Experimental fiction, literary classics, searing historical accounts, and forgotten memoirs: the breadth of literature from across the post-communist world — much of it still untranslated — stands as testament to centuries of human experience in a region marked by political turmoil and extraordinary resilience. We asked writers, poets, translators, and academics to help us pick 100 of the best books from Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia available in English. From Belgrade to Bishkek, these remarkable works of literature span across cultures, borders, and time.
Having read Andrei Platonov’s Soul in my youth, I fell ill. Before that, this had happened to me only while reading Anna Karenina, and twice more later, after reading The Metamorphosis by Kafka and The Stranger by Camus. If you write yourself, you want to give up your writing after reading these books, as it seems like everything has already been said by those authors, and that you have nothing more to add.
The story focuses on the fate of the fictional Dzhan people: beggars, orphans, and fugitives who once settled in the Sary-Kamysh desert between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and are now on the verge of complete disappearance. The protagonist of the story, Nazar Chagataev, a young economist with a Moscow education, is tasked by the Party with finding these people and returning them to a dignified human existence. After long wanderings along the desert (a strong referral to Biblical and Sufi motifs) the Dzhan people finally reach the Ust-Urt valley, which, according to Chagataev’s plan, is destined to become the cradle of a renewed and happy tribe.
The book might be read as a Sufi treatise, a failed Soviet manifesto, a post-modern gospel — or the quintessence of great Russian literature.
László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango is set in the dying days of communist Hungary, but could equally be read as a fable for our fractious present. The book follows the opportunistic Irimias and Petrina, who return to a desolate village promising a utopian vision for the future. There are clear allusions to communism here, but it remains a vague criticism of any ideology based on exploitation. Kraszknahorkai brilliantly shows the whisker-thin line between hope and self-deception while living under desperate conditions, and the ease with which grand rhetoric can manipulate the vulnerable. One epigraph, attributed to Kafka, speaks to this very idea: “I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it.” In other words, what subjective reality do we forego by chasing the fantasies of others?
Artistically, Krasznahorkai’s prose is in a category of its own; his expansive, sparsely punctuated sentences are perplexing, electrifying, and illuminating all at once, as all great literature should be. He describes through accumulation, constructing his world through what feels like a destructive energy, stretching language to its limits in the hope of creating something new. And while that something remains elusive, it is forever there, a kind of disorienting, shimmering promise on the horizon, like the utopian society Irimias and Petrina promise the villagers.
At the heart of Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich’s “collective novel” The Unwomanly Face of War is the human experience of a catastrophe and the search for a language to describe it. The Unwomanly Face of War makes it clear: the face of war is a woman’s face, and the voice coming from the midst of the Second World War is a woman’s voice. Many surviving male soldiers went mute refusing to talk about their experience on the front. The narrative of a heroic victory was offered as the subtitles for their silence. Alexievich went on to record the testimonies of female soldiers and military nurses, who, thinking that the language of male heroism wasn’t theirs to use, spoke of their experience on intimate terms, often focusing on small details. Avoiding ready-made formulas, they formulated a language for a testimony that, with true clarity, piercing the question: “what does it mean to be a human being during war.”
Bruno Schulz is an utterly emotional, and, at times, even euphoric author. His rhythms and verbal pulsation draw you in as a reader. Once you savour this writing, you can no longer tear yourself from it. Schulz creates a personal mythology that, like a mosaic, includes small fragments of foundational global mythologies, from Judaic and Christian traditions to Hindu and Greco-Roman motifs. He transforms the Galician town of Drohobycz (part of modern day Ukraine), where he was born and lived his entire life, into a coherent realm of fantasy, saturated with ironic exaltation and a peculiar exoticism. If there is such a thing as Central European literature, Schulz is its undisputed classic. Shot in the middle of his hometown by an SS officer, the 50-year-old Polish Jew later became a tragic metaphor for the total destruction of otherness and waste of life that came to be called the Holocaust.
