This installment of Taste crosses multiple national borders and takes on an entire region. My justification is twofold: first because the area in question was not so long ago organized as the single state of Yugoslavia, and second because someone asked me to do it. A customer planning a trip called my shop and said she and her friends wanted some relevant reading recommendations both from and about Slovenia, Croatia, and points beyond. And thus our virtual journey begins.
Probably the most noted Slovenian fiction writer is Drago Jančar, who has published any number of highly literary novels. Heavy going for some, but always interesting and rewarding. One example is his The Tree With No Name, which shifts back and forth in time between Slovenia’s post-communist present and its Nazi-occupied past. Forbidden Bread is a memoir by an American expatriate, Erica Debeljak, which tells of her experience falling for a Slovenian poet and joining him in his native land. It’s the perfect accompaniment for my actual group of tourists, but also for armchair travelers back home.
Also of interest is Going Places: Slovenian Women’s Stories on Migration, true stories of women who were part of the Slovenian diaspora.
Books of Croatia
Something by Dubravka Ugrešić is a must. She’s written much fiction and many essays that deal with the confusion and cultural dislocation caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia, and she’s excellent in both genres. Try either her novel The Ministry of Pain or her essay collection Europe in Sepia. Or both, really.
There’s also a very good Traveler’s History of Croatia to pore over, and a couple of wonderful novels by Americans: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is both grittily real and magically inventive, and Girl at War by Sara Novic is equally good.
Other Balkan Books
Rebecca West’s magisterial travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon goes back several decades, but it’s still the standard study of this region. Even if you never plan to go there, it’s the perfect book to leave on your nightstand and dip into regularly–it can sustain a reader for years. (I did a brief writeup of it on my bookstore’s blog last summer.) A less imposing, less immersive, but still excellent general history is Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan.
Aleksandar Hemon comes from what is now technically Bosnia, but he writes beautifully about his Yugoslavian youth and the region in general. His memoir The Book of My Lives is characteristic here, as is his substantial body of fiction, both short stories and novels. It’s worth exploring the fiction of Serbian Danilo Kiš and Bosnian Ivo Andrić as well.
One of the culinary delights of the Balkans is ćevapi, a spiced meat dish made with lamb, pork, or beef. Each of the many cultures present in the region has its own variation on the recipe, and each would no doubt insist that theirs is the definitive version, which is great news for travelers. It just means more flavors to taste. A meal of ćevapi is usually served with a flatbread called lepinja, a sort of fluffier pita, and a spicy red bell pepper relish sometimes known as “Serbian caviar” but officially called ajvar.
You can save yourself some airfare if you live anywhere near Portland, which boasts multiple restaurants where you can sample all this. Thanks to an invitation from a friend of Montenegrin extraction, I can personally vouch for the pleasure of taking in a soccer game at the 442 over a plate of ćevapi.
Further exploration of the regional cuisine can be done on the home front with the aid of The Best of Croatian Cooking and Recipes from a Slovenian Kitchen.
The most important musical group in the Balkans during the late 1970s and early ’80s was probably Šarlo Akrobata, a post-punk trio that took its name from the Serbo-Croat translation for “Charlie Chaplin.” You can easily imagine them sharing a bill with better known English bands such as The Jam, The Specials, or Madness.
It isn’t fair to judge a place by its Eurovision entries, but facts are facts, and it’s part of the historical record that Riva, a band hailing from what is now Croatia, won the 1989 Eurovision song contest, representing all of Yugoslavia with “Rock Me.” That the country would soon thereafter be torn apart by sectarian violence is surely a coincidence.
A somewhat more authentic sonic experience can be found in the music of Brina. The band combines modern arrangements with traditional instrumentation (is that a cimbalom I hear?) to produce a sound that wouldn’t be out of place on its own PBS fundraising showcