Feminist poetry, migration tales and satire: the 10 best Eastern European books of 2020

Feminist poetry, migration tales and satire: the 10 best Eastern European books of 2020

From mythical family epics and absurdist short stories to feminist poems, our selection of the Eastern European literature from 2020, available in English, captures the variety and intensity of an historic year.

4 December 2020
Image: Ike Okwudiafor

Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

Poignant and moving, Grey Bees is the story of a beekeeper who, unlike most villagers, refuses to leave his home in eastern Ukraine as the war unfolds. “It was as if he had lost all feeling, all his senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility. And this sense, which could make him worry terribly at any hour of the day, was focused entirely on one object: his bees,” Kurkov writes in the opening chapter. In the preface, the author says he found inspiration to write the book during his three journeys in Donbas, Donetsk, and Luhansk. “There I witnessed the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour.” As the international media has lost interest in this quiet yet ongoing conflict, Kurkov’s novel is a testament to the disruption war has created in the everyday lives of Ukrainians living on the border with Russia. Read an extract from the novel here.

Translated by Boris Dralyuk. Published by Maclehose Press.

F-letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry edited by Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse

The first anthology of Russian feminist poetry unites 12 young voices who speak out about their experiences of sexuality, queerness, birthgiving, as well as abuse and violence. Featuring texts published in a literary journal with the same title, and edited by the 30-year-old Lviv-based poet Galina Rymbu, the anthology shows a community of writers fighting against state violence, censorship laws, and the neo-conservative climate that dominates Russia today. Read two poems from the anthology here.

Published by isolarii.

Music for the Dead and the Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort

In this poetry collection, a monument to Belarusian history and current political repression, Valzhyna Mort navigates the space between the personal and the political, exploring a family’s history of violent death. Remembering the Chernobyl explosion, Soviet school propaganda and labour camps, and the Second World War, Mort powerfully juxtaposes lyrical with narrative verse, bringing the past and the present, the individual and the collective, together. In her poem Little Songs, for instance, she writes lines that resonate with the contemporary pro-democracy struggle in Belarus: “What has been done to us is muddled with the fears / of what could have been done. / Our famous skills / in tank production / have been redirected / at students and journalists.// But under that roof, folded/ like dead man’s hands over the house, / we still live.”

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear by Maria Reva

This debut collection of short stories is set in 1980s Ukraine, in a block of flats that the authorities claim does not exist. In the opening story, as one of the inhabitants complains about the lack of heat in the apartment block, a municipal clerk replies: “The building does not exist, Citizen.” “What do you mean?” the inhabitant, Daniil, asks. “I live there.” Satirical, absurdist, and poignant, the stories take the reader from one flat to another, and from the late years of the Soviet Union all the way to the wild 90s, about which one character remarks: “Mother says we’re living in an age of freedom. Aunt Milena says we’re living in an age of fifteen brands of sausage, which is not the same as freedom.” Read our full review here.

Published by Virago.

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

Set in the 90s in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a residential school for children with disabilities and abandoned children, filmmaker Nana Ekvtimishvili’s debut novel is a coming-of-age story as much as a tale of survival. Institutionalised in an abusive, uncaring, and unhygienic environment, 18-year-old Lela has had to grow up too quickly. Yet she maintains a strong sense of justice, and tries to save nine-year-old Irakli from the ongoing lies of his mother, who left him. Ekvtimishvili says that, as a child, she lived next to the school she depicts in the book. “We shared a fence so their backyard and our backyard were next to each other,” she explains. “At some point, when I went back to Georgia, these memories came alive. I started to discover those children on the street, begging, asking people for money. So I wanted to let readers into this world, to stay next to these people, as opposed to being above them.” Read our interview with her here.

Translated by Elizabeth Heighway. Published by Peirene Press.

Sketches from the Criminal World by Varlam Shalamov

“Fiction has always represented the criminal world sympathetically, sometimes sycophantically. Deceived by cheap and tawdry ideas, it has given the world of thieves a romantic aura,” gulag-survivor, journalist, and writer Varlam Shalamov says in the opening of this memoir. Exploring a range of themes, from prisoners’ attitudes to women, stories from gangsters, and snippets of life in prison, Sketches of the Criminal World is the sequel to the 2018 English translation of Kolyma Stories. Together, these two volumes constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories. Read an extract from the book here.

Translated by Donald Rayfield. Published by New York Review Books.

To the Lake by Kapka Kassabova

A narrative reportage book, To The Lake traces the history of the author’s grandmother in Ohrid, a North Macedonian town on the lake of the same name. Born in Bulgaria, growing up in New Zealand, and eventually settling down in Scotland, Kassabova explores her personal geography in Eastern Europe, scarred by migration, as well as questions of identity, heritage, and belonging. On her journey, the author meets distant cousins, jobless men, descendants of Sufi sheiks, migrants, and artists whose stories echo her family’s: “These were the children of the Village of Immigrants. The doctors, architects and economists who had studied abroad in the earlier 20th century had stayed abroad too, and there had never been an economic incentive to return, only an emotional one.” Read our full review here.

Published by Graywolf Press.

Catherine the Great and the Small by Olja Knežević

Montenegro-born, Croatia-based Olja Knežević’s fourth novel, Catherine the Great and the Small, explores a woman’s efforts to keep going, as she leaves Yugoslavia for London. Fast-moving, vivid, and richly detailed, the novel sees the heroine challenged by her mother’s death, a friend’s troubles with drugs, a failing marriage, motherhood, the collapse of her country, and a war that destabilises her mind. Yet, as she moves from one identity to another, and from one place to another, Catherine finds strength and freedom in whatever comes her way. Read our review here.

Translated by Paula Gordon & Ellen Elias-Bursac. Published by Istros Books.

No Signal Area by Robert Perišić

Robert Perišić’s novel No Signal Area takes place in N., a post-communist symbolic town in the former Yugoslavia, where two men privatising a factory promise workers revival, success, and self-management. Things don’t go quite like they imagine, however. With a complex power dynamic between the investors and the workers, and no clear victims and oppressors, this novel explores the moral and existential conundrums of the capitalist system. Read our review here.

Translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać. Published by Seven Stories Press.

Three Apples Fell From the Sky by Narine Abgaryan

Mythical, warm, and sentimental, Three Apples Fell From the Sky tells the story of an Armenian rural family’s intergenerational trauma. The book starts with an Armenian proverb, “And three apples fell from the sky. One for the storyteller. One for the listener. And one for the eavesdropper,” which gives the novel its three-part structure, echoing Armenian folk tales. As the mountain village is confronted with drought, famine, and a powerful earthquake, locals find solace in superstition and magical thinking. This debut novel from the Russian speaking author with Armenian roots, Narine Abgaryan, was a bestseller in Russia, winning the Yasnaya Polyana prize. Read our review here.

Translated by Lisa C. Hayden. Published by Oneworld Publications.

Read more

Feminist poetry, migration tales and satire: the 10 best Eastern European books of 2020

Bold and intimate: 2 poems by queer and feminist Russian poets

Feminist poetry, migration tales and satire: the 10 best Eastern European books of 2020

Grey Bees: Andrey Kurkov’s tale of quiet resilience amid war in Ukraine

Feminist poetry, migration tales and satire: the 10 best Eastern European books of 2020

Young in the 90s: in her debut novel, director Nana Ekvtimishvili explores a decade most Georgians want to forget