From the opening poem of the anthology F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, published in 2020, I felt I was reading something remarkable. Lida Yusupova’s One Minute tells the story of a woman asked to have sex with a young, nervous army recruit about to set out for Afghanistan, one white night in 1980s Leningrad. The poem is unapologetic in its grittiness. It is graphic, sad, but also darkly humorous, painting a clear-eyed, distinctly female vignette from one of the Soviet Union’s most troubled periods. In another poem, Nastya Denisova recalls, in short, halted verses, the moment she forgets the name she had given to her unborn baby, lost in a miscarriage (“how can you lose something from nothing”). Meanwhile, Ekaterina Simonova tenderly imagines what it would be like to grow old with her secret lesbian lover in a strange future we are all likely to experience, in which most of the people she follows on Instagram are dead.
As I made my way through the collection, it felt as if I were opening a door into a hidden world we rarely glimpse in Russia — a world that is vibrant, witty, honest, loving, both long suffering and immensely resilient. Given the deteriorating situation facing women and queer people in Russia, such an anthology has never been more timely. Though this is not the first collection of contemporary Russian women writers, it is the only expressly feminist anthology of its kind. The collection comes in the form of a tiny book that fits right into the palm of the hand — a pocket-sized guide for the post-Soviet feminist revolution.
A wild and wily novel with pain in its heart, Andriy Lyubka’s Carbide tackles the subject of Ukraine’s place in Europe sideways, or rather, from underground. Here, the national dream of integration into the EU, which soared during 2014’s Maidan Revolution and was stymied by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into Donbas, fuels one man’s harebrained scheme to sneak the entire population of Ukraine into Western Europe by means of a tunnel. With its epic conceit, keen sense of human folly, and its blend of comedy and tragedy, Carbide digs back to the very roots of Ukrainian literature, calling to mind Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s mock-heroic retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Eneyida (1798), which mourned and slyly immortalised the nation’s vanquished Cossack past. Ukraine’s Zaporozhian Cossacks never recovered their autonomy after being disbanded by the Russians, but we can still hope that the European aspirations of modern Ukrainians produce better results in life than they do in Lyubka’s lively novel, which is now available in Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler’s equally vivid translation.
Dubravka Ugrešić is a literary tornado: a writer with strong, uncompromising views, huge talent and creative energy, capable of squeezing fiction out of the faintest details. When I met and interviewed her at a literary festival, she was just as spectacular in person as she is in her books: a strong advocate for freedom of speech and thought, a courageous, exiled woman who keeps debunking nationalism and refuses to identify as anything but a writer. The Ministry of Pain is a historical book on the convoluted past of Yugoslavia, as well as a realistic, comic, and heart-felt chronicle of the lives of a group of Balkan refugees who study in the Netherlands, guided by their young teacher Tanja Lucić. Each has their own reason to run away from their home countries after the fall of Yugoslavia, with the rise of nationalism, the disarray, war, and killings that followed. This dense and heavy, yet bright and entertaining book about yugonostalgia, exile, and the right to reclaim our past, is a literary feast, drawing on the wounded East.
