Southeastern Europe

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Southeastern Europe

Tatjana AleksiImage

Southeastern Europe is better known as the Balkans, although this name has historically been problematized and often acquired negative connotations. Maria Todorova's seminal study on the Balkans, Imagining the Balkans (1997), has, for example, analyzed both the category itself and the various negative connotations assigned to the region. The region is imagined as a more or less compact entity due to historical developments that marked it, primarily the Ottoman colonization, but also the many episodes of turbulent history since the formation of modern nation-states. Cultural development in the region that has, for the most part, been a polygon of conflicts for the world powers, has suffered a certain dose of “belatedness” relative to European mainstream influences, as Gregory Jusdanis controversially claims about modern Greek culture in Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture (1991). Most importantly, culture in the Balkans has rarely had the luxury of avoiding the grip of history and evolving with independent aesthetic attributes. The few periods of relatively unhindered literary and cultural developments created a sense of time compression that sometimes prevented literary styles that had almost run parallel courses from maturing to their full distinction.

With many nation-states comprising the region, the number of which has multiplied since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, an attempt to give a general overview of the development of the novel seems an almost impossible task. There have been many arguments for and against the Serbo-Croatian linguistic designation, as well as attempts by nationalist linguists to emphasize the differences between Serbian and Croatian languages (see NATIONAL, REGIONAL). This entry will not emphasize the question of language, but will instead focus on both Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav literatures. In terms of its temporal arc, this discussion will be delineated by the appearance of the first modernist and avant-garde novels. The overview begins with the innovations in the field of poetics, language, and the subject of the novel, followed by early attempts to dismantle the genre altogether. Geographically, it is concerned with what for most of the twentieth century existed as the Yugoslav cultural space, Greece, and to a certain extent Bulgaria. Finally, this typology follows certain historical frameworks.

First Modernist Novels

Symbolism that spills over from the nineteenth century transfers to prose some of the key tenets of modernism, primarily the interest in the individual psyche and its subjective vision of the world. One of its important representatives in Greek fiction is Konstandinos Hatzopoulos, with O pyrgos tou akropotamou (1909, The Manor by the Riverside). Milutin Cihlar Nehajev introduces the character novel Bijeg (1909, Escape) to the Croatian public, the text not generated by external events but entirely situated within the psyche of the main protagonist. The year 1910 marks the appearance of the first truly modern Serbian novel, NeImageistakrv (Bad Blood) by Borisav StankoviImage, which breaks with the mimetic prose of the nineteenth century and instead introduces the symbolic style in which local folklore and tradition become a background for passionate love dramas and family tragedies.

The contrast between the city and the country emerges in the work of some writers in the form of folkloric realism or idealization of the country, its people, and their morals, while with others it leads to the creation of the first urban novels. Milutin UskokoviImage's Imageedomir IliImage (1914) makes a statement on the alienation and psychological decay in the emerging Serbian bourgeois culture that became decadent even before fully maturing. His Došljaci (1909, Newcomers) explores the common subject of the time in the Balkans—the difficulties and moral qualms of the peasants newly arrived in the fledgling city. But the text also uncovers many poetic aspects of the new urban environment, presenting Belgrade as the true capital of Serbian culture of the time. Rapidly mutating social setting is the subject of Konstandinos Theotokis's novel Oi sklavoi sta desma tous (1922, Slaves in Their Chains), while others include Andreas Karkavitsas, Grigorios Xenopoulos, and Ioannis Kondylakis. However, perhaps the most radical representation of this schizophrenic condition on the societal level is Janko PoliImage Kamov's Isušena kaljuža (1909, pub. 1957, Dried Swamp). In this novel, social critique takes the form of exposing a whole spectrum of immorality, perversions, and absurdity—a veritable bestiary of the repressed psyche of the Croatian bourgeoisie. Ksaver Šandor Imagealski establishes the tradition of the Croatian political novel with U noImagei (1913, In the Night). The champion of Slovenian independence, Ivan Cankar, published his social novels Na klancu (On the Hill) and Hiša Marije PomoImagenice (The Ward of Our Lady of Mercy) in 1902 and 1904, respectively. In Bulgaria, the authors scathingly critical of the Sofya urban environment are Anton Strashimirov, with Esenni dni (1902, Autumn Days), and Georgi Stamatov.

