In the quarantine-induced haze of 2020, literature enjoyed a new, almost unprecedented kind of attention. In our living rooms, many of us now find bulkier bookshelves, taller piles of novels to be read, scattered remnants of a year where reading provided moments of palliative — even transformative — relief. As we take our first anxious steps into 2021, where the so-called “return to normal” retreats further into the distance, books remain a source of hope and comfort.
In 2021, Uzbek author Hamid Ismailov will complete his trilogy with the publication of Manaschi, while in Poland, we discover what Michel Foucault was up to in Warsaw. Two Romanian heavyweights – Ludovic Bruckstein and Mircea Cărtărescu – have new English translations of their short stories, while Ukrainian author Yelena Moskovich returns with her third novel, A Door Behind A Door. Meanwhile, Russian author and poet Marina Stepanova has a landmark work published, and classic Hungarian-British novelist Andrew Szepessy is waiting to be discovered.
In his work Too Loud a Solitude, the great Czech author Bohumil Hrabal came as close as any to naming that fundamental allure of books: to tell us things about ourselves we don’t already know. Books enable us to enter the gaze of another, and while we largely remain isolated from each other in this undefined holding pattern, is there any more worthwhile pursuit?
Here at The Calvert Journal, we’re rounding up the 11 Eastern European and Central Asian books not to miss in a year that is almost certain to be as culturally tumultuous as the last.
Translated by Alistair Ian Blythe, out in January 2021
With an Unopened Umbrella is a collection of short stories set in pre-Second World War Maramureș, Transylvania, detailing and documenting the increasingly difficult existence of the region’s predominantly Jewish population. Bruckstein, who himself was sent to Auschwitz and beared the horrors of life in a labour camp, writes with nuance and understanding about the plight of individuals against the sweeping – and often unfathomably cruel – arm of history. A prolific writer of plays, stories and novels – with only a handful translated into English – With an Unopened Umbrella is a welcome addition to Bruckstein’s increasingly grand posthumous legacy.
Out in February 2021
Andrew Szepessy lived a life that reads closer to the twisting plot of a crime novel than reality. Born in Brighton in 1940 to Hungarian refugees, Szepessy was raised in Britain and tutored at Oxford by Christopher Tolkien, before returning to Hungary in the 1960s and being unexpectedly imprisoned by the country’s security services. His novel Epitaphs for Underdogs – completed just before his death in 2018 – is based on this experience, and is at once a tale of political protest and beguiling horror in Hungary’s underbelly.
Translated by Sasha Dugdale, out in February 2021
It would be unsurprising if the name Maria Stepanova soon has echoes of greatness akin to Svetlana Alexievich or Olga Tokarczuk. For many, it already does. A major figure in Russia’s post-Soviet literary space, Stepanova is a poet, journalist and founder of colta.ru, Russia’s first crowdfunded online arts magazine. In February, Fitzcarraldo Editions (who also publish Alexievich and Tokarczuk) will publish Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, a work that combines personal and cultural memoir and features poetic dialogues with Barthes, Mandelstam, and Sontag. A writer whose work transcends conventional forms, Stepanova finds meaningful connections in the mundane and microscopic, illuminating the world in all its appalling beauty and terror.
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, out in February
Writer and poet Serhiy Zhadan is one Ukraine’s most decorated literary figures, whose writing has been translated into multiple languages and likened to “verbal jazz”. (Meanwhile, one New Yorker piece described Zhadan himself as “racy in а James Dean sort of way”.) Like his 2016 novel, Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan’s latest work, The Orphanage, is set in the conflict zones of eastern Ukraine, and sees the protagonist, a Ukrainian language teacher, traverse into occupied territory in search of his orphaned nephew. Written in Zhadan’s characteristically colloquial and lyrical prose, The Orphanage is a sensorial snapshot of the ongoing conflict and a chilling tale of survival.
Translated by Julian Similian, out in March 2021
A prolific writer, essayist, and poet, Mircea Cărtărescu is a household name in Romania and on much of the European continent. With the publication of Nostalgia, Mircea Cărtărescu’s phantasmagorical novel set in communist Bucharest, his work can now reach a wider English-speaking audience who have previously been limited to a handful of snippets, and Blinding (published in 2013 by Archipelago), a dreamlike, kaleidoscopic novel about the author’s childhood. Nostalgia is charged with a similarly blurry brilliance, and emerges as a celebration of the weird and the unruly, the mundane and the magical.
Translated by Paul Wilson, out in March 2021
Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal — author of Closely Observed Trains, Too Loud A Solitude, The Little Town Where Time Stood Still — is best known for his expansive works of avant-garde fiction, many of which were published in samizdat editions in the 70s. Less studied is his work The Gentle Barbarian — recently translated into English – an impressionistic portrait of Vladimír Boudník, one of the country’s most celebrated visual artists in the 50s and 60s, with whom Hrabal lived and worked. The Gentle Barbarian recounts their oscillating friendship, the formation of the Czech avant-garde, and reveals the fraught state of creative expression in communist Czechoslovakia.
Translated by Donald Rayfield, out in April 2021
And so arrives the final installment of Hamid Ismailov’s trilogy. Following on from The Devil’s Dance and Of Strangers and Bees, Manaschi juxtaposes contemporary ideas with folkloric traditions, two cornerstones of the Uzbek author’s prose. Bekesh, a radio presenter, wakes from a dream believing he has been initiated into the spirit world as a Kyrgyz healer. As he embarks on the Sisyphian task of reciting the manas — a poem of a million verses — Bekesh reflects on mortality, cultural identity and the slippery nature of storytelling itself.
Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, out in April 2021
Teffi is the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, a much-loved writer and poet who enjoyed equal stardom in pre-Revolutionary Russia and the émigré circles of Paris. Other Worlds, her latest collection of short stories to be published in English, departs from much of the personal, autobiographical settings she is known for, and heads towards pastures religious and spiritual, to the land of Baba Yaga, and provincial folk tales. Ever seeking out the supernatural of the everyday, Teffi’s stories — from the sensitive to the acerbic — are filled with wonder and spark at every turn. Supposedly, even Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin could agree on their quality.
Translated by Russell Scott Valentino, out in May 2021
Kin, Miljenko Jergović’s time-travelling, place-hopping epic, is at once a history of family and an ode to Yugoslavia. Spanning the entire 20th century, Kin traces the palimpsestic layers of the region’s past from the two World Wars through to the turmoil of the 90s. Taking the dusty objects of his family’s past and his own pockmarked memories as the subjects of his enquiry, the book is as much a comment on memory’s elusive surface as it is a social history of the region.
Out in May 2021
Yelena Moskovich returns with her latest work, A Door Behind A Door, bearing many of the hallmarks – the post-Soviet diaspora, the mesmeric blending of past and present, desire and violence – of her previous novels, Virtuoso and The Natashas. This time we are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the protagonist Olga receives a phone call opening up a Pandora’s box of haunting memories and unsolved puzzles from her Soviet past.
Translated by Sean Gasper Bye, out in June 2021
Esteemed philosopher Michel Foucault is in Warsaw, Poland, working on what will become The History of Madness. He becomes involved in the town’s gay community, until someone turns him to the secret police who swiftly remove Foucault from Poland. The truth about the informer’s identity and motivations is kept hidden, only to be uncovered decades later. Need I say more?