Born into a family of nomadic Kazakhs in 1922, Shayakhmetov was 7-years-old when farming in Kazakhstan was disastrously collectivised. Nomadic pastoral families were forced into sovkhoz (state farms) or kolkhoz (collective farms), and their animals — their source of food, clothes, companionship, and identity — were requisitioned. No animals meant no milk and no meat, and in this chaos, a deadly famine — the Asharshylyk — was triggered, killing at least 1.5 million Kazakhs between the years of 1930-33. Hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fled to neighbouring countries. Kazakhstan lost most of its livestock, while its population lost their traditional way of life forever. Such collectivisation also triggered widespread starvation across Russia and Belarus, as well as deadly famines killing several million people in Moldova, and Ukraine, where it is known as the Holomodor. The numbers are so terrible and huge as to be unfathomable. Some Kazakhs rightly feel this tragic episode has been underplayed and ignored by the world. As one modern-day dairy magnate told me in Karaganda, “learn the food and you’ll learn the history.” You cannot separate Kazakhstan’s history of milk and meat from its modern and ancient past. This book is critical for understanding Kazakhstan and its long history of nomadism and animal husbandry on the steppe.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), Wes Anderson takes Bohumil Hrabal’s fluid whimsy and reduces it to the consistency of syrupy, saccharine quirkiness. I Served the King of England deserves better, and it gets its dues in Paul Wilson’s light-handed translation. This is one of Central Europe’s great hotel novels, witty and deep, set in Prague, and the city’s provincial clones. The pomp of hotel lobbies and restaurants serves as a backdrop to portray the smallness of a person caught up in the maelstrom of history, forced to scramble, bear losses, make bad judgement calls, and strike Faustian bargains. The chronology is as epic — from the interwar period to Czechoslovakia’s Nazi occupation and postwar flares of anti-Germanness to the onset of communism — as the protagonist is tiny, in stature, class, and name (Dítě means “child” in Czech). A classic picaro, Dítě courts fortune and slaloms through misfortunes. Sometimes he is unscrupulous; at other times, spunky. He rises up the rungs of hospitality, accidentally earning a medal “for exemplary service rendered to the throne of the Emperor of Ethiopia” from Haile Selassie (serving the King of England remains a metaphor for the magic dust of aspirations). This becomes his life’s defining event that no other improbable turn of fate can top: not marrying a Nazi sympathiser and working at an “Aryan” reproductive resort; not losing his wife’s head in a bombing; not getting rich off the contents of the suitcase that she’s found clutching in death (a rare stamp collection stolen from the deported Jews); not opening a hotel of his own, only to lose it to expropriation and end up in a correctional facility. The medal, “the lowest in degree but the largest in size” (and thus strictly symbolic), shines onto him through all this, like a sun. May we all have a light that’s even half so bright.
“Every human generation has its own illusions with regard to civilization; some believe they are taking part in its upsurge, others that they are witnesses of its extinction. In fact, it always both flames and smolders and is extinguished, according to the place and the angle of view.”
It feels timely, in 2021, to return to Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina. It begins with a young Serb boy in Višegrad, taken by force from his mother during the Ottoman occupation and converted to Islam, before rising through the military ranks. In 1566, he orders the construction of a bridge at the point on the river Drina where he last saw her. Over the next four centuries, wars rage and empires rise and fall, but the bridge stands impervious, a silent witness to the everyday lives, desires, and destinies of the Višegrad residents: Turks, Serbs, Sephardic Jews, and Roma.
Andrić himself was an exceptionally private person who declined interviews and rarely commented on his work. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he barely uttered the word “I”, referring to himself instead as “a writer from a small country.” This is very telling of his priorities — he chose to immortalise a community and a people’s relationship to history, rather than extol heroes or strongmen. This view of the past, whether in fiction or not, is as useful to us now as ever for understanding the present.
Hailed as “Georgia’s War and Peace” by the publishing world, Nino Haratishvili’s 936-page The Eighth Life arrived on UK bookshelves last year with an audible thud. It was a particularly welcome thud for me personally, a chance to read about the world my grandfather would have inhabited had he not fled Georgia before the Bolshevik occupation. Detailing the struggles of one family, the Jashis, during the “red century”, The Eighth Life is the most comprehensive historical novel of Georgia’s Soviet past translated into English, as much a history of Stalin’s atrocities as it is of grassroots protest. Filled with richly-drawn characters – from renowned Politburo members to passing acquaintances — the novel plays out against the major events of the century, deftly combining the political and the personal, the historical and the contingent. While each new generation brings the hope of change, Haratisvhili reveals that the cruel patterns of history are never far from view. Will the Jashis free themselves from this invisible curse? Haratishvili leaves us guessing until the final page.