The Interwar Novel: War, Social Realism, and Psychoanalysis

The end of the Balkan Wars (1912—13 and 1913, respectively) and WWI saw the collapse of the two former empires occupying most of the peninsula and the emergence of new independent states. Croatia gained independence from Austro-Hungarian dominance and joined the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs in 1918, the precursor of Yugoslavia. However, while the period 1941—91 in the cultures of Serbs and Croats is generally treated as the period of Yugoslav literary production, the two literatures still figure as separate entities in the interwar period. Since the breakup of the country, revisionist literary history tends to separate the authors on the basis of their nationality. This approach creates difficulty due to the fact that the majority of authors disregarded ethnic boundaries and many authors are appropriated by two, or even three, national traditions (e.g., Ivo AndriImage is claimed by the Bosnian as well as the Serbian and Croatian traditions). A pivotal event in Greek history of the period was the 1922 collapse of the Megali Idea (the Great Idea) of the “liberation” of former Byzantine territories occupied by the Ottomans since 1453, resulting in the war and “population exchange” of over a million Orthodox and Muslim refugees between Greece and Turkey.

Writing in the interwar period is influenced by European modernism, and the themes that dominate the novel are those of the “lost generation” of modernists everywhere. The dissatisfaction with the order of the world is transferred onto the subjective sphere, which in the language of fiction translates into experimentation with the genre and language, as well as genuine attempts to deconstruct the novel.

Isidora SekuliImage is one of very few Serbian women writers of the period whose work is considered to inhabit the space outside “trivial literature,” with her Imageakon BogorodiImageine crkve (1919, The Novice of Notre Dame). Influenced by Zenithism, the only authentic avant-garde movement in the Balkans, new voices in Serbian prose attempted to deconstruct or completely annihilate the genre of the novel with their “anti-novels”: 77 samoubica (1923, 77 Suicides) by Ve Poljanski and Koren vida (1928, The Root of Vision) and Bez mere (1928, Without Measure) by the surrealists Aleksandar VuImageo and Marko RistiImage, respectively.

The experience of war lies at the core of the interwar novel. Dnevnik o ImagearnojeviImageu (1921, The Diary about ImagearnojeviImage), by Miloš Crnjanski, and Dan šesti (1932, Day Six), by Rastko PetroviImage, are considered the greatest achievements of Serbian interwar novelistic prose, written in innovative technique and grounded in the new philosophical and psychological trends, where the war represents the background for individual interrogations. Best known for the first part of his historical saga Seobe (1929, Migrations), it is in Dnevnik that Crnjanski achieves his highest lyrical expression in the form of fragmentary meditations. In Dan šesti PetroviImage depicts the unimaginable moral deterioration of human character in wartime that he witnessed firsthand. In Bulgaria the effects of war are covered in Yordan Yovkov's masterpiece, Zemlyatsi (1915, Countrymen), and in Greece in Stratis Myrivilis's gripping and meditative I zoi en tafo (1924, Life in the Tomb). Ilias Venezis, in To noumero 31328 (1924, Number 31328), like Stratis Doukas in Istoria enos aihmalotou (1929, A Prisoner of War's Story), presents a semibiographical account of the situation of Anatolian Greeks in the months following the 1922 Disaster. Croatian literature of the period offers few direct reactions to the war, possibly because the Croatian nation's experience of WWI differed so much from that of the other Balkan states. Instead, we should note a few pieces of prose expressionism: the existential-psychological drama Sablasti (1917, Ghosts), by Ulderiko Donadini, and the visually rich dream-fantasy Lunar (1921), by Josip KulundžiImage.

The interwar period in Greece is most emphatically marked by the “generation of the 1930s,” or the true Greek avant-garde. Although Yorgos Theotokas called for a break with the past and the creation of a new type of fiction in his “manifesto” Elefthero pnevma (1929, Free Spirit), the “generation of the 30s” is much better known for its poetry than prose. Three distinctive thematic divisions are recognizable: the “Aeolian School” of the writers concerned with the war, the new “urban realism,” and “School of Thessaloniki” antirealist modernism (Beaton, 1988). Kosmas Politis's Lemonodasos (1930, Lemon Grove) and Angelos Terzakis's Desmotes (1932, Prisoners) belong to the urban category. Most of their texts deal with the deprivations of the proletarian classes and the immorality of the bourgeoisie, as well as the burgeoning leftist sentiment.

