in a single fortnight of “wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration”, as he put aside an incomplete draft of his subsequent novel, The Gift. Published in 1936, Invitation to a Beheading is Nabokov’s penultimate novel in Russian before his forced emigration to America and transformation into an American author. The book takes place in a nightmarish prison where Cincinnatus C. has been condemned to death for the crime of “gnostical turpitude”. Reality, however, appears unstable, circular, glitchy: time and space seem to fold in on themselves while characters shift identities as if changing in and out of costume backstage. Invitation to a Beheading was one of the first books I discovered by Nabokov, and remains one I return to often. For so many of Nabokov’s primordial elements are there: doubles, the dull ache of exile, the slippery line between fiction and reality, the repudiation of thoughtless evil and most notably, his lifelong intuition for “potustoronost’” or, the otherworld. And even in this dark, Kafkaesque setting, you’ll find the fluttering presence of a moth, that winged being that so often finds a habitat in Nabokov’s enticing prose.

Matthew Janney, writer


Tongue Set Free (1977)

by Elias Canetti, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

A Nobel Prize for Literature recipient in 1981, Elias Canetti was born in the Balkans, spent his formative years in Vienna, before living a nomadic life across Europe. Among Canetti’s varied works, his trilogy of literary memoirs stand out for their intimate recounting of interwar Mitteleuropa, featuring George Grosz, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and other high profile friends and acquaintances. But the first volume, Tongue Set Free, which covers his childhood in Danubian Ruschuk (today Ruse, Bulgaria) evokes for me the deepest sense of wonder at a lost world. Canetti, born in 1905, grew up speaking Bulgarian and Ladino, the Spanish language of the Ottoman Sephardim, while his grandfather, a wealthy businessman, boasted of speaking 17 languages. Canetti’s speech is constrained early in the book by his maid’s illicit lover, who repeatedly threatens to cut off the toddler’s tongue. His tongue is set free in the encounter with the fairy tales and diversity of post-Ottoman Ruschuk — where Canetti reports he’d encounter seven or eight languages each day — and in the young boy’s mastery of English, French, and German, through a charged Oedipal dynamic with his widowed mother.

Daniel Petrick, journalist


The Crowned Wanderer (2003)

by Rahim Esenov

With few bookshops and no free press or established publishing houses, the only books we hear about being released in isolated Turkmenistan are those with titles such as Akhal-Tekke: Our Pride and Glory, Medicinal Plants of Turkmenistan, et The Spiritual World of the Turkmen, each written by the same equestrian-mad author, the country’s leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. For independent writers working since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has been impossible to have a voice, or to cut a book deal. One journalist and writer, who mainly wrote under Berdymukhamedov’s father, the late dictator Saparmurat Niyazov aka Turkmenbashi, dedicated his life in trying to do so. He is the former correspondent for RFE/RL, and Pravda in Soviet Turkmenistan, Rahim Esenov. The author of more than 20 books in Russian, his best known is The Crowned Wanderer (Ventsenosnyj Skitalets).

Set in the 16th century, the story pivots around the life of Bayram Khan, a Turkmen poet-sage, and military leader, who embraced artistry, poetry, social, and religious tolerance. The book was banned in Turkmenistan, and Esenov harassed and jailed for “inciting social, national, and religious hatred”, but The Crowned Wanderer went on to be published in Russia in 2003. For his work, Esenov was awarded the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, in New York City, in 2006. Back home, as an opponent of the Niyazov regime, hundreds of copies of The Crowned Wanderer were burned by the authorities. Esenov died in 2017 and his work remains banned today.