“Russian literature has a bad tradition [of being] devoted to the description of unsuccessful love affairs,” Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky once wrote. The national pastime of romantic suffering is at the centre of Margarita Khemlin’s unflinching familial masterpiece, Klotsvog, short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize in 2009. Set in the aftermath of the Soviet pogroms and the Holocaust, amid rumours that Stalin is preparing his own “final solution”, young protagonist Maya accidentally falls pregnant from a secret affair. Left with her son, Misha, Maya becomes entangled with a chain of lovers in an eerie telenovela of survival. But Maya’s nimble pursuit of romance at the neglect of her son reveals a deeper generational disturbance. “We didn’t have anybody’s examples to follow for love,” Maya confides in the first pages. The bloodline of trauma permeates with beautiful poetry. “I dreamed of Misha, that he couldn’t swim and was afraid,” Maya later concedes. When her third husband has a telephone installed in their Moscow apartment, Maya routinely picks it up in private without calling anyone, and confesses desperate, unintelligible utterances to the dead receiver. Klotsvog is a must-read, for its frightening finesse, unparalleled grasp on Soviet anti-Semitism, and the inherited anxiety of lovelessness.
“I’m sensitive, my love, like a pregnant bitch,” runs one line from a poem in A Wake for the Living, Radmila Lazić’s first poetry collection available in English. Strong, uncompromising, and full of intelligent humour, the Serbian poet writes candidly about what it means to be a woman in today’s society, as well as within family ties, romantic and sexual relations, and in relation to herself. Opposing traditional social, ideological, and literary structures and forms, her verse is unashamedly autobiographical, and a critique of the time we all live in. Lazić’s poetry is also a response to 90s Serbian realities: critical of her country’s nationalism, Milosević’s regime, the Yugoslav Wars, and the transition to capitalism in the Balkans, Lazić’s voice shouts against terrors, physical and psychological, political and anthropological. While she is obsessed with death, it is Lazić’s existential attitude to life that connects her to the great women poets of 20th-century world literature.
Written in Greek by an Albanian writer while he was living in Athens as an immigrant, this humorous and emotional novel is the autobiographical story of an Eastern European crossing the border by foot in 1991, only to be confronted with the gap between his fantasies about Western life, (mis)informed by glamorous TV series, and the dire reality he faces there.
To those who have not experienced the real-life dystopia of Albania pre-1990, some of the facts described in the novel, such as his cousin decorating her china cabinet with an empty detergent bottle that had washed up on a beach, may seem like overkill. They are not. Although there is fiction here, Kapllani is soberingly honest when looking back at the communist Albanian perception of basic goods. He does so with the clarity of someone who is both on the inside and outside of things, constantly crossing the dividing boundary.
The book is Kapllani’s first novel, which follows a collection of poems, numerous media articles, and essays. A Short Border Handbook delivers on what its title promises and more: with dark humour, it explores borders and migration from a dazzling, multi-layered perspective. Kapllani looks into the themes of identity, belonging, homeland, and heritage, without shying away from crossing painful limits and telling some shocking truths.
Vera Figner’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist is the prime example of the moral purity of the revolutionary movement in Russia, and the suffering and self-sacrifice it inspired in many of its proponents. One of a number of well-to-do young women who found the inequalities, oppression, and exploitation of the Tsarist autocracy insupportable, and who initially turned to peaceful propaganda in the hope of instigating reforms, Figner rose to the executive committee of the revolutionary organisation The People’s Will, which was responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Arrested in 1883, she was sentenced to death, commuted to life-long hard labour, and spent 20 years in Imperial Russia’s most notorious penal institution, Shlisselburg Fortress near St Petersburg. In the first half of her memoirs, Figner charts her revolutionary development, including an eloquent defence of the movement’s turn to terrorist tactics. The second half depicts her long years of incarceration, which began under extremely harsh conditions of total solitary confinement, but later relaxed to allow the prisoners to meet, work and study together, and care for each other. I first read Memoirs of a Revolutionist as part of my research on Russian prison writing, pursuing references in Evgeniia Ginzburg’s Gulag memoir Into the Whirlwind. I was immediately hooked by the picture Figner paints of resilience and fortitude among the inmates, and of the exemplary prison life they constructed.