Social thematic, or “social realism,” on the Serbo-Croatian scene produces a new type of literary hero, a member of the deprived Croatian social classes, in the novels of Vjekoslav Majer, or in the texts of leftist inclination, such as August Cesarec's Careva kraljevina (1925, Emperor's Kingdom). Ivan DonImageeviImage and the rare woman novelist Fedy MartinImageiImage also belong to this circle. Krv majke zemlje (1935, Mother Earth's Blood) by Antun BonifaImageiImage is of interest as the first Croatian novel employing metafictional documentation. Among Serbian novels of the urban/social thematic the three dominant ones are AnImageelko KrstiImage's Trajan (1932), Branimir ImageosiImage's Pokošeno polje (1933, Reaped Field), and the joint work of Dušan MatiImage and Aleksandar VuImageo, Gluho doba (1940, Deaf Times).

The writing of the antirealist modernists is primarily concerned with the psychological reflection of the dysfunctional world perceived as a spectrum of disorders, hallucinations, and nightmares. In Greece the most successful modernist experiments are Yannis Skarimbas's To solo tou Figaro (1938, Figaro's Solo), Politis's Eroica (1937), Nikos Gavrii Pentzikis's O pethamenos kai i anastasi (1938, The Dead Man and the Resurrection), and Melpo Axioti's Thelete na horepsoume Maria? (1940, Would You Like to Dance, Maria?). Miroslav Krleža, one of the foremost Croatian writers and an advocate of nonideological literature, produced his psychological masterpiece, Povratak Filipa LatinoviImagea (The Return of Filip Latinovitz), in 1932, his sociopsychological drama Na rubu pameti (On the Edge of Reason) in 1938, and his Banket u Blitvi (Banquet in Blitva), tackling anarchism and terrorism, in 1939. španski zid (1930, Spanish Wall), by Rade Drainac, and Grozdanin kikot (1927, Grozdana's giggle), by Hamza Humo, belong to this category of Serbian prewar literature. Strashimirov's Robi (1930, Slaves) is a Bulgarian work of this kind.

The Postwar Novel:(Socialist) Realism

The fifteen years after WWII are characterized by a recurrence of realist fiction, even produced by writers of radically different positions in the previous decade. However, the first novels published in both Yugoslavia and Greece are historical: Ivo AndriImage's Na Drini Imageuprija (1945, The Bridge on the Drina), which won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961, and Nikos Kazantzakis's Vios Kai Politeia Tou Alexi Zorba (1946, The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas). Their early prose carries a distinct epic quality with a local flavor, as AndriImage writes about Bosnia in his other historical piece, TravniImageka hronika (1945, The Bosnian Chronicle), and Kazantzakis praises the untameable Cretan spirit in O kapetan Mihalis (1950, Freedom or Death). Kazantzakis departs from historical existentialism and metaphysics with the controversial O teleftaios peirasmos (1951, The Last Temptation of Christ), a novel that led to his excommunication from the Orthodox Church, while Martin Scorsese's 1988 film based on the novel was banned in cinemas around the world. Bulgarian novelists of the period likewise show a strong interest in historical subjects. The most notable are Stoian Zagorchinov, with Praznik v Boiana (1950, Feast in Boiana), and DimitImager Talev, whose tetralogy Samuil (1952—66) fictionalizes the Bulgarian struggle for independence from the Ottomans, and then from Greeks and Serbs in the Balkan Wars.

The postwar communist regimes of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria promoted “socialist realism” as the official cultural politics, a monumental genre devoid of aesthetic and literary values that insisted on concrete issues, a collective spirit, and the self-sacrifice of the individual for the creation of a socialist utopia. In the period immediately after WWII its main conceptual opponent was modernism, emphatically condemned by the cultural establishment as self-indulgent, antisocial, and morbid. Censorship was rife and undermined “suspicious” literary activity at its roots. Bulgarian DimitImager Dimov created his best work, OsImagedeni dushi (1945, Damned Souls), about the Spanish Civil War, but had to rewrite Tiutiun (1951, 1954, Tobacco) in order to get it published. Dobrica ImageosiImage, president of the fragmented Yugoslavia in 1992—93, wrote Daleko je sunce (1951, Distant Is the Sun) in the socialist-realist style, while in subsequent voluminous sagas he records a history of Serbia after WWI. Mihajlo LaliImage depicts the psychological effects of war on people in his partisan story Lelejska gora (1957, The Wailing Mountain), while Vitomil Zupan departs from socialist-realist dogmatism in his vision of WWII, Menuet za kitaro (1957, Minuet for the Guitar). Notable novels not written in the socialist idiom are Vjekoslav Kaleb's social critique Ponižene ulice (1950, Humiliated Streets) and Vladan Desnica's stream-of-consciousness ProljeImagea Ivana Galeba (1957, The Springs of Ivan Galeb).

Recurrence of realism in Greece was brought about by the civil war between pro-communist and right-wing forces in 1946—49 and the reemergence of censorship. Some of the finest novels of the period avoid the bleak political present through escapism into the 1930s: Contre-Temps (1947) by Mimika Kranaki, O kitrinos fakelos (1956, The Yellow File) by Mitia Karagatsis, and Terzakis's Dihos theo (1951, Without a God).

A coming-to-terms with the wars and the split in the Greek society was attempted through the renewal of folkloric realism and a historical novel that looks into the more distant past: Dido Sotiriou's Matomena homata (Farewell Anatolia), Politis's Stou Hatzifrangou (In the Hatzifrangou Quarter), and Kostas Tachtsis's To trito stefani (The Third Wedding Wreath), all published in 1962, return to the events of the 1922 Anatolian disaster. A certain amount of experimentation was again possible in the 1960s, before Greece lapsed into yet another episode of totalitarianism, with the dictatorship of the Colonels in 1967—74. Tatiana Gritsi-Milliex's Kai idou ippos hloros (1963, Behold a Pale Horse) and Stratis Tsirkas's trilogy Akyvernites politeies (1962—65, Drifting Cities) are good examples of such writing.

Toward the Postmodern

In the 1960s and 1970s Yugoslavia underwent a significant period of liberalization. Meša SelimoviImage created the existentialist Derviš i smrt (1966, The Dervish and the Death), Bora ImageosiImage his subversive Uloga moje porodice u svetskoj revoluciji (1969, The Role of My Family in the World Revolution), and Ranko MarinkoviImage the intertextual antiwar Kiklop (1966, Cyclops). Crnjanski, returning from exile in London, wrote his most important novels Druga knjiga Seoba (1962, The Second Book of Migrations) and Roman o Londonu (1972, A Novel about London). However, a new wave of realist prose brought to the surface a brutal metropolitan reality and socially undesirable phenomena: urban poverty, criminal underground activity, emigration, prostitution, alcoholism, and other social ills, as well as the subject of marginal groups that otherwise would remain off the radar for the majority of the population. Dragoslav MihailoviImage's Kad su cvetale tikve (1968, When Pumpkins Blossomed)—criticized for a contextual mention of the Goli Otok labor camp, where the author had been detained—Vitomil Zupan's Leviathan (1982), and Živojin PavloviImage's Zadah tela (1982, Body Stench). Simultaneously, a different faction of realism directed its interests toward the taboo topic of crimes committed during WWII, the writing that became possible only in the next decade, such as Miodrag BulatoviImage's Ljudi sa Imageetiri prsta (1975, People with Four Fingers).

Yet arguably the most influential fiction of the period was produced by the group whose writing anticipates postmodernist methods in Yugoslav literature, exerting an indelible influence on future generations of writers. The group includes Borislav PekiImage, whose novels include Kako upokojiti vampira (1977, How to Quiet a Vampire), in which he traces the path of Western rationalism that leads to Nazism, and the 1981 science-fiction trilogy Besnilo (Rabies), Atlantida (Atlantis), and 1999. To this group also belong Danilo Kiš, with his “Family Circus” trilogy, especially PešImageanik (1972, Hourglass), and Mirko KovaImage. Kiš's take on Stalinist totalitarianism, Grobnica za Borisa DavidoviImagea (1976, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich), is the best-known victim of the renewed process of regime control of the artistic freedoms in Yugoslavia following the 1971 Croatian nationalist revival movement, forcing the author into self-imposed exile. The local variant of the so-called “jeans prose” deserves a mention as a generational, if not exactly anti-establishment, revolt during the 1970s: Alojz MajetiImage with Imageangi off gotoff (1970) and Zvonimir Majdak in Kužiš, stari moj (1970, Got It, Old Man).

In contrast to the isolation of postmodern literature since its introduction by Kiš and PekiImage, the mid-1980s witnessed its enthusiastic embrace by cultural elites and broad audiences. The tremendous rise in popularity of postmodern literature following Milorad PaviImage's international success with Hazarski reImagenik (1984, Dictionary of the Khazars) manifests the postmodern paradox in the fragmenting Yugoslavia: the appropriation of the postmodern by writers whose orientation had a distinctly populist dimension as well as those whose writing resisted the prevalent nationalist mono-narrative. While the former approached history in a constructive manner, the efforts of the latter were directed at its subversion or parody: Svetislav Basara's Fama o biciklistima (1987, The Cyclist Conspiracy), Dragan VelikiImage's Astragan (1991), Radoslav PetkoviImage's Sudbina i komentari (1993, Destiny and Comments), Dubravka UgrešiImage's Muzej bezuvjetne predaje (1996, Museum of Unconditional Surrender), David Albahari's Mamac (1996, Bait), Judita Šalgo's Put u Birobidžan (posthumous, 1996, Trip to Birobidzhan), and Mirjana NovakoviImage's Strah i njegov sluga (2005, Fear and Its Servant).

The break with realism in Greek fiction, starting in the early 1960s, continued with a series of narratives that parody the mounting political tensions by transferring the Greek situation to a fantastic location. The Aesopian language of these novels only vaguely conceals the irony pervading Vassilis Vassilikos's 1961 trilogy, or Andonis Samarakis's prophetic To Lathos (1965, The Flaw), a text that anticipates the seizing of power by the junta. Yorgos Heimonas goes even further in Oi htistes (1979, The Builders), which dispenses altogether with a familiar Western setting or the language itself. Similar displacement is present in the Bulgarian Yordan Radichkov, who combines folkloric fantasy, parody, and the grotesque: Vsichki i nikoi (1975, All and Nobody) and Noev kovcheg (1988, Noah's Ark).

Rather than rendering the past through fictional testimonies like previous generations of writers, Greek post-dictatorship narratives catalyze the events through the protagonists who then interpret them (Beaton, 1994, 283—95). Aris Alexandrou writes about the civil war in To kivotio (1974, The Box), while I arhaia skouria (1979, Fool's Gold) by Maro Douka and I Kassandra kai o lykos (1977, Cassandra and the Wolf) by Margarita Karapanou portray the Athens University massacre that preceded the fall of the dictatorship. The tendency throughout the 1980s was still the genre's deep involvement with history, as in Alki Zei's I arravoniastikia tou Ahillea (1987, Achilles Fiancée), and identity, both interrogated in relation to Greece's European present, as in Eugenia Fakinou's To evdomo rouho (1983, The Seventh Garment) or Rhea Galanaki's O vios tou Ismail Ferik Pasha (1989, The Life of Ismail Ferik-Pasha). Other writers employing metafictional documentation are Thanassis Valtinos, Thomas Skassis, and Pavlina Pampoudi.

The New Millennium International Novel

Greece is increasingly seen as a safe haven from economic problems or political oppression, while Greeks themselves are now free to travel and explore the world. This two-way cultural exchange is frequently reflected in the new pattern of “centrifugal” literature that depicts the contact of the Greeks with the Other, both in and out of Greece (Tziovas, in Mackridge and Yannakakis). Sotiris Dimitriou's N'akouo kalat'onoma sou (1993, May Your Name Be Blessed) re-creates the oral mode of storytelling and plays out the tensions between Greeks and Albanian workers, while in Amanda Michalopoulou's Oses fores antexeis (1998, As Many Times as You Can Stand It) a Greek goes on a love quest to Prague. Travel adventures and international themes abound in texts by Alexis Panselinos, Theodoros Grigoriadis, Alexis Stamatis, and Ioanna Karystiani.

A very similar tendency is visible in the post-Yugoslav novel, where after the crippling wars the newly independent states reinvented their former cultural affinities. Many new names in post-Yugoslav fiction still deal with the recent events, although the general tendency is extrovert, explorative, and unashamed of taboo subjects. Of particular interest are U potpalublju (1996, In the Hold) by Vladimir ArsenijeviImage, and Zimski dnevnik (1995, Winter Journal), the novel by SrImagean ValjareviImage that holds cult status in Serbia, as well as a novel on Belgrade nightlife by Barbi MarkoviImage. Zoran ŽivkoviImage belongs to a separate category with his much-translated science-fiction novels, as does the Bulgarian Evgeni Kuzmanov. Georgi Gospodinov was likewise internationally successful with Estestven roman (Natural Novel), while Teodora Dimova registers the post-socialist moral collapse in Maikite (Mothers), both 2005. On the Bosnian, Slovenian, and Croatian scene new texts continue to arrive from IvanImageica ImageeriImage, Aleksandar Hemon, Miljenko JergoviImage, Drago JanImagear, Boris DežuloviImage, and the ever-controversial Vedrana Rudan.


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