Caroline Eden, writer and journalist


Kolyma Stories (1970-8)

par Varlam Shalamov, translated by Donald Rayfield

The tumults and terrors of the Russian 20th century generated its own “labour camp literature”, a genre that, like Holocaust literature, documents and bears witness to unthinkable crimes committed by the state against its own innocent citizens. During the Cold War, the king of labour camp literature was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a towering and ponderous giant of dissident experience, who wrote tomes weighty enough to vie with Tolstoy (or so it seemed to his champions in the US State Department and Nobel Prize committee). Shalamov, who sat out over a decade in the Gulag, is a very different kind of writer, side-stepping the pedantry and fulmination entirely; his stories that come out of the utterly destructive camp experience are laconic, riveting, and often severely beautiful. In the hypnotically deliberate first story of the cycle, Shalamov describes a group of prisoners tramping down a new road through deep snows — and also offers a programmatic statement on the hard and lonely work of writing: “One man goes ahead, sweating and swearing, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, constantly getting bogged down in the loose deep snow.” Shalamov does not tug at the reader’s heartstrings or offer easily digestible binaries of good and evil; he is an exacting writer working with the terrible material at hand.

Ainsley Morse, academic and translator


Poems, New and Collected, 1957-1997

by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

What Wisława Szymborska’s poetry offers seems, at first sight, a genuine political education. “Whether you like it or not / your genes have a political past, / your skin has a political shape, / your eyes have a political gaze,” she writes. Through her poems, the Nobel-prize winning writer speaks about the importance of getting a real political voice in a totalitarian space, which confiscated politics as a right reserved for the state only, denying the political voice of the individual. In this way, she tells out loud the personal and private secrets that the Polish communist regime wanted to keep silent. At a first glance, Szymborska’s superb and heart-wrenching poems impress through courageously truthful words, in a regime which had institutionalised lying.

But then, as you progressively dive into her poems, you understand that this ethical integrity of Szymborska’s poetry also proves the rarest of qualities: while speaking in the name of the human, it does not transform the human into an abstraction. “I prefer humans / to the humanity”, she writes in a poem; and this is exactly what makes her poems not only admirable historical documents but living persons themselves, composed of words irrigated by real, warm, human blood.

Radu Vancu, poet, writer and academic


The Memoirs of Princess Dashkova (1804)

by Ekaterina Romanovna Dashkova, translated by Kiril Fitzlyon

One of the things that most perturbs me about the new spate of TV series based on Catherine the Great is the lengths they go to make her seem singular as a woman in power in Russia. In fact, Catherine was actually the fifth woman to sit on the Russian throne in the 18th century, and there were other learned and politically shrewd women in her immediate circle, including her confidant, co-conspirator, and friend (for a time), the Princess Dashkova. Like Catherine, Dashkova was a voracious reader and prolific writer who communicated with the leading Enlightenment thinkers of her time, including Benjamin Franklin (who nominated Dashkova for membership to the American Philosophical Society). At just 19 years old, Dashkova also participated in the coup that made Catherine empress (though she tends to exaggerate her precise role). Nonetheless, in her memoirs, Dashkova offers refreshing insights into how major moments in history tend to unfold, namely through a mix of chaos and luck, which are maybe just versions of the same thing. “If all ringleaders of conspiracies,” she quips, “admitted how much chance and opportunity had contributed to the success of their various enterprises, they would have to come down from their own lofty pinnacle.”

Jennifer Wilson, writer


Animalinside (2010)

by László Krasznahorkai and Max Neumann, translated by Ottilie Mulzet

Animalinside originated as an experiment by Hungarian great novelist László Krasznahorkai and German painter Max Neumann: it features 14 images of a strange, unsettling, howling, and lunging dog, and 14 genre-defying texts that respond to these paintings. Challenging language itself, the prose poems are dark and intense; and as terrifying as a prophecy of apocalyptic visions. This dog is both a symbol of and a threat to humanity, constantly promising to rip apart its little master (“if I get out of here”) and extinguish mankind: “the judgment has been brought upon you, and you do not merit the earth […] it’s the end of you lot, not even a trace of you all shall remain here.” Krasznahorkai plays here with the biblical discourse from the Book of Revelation, which creates even more tension in the text, with a snowball result: the deeper you go into the book, the heavier and more suffocating the narrative becomes. To my mind, this creature and its vicious discourse on power and submission, on supremacy and vengeance, is also a metaphor for our darkest side as human beings, for our inner force and destructive, violent impulses.