Tourism to Uzbekistan is up. (Or, at least it was before Covid-19 slammed international borders shut.) In 2019, international arrivals were impressive, with the official figure above six million. During former president Islam Karimov’s controversial 27-year rule, his restrictive, Soviet-style policies made tourists — and foreign investors — wary. As a result, during those hard, paranoid years, the country’s development was sluggish, almost suspended in time. Now he has gone, and there is a strong push to welcome visitors in and develop the country’s tourism potential. But, for those arriving, it is also important to be aware of the very recent oppressions and challenges that Uzbeks suffered, and still suffer today. While some things have changed, many have stayed the same. Bukharbayeva is a journalist from Uzbekistan – having worked for both the BBC and Associated Press — and her book, with its nimble journalistic paragraphs and intimate first-person accounts, is essential reading. As a reporter, Bukharbayeva witnessed authoritarianism up-close, as well as the country’s attempts at post-independence nation building. In particular, she examines the horrific injustices inflicted upon Uzbekistan’s devout Muslims. Critically, she was also one of the few reporters present at the Andijan massacre of 2005 when Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed people. An important read, now more so than ever.
Is there a better year to read or re-read a novel about a man stranded overseas when a war breaks out in his own country? (This is a rhetorical question.) Gombrowicz fictionalises his own experience in Argentina in 1939, making it barely recognisable thanks to the Baroque language, heaps of sarcasm, and plot twists that Carolyn French and Nina Karsov reinvent in a veritable tour de force of translation. This said, anyone expecting a Robinsonade would walk away sorely disappointed. Gombrowicz’s Buenos Aires is very densely populated, with too many Argentines and even more Poles to get mad about, letting off steam in hilariously elaborate rants and verbal (and not only verbal) duels. A delightful sublimation of so many feelings at once.
Jewish-Romanian author Mihail Sebastian’s work sparked big literary scandals both during his life and posthumously. His diary entries from 1935-1944 were first published in 1996, 41 years after the author’s death in a car accident, taking the Romanian cultural scene by storm. Even more vivid and splendidly written than Sebastian’s novels and plays, the diary shows the rise of anti-semitism in real time in interwar Romania, and the horrors of the Second World War, with the country’s literary elite — Sebastian’s friends — proving to be chauvinistic. Beyond the political landscape, the diary captures Sebastian in turns animated and tortured by his bohemian love life, sometimes slipping in unfortunate objectifying remarks on the women he meets. In other parts, the author meditates on his writing on one of his novels, The Accident, a wonderful hymn to skiing, a reflection on how to get over an ex, and a novel he had to rewrite after losing the manuscript. He also mulls over the outrage over his previous novel, Two Thousand Years, prefaced by his anti-Semitic mentor, philosopher Nae Ionesco, and his essay responding to the scandal, How I Became a Hooligan. With Journal, 1935-44 Sebastian consolidates his posthumous place as one of Romania’s absolute classics.
Mayakovsky! “Each word, each joke, which his scorching mouth spews, jumps like a naked prostitute from a burning brothel!” This Soviet poet’s thunderous voice is simply too much fun to be left to scholars alone — though it is scholars we have to thank for this beautiful bilingual book. Max Hayward and George Reavey’s rendering avoids the stilted sound and overdesigned syntax one so often encounters in translated poetry, while Patricia Blake’s introduction provides valuable context, especially for the profoundly ambivalent way Mayakovsky viewed the Soviet state. While he saw himself as the servant of a mass movement, he recognised the role of a creative mind as fundamentally individualistic, and wrote from a standpoint of such towering narcissism that Trotsky memorably called him a “Mayako-morphist.” He fully expected to be devoured by the revolution he sang. This book tells that story in full by including the final poem Mayakovsky wrote before his suicide, as well as his play The Bedbug, which depicts a person from the poet’s own time finding himself in a communist future that has no use for him.
