A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, & a Raven, Slavenka Drakulić, 2011 (Croatia)
Croatian author Slavenka Drakulić is known for her poignant works on post-communism and feminism. Her 2011 collection A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism offers an eight-part reflection on the collapse of European communism related by a number of animals, each of whom represent different countries and social spheres. Many pick up this title expecting something akin to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but similarities remain on a fairly superficial level. Drakulić’s cast of animals — which includes such memorable narrators as Koki the talking parrot, a Czech tour guide mouse and the oldest dog in Bucharest — do not stand in for humans. Instead, they are characterised by a detachment from politics and society, together with a shared confusion in the face of illogical human behaviour and decisions. In its charming, painful and witty elucidation of life under communism and its fall, Drakulić’s work uncovers absurdity and folly, not least through the animals’ relative objectivity.
The File on H, Ismail Kadare, 1981 (Albania)
Translated by David Bellos (2006)
Arguably Albania’s most prominent writer, Ismail Kadare is not known for jollity. His 1981 work The File on H is a little lighter than his other novels, and therefore perhaps rather more suitable for poolside reading. This satire-cum-political-parable centres on two Irish-American scholars travelling in Albania in the 1930s, equipped with a tape recorder to document the country’s oral storytellers — allegedly in order to explain how Homer’s epics were created and preserved. The local government is unconvinced, however, believing the men to be foreign spies and accordingly putting them under surveillance by an overdramatic secret agent. Kadare’s darkly comic novel offers both insight into provincial life in communist Albania and food for thought with regard to the evasiveness but enduring significance of storytelling and communication in cultural memory.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, Dubravka Ugrešić, 2008 (Croatia)
Translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Ellen Elias-Bursac and Mark Thompson (2010)
Anyone lucky enough to have had an eastern European grandma spook them with some of Slavic folklore’s creepier tales will likely be familiar with the legendary Baba Yaga — a fearsome witch whose preferred method of transport is a giant flying mortar and pestle. Each of the characters across Croatian author Dubravka Ugrešić’s three-part novel is a version of this fierce hag, together forming a wacky and entertaining take on what it means to grow old as a woman. Set in the wake of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the cast of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg inhabit a world where death, magic and gender have come to the fore, walking the thin line between travesty and true tragedy. Make no mistake, though: the power of old women must not be underestimated, and they will surely prevail.
Life is a Dream, Gyula Krúdy, 1931 (Hungary)
Translated by John Batki (2010)
Only translated into English in 2010, Hungarian author Gyula Krúdy’s collection of ten charming short stories Life is a Dream was originally published in 1931. Part nostalgia, part comedy, Life is a Dream transports the reader to a pre-war Budapest fuelled by food, sex, death and love. Particularly remarkable is Krúdy’s fascination with food and drink as a narrative pivot: from the landlady who persuades male customers to trample cabbages for her in return for pernicious flirting, to a terrifying naptime nightmare where animate overcoats stuff themselves with offal, the collection is a surreal adventure in eating. Playful and comic with a dark edge, Life is a Dream is other-worldly but entirely relatable in its commentary on the human condition.
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, Oksana Zabuzhko, 2009 (Ukraine)
Translated by Nina Shevchuk-Murray (2012)
The Museum of Abandoned Secrets is not a short read, but this is hardly surprising when you consider that this multi-layered novel spans 60 years of turbulent Ukrainian history. Beginning in 1940 and ending just prior to the Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukrainian novelist, poet and essayist Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel centres on the stories of three women, all linked by secrets long forgotten that come to the fore thanks to the effort of journalist Daryna Hoshchynska. Offering a glimpse into the complex relations between the countries of the USSR — often oversimplified by those looking on in the West — the Museum of Abandoned Secrets reflects on the heavy shadow that the past casts over the present.
Down Among the Fishes, Natalka Babina, 2007 (Belarus)
Translated by Jim Dingley (2013)
Originally written in Belarusian, Natalka Babina’s Down Among the Fishes is the rural murder mystery you’ve always dreamt of. Existing somewhere in the grey area between credibility and fantasy, the novel follows two twin sisters as they investigate the sudden death of their grandmother. Highly entertaining and not short of gimmicks (think time travel, ghosts and mistaken identity), Down Among the Fishes maintains a strong sense of time and place, not least through heroine Ala’s personal narrative; the story speaks to its location in its sensitivity to linguistic politics and evocation of a sense of liminality, while exposing key issues prevalent in the former Soviet Union such as alcoholism and addiction.
A Flight Over the Black Sea, Ihor Pavlyuk, 2014 (Ukraine)
Translated by Steve Komarnyckyji (2014)
Ihor Pavlyuk is bringing contemporary Ukrainian poetry to the world stage. His 2014 collection A Flight Over the Black Sea topped the 2015 PEN Best of the World Bookshelf poll, seeing off competition from a host of better known authors. Characterised by a melancholy nostalgia which gathers pace as the reader moves through the collection, Pavlyuk’s poems are rich in metaphor and steeped in musicality. The poet’s delicate descriptions evoke a rich natural landscape and trace the close ties between nature and Ukrainian pagan tradition. Rumour has it that Pavlyuk recently gave a poetry reading standing on his head: while we can accept no responsibility for any injury sustained when reading, perhaps this could be the perfect opportunity to combine exercise and poetry.
The Literature Express, Lasha Bugadze, 2009 (Georgia)
Translated by Maya Kiasashvili (2014)
Set aboard a train of the same name, The Literature Express follows the journey of a set of mediocre and socially inept writers as they travel across Europe. Tbilisi-born novelist and script writer Lasha Bugadze’s narrative centres on Georgian writer Zaza, as hapless in love — he is besotted with his Polish translator’s wife — as he is unfortunate in literature. The novel depicts with grim humour the strained communications between the authors, all of whom are totally self-absorbed and who have each come up with the novel idea of writing their next prodigious works about their time onboard the train. As Zaza laments the limited scope for literary fame in Georgia, he echoes the sentiment of the entire train, all desperate to break into the foreign market: how should authors from smaller, lesser-known countries appeal to audiences abroad?