Anastasia Gavrilovici, poet


The Futurological Congress (1971)

by Stanisław Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

Pointing out “meta” elements in every medium has become such a cliché that it risks losing all meaning, yet that remains the starting point for any discussion of The Futurological Congress. This is far more than a great science-fiction novel; it is also a great exploration of the meaning and function of the genre. What can loosely be called this book’s baseline reality is already a wildly absurd vision of the future: the titular congress is held at a 164-story hotel and presentations on how to address the world population crisis include pairing people up in sadomasochistic relationships to increase social stability. It only goes farther afield from there. The mounting absurdity of our own historical moment, and the very real dangers it poses to the future of our species, make this book as relevant as it ever was.

Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poet and translator


Paper Children (1981-1999)

by Mariana Marin, translated by Adam J. Sorkin

Mariana Marin’s Paper Children is among the very few Romanian poetry collections written by a woman to be published in English so far. A prominent, authentic, and controversial writer, Marin shaped what we can call, using French writer Hélène Cixous’ terms, the Romanian écriture féminine.

Although she is not a political poet at heart, one of the most outstanding features of Marin’s poetry is a certain moral dimension of writing, a constant plea for ethics to the detriment of aesthetics, a ceaseless endeavour to speak out against the horrors and lies of Ceaușescu’s dictatorship. With a selection of poems from the five books she published during her life, Paper Children offers a significant insight into Mariana Marin’s brilliant mind, themes, and writing practices, tracing a poetics of paradox. Force and fragility, anger and mourning, victory and defeat, life and death all coexist in her lines, which are intense and evocative like fists in the gut.

Beyond the collective reality and narrative, Marin’s poetry also draws on her own strong and wrenching personal story, traumas, and quests. A master of confessional poetry in Romania, Marin fearlessly explores the darkest ends of the soul, engaging the reader in some of the most immersive and authentic poetic experiences one can have.

Anastasia Gavrilovici, poet


The Palace of Dreams (1981)

by Ismail Kadare, translated by Barbara Bray

First published in Albania in 1981, at the height of the Communist dictatorship, this is doubtlessly one of the best and at the same time bravest works by Ismail Kadare. The Ottoman palace where dreams are collected, classified, and interpreted before being sent to the Sultan as highly valuable information makes a thinly veiled depiction of the terrifying mechanism at the core of the communist Albanian secret services.

Kadare builds an intricate structure for the institution with the power to instantly make or break the life of just about anyone in the Ottoman Empire. “Whoever controls the Palace of Dreams possesses the keys to the state,” the narrator Mark-Alem hears from his uncle, a powerful vizier.

Bit by bit, in a dream-like atmosphere permeated by the relentless anguish of the labyrinthine palace, Mark-Alem begins to understand how sleep and sleeplessness, genuine and manufactured dreams, prophecies and delirium, can become fodder for ruthless intrigue and the wielding of power, blurring the line between the objective and the subjective, the collective and the individual, the success and the demise, or the victim and the perpetrator.

Submitted to scrutiny and censorship, the novel was published in full, as an individual book only after the fall of Hoxha’s dictatorial regime.

Manjola Nasi, poet


Alexander Pushkin: Selected Poetry

by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Antony Wood

Pushkin’s position in Russia is similar to that of Dante in Italy, or Goethe in Germany. As well as being his country’s greatest poet, he also wrote the first major works in a variety of genres, and did much to shape modern literary Russian. To foreigners, however, the Russian worship of Pushkin has often seemed puzzling; Flaubert famously complained to Turgenev that “your poet” was “flat.” This is understandable: Pushin’s grace and apparent simplicity are hard to translate. Today, however, we are more fortunate than Flaubert. Penguin Classics have already published a dazzling translation of Eugene Onegin, by the late Stanley Mitchell. They have now brought out an equally fine Selected Poetry, translated by Antony Wood. Both translators have brought into English tout the important aspects of the original: not only the paraphrasable content, but also the wit and musicality.

Robert Chandler, translator






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