Published when he was just 22, this short-story collection (often called Gogol’s Ukrainian tales) announced a new and undeniable talent on the Russian literary scene. Told through the perspective of an illiterate beekeeper, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka showed flashes of what would become Gogol’s signature style of blending the comic with the grotesque. Born in Ukraine, Gogol moved to the Russian capital of St Petersburg when he was just 19 with hopes of making a name for himself as a writer. At the time, there was rabid interest in Ukrainian folklore among Russian readers who were looking for some kind of authentic cultural encounter with a group of people they regarded as backwards. The Ukrainian Gogol cleverly played into this, filling his story with the kind of folksy elements his Russian readers craved. In doing so, he catapulted himself from the margins of a literary community to its centre, and in the process, forced everyone to acknowledge the level of genius that could be found in an imperial backwater.
A veritable classic in the literature of the Armenian diaspora, William Saroyan’s 1937 book of short stories is, in a word, delightful. Told from the perspective of a young boy named Aram Garoghlanian, each story provides a unique and vivid description of the everyday lives of members of the Armenian community in and around Fresno, California. In one story, Aram’s uncle buys some farmland and plants pomegranate trees, tending to them with great care for several years in the unforgiving desert soil, only to find that there’s no market for pomegranates in the US. In another, Aram and his friend Pandro Kolkhozian find themselves singing in a church choir as a result of a neighbour’s attempt to “save” them after she hears them swearing — but they bargain with her and convince her to pay them for it. (In her purposeful ignorance, she calls them “Eugene” and “Pedro”.) Although there’s a certain amount of inherent tragedy in Saroyan’s stories and their Depression Era backdrop, his overarching theme is unbridled optimism — the ultimate portrayal of the American dream.
Walker on Water by the Estonian writer Kristiina Ehin is made up of short stories — or perhaps it would be better to say, of intense flashes of surrealism, proceeding at the brisk pace of fairy tales. These stories are all apparently linked, although the narrator’s gender, personality traits, and backstory shift at imperceptible moments. A woman on a coastal farm tries to teach herself to walk on water; another bites the arms off her lovers at unexpected moments; someone writes a fantastically successful grammar of the language of birds…
Ehin is best known as a poet, and these stories display many of the same features as her poetry: displaced in time, luminous in imagery, but steeped in a light irony; even at their most distant from any apparent reference points, they are characterised by the iron, convincing logic of dreams.
The book reminds me in an odd way of lots of things I like about Estonia, not least the unexpected constructions of its non-Indo-European language — “next to” being literally “on the ear of” (kõrval) – and the White Nights of June on the Gulf of Finland, a light-stained time when everyone and everything seems slightly mad.
Dostoevsky was my starting point as a researcher and I’ll never stray too far away from him. A deep dive into ethical, existential, and metaphysical ideas, Demons, also translated as Devils and The Possessed, was inspired by a real-life event: the murder of a student by a group of would-be revolutionaries instigated by the opportunist Sergei Nechaev, who persuaded his followers they were one cell in a wider revolutionary network. In Dostoevsky’s page-turning plot, the murderous conspiracy engulfs a provincial town in chaos, while we’re left to figure out the true role of the enigmatic protagonist Stavrogin, and the acolytes who live – and die – for his discarded ideas.
In Dostoevsky’s typical unreliable narration, the revolutionaries — and maybe even the narrator — seize hold of stories and manipulate them for their own end, with horrific results, including the highest body-count of all of Dostoevsky’s novels. Its resonance in the era of fake news is hard to miss. At the same time, for all its darkness, Demons is the funniest of Dostoevsky’s long works. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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. In 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.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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). While Resurrection was Tolstoy’s best sold novel during his lifetime, it’s a pity it is now lesser known than his other writings.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 all the important aspects of the original: not only the paraphrasable content, but also the wit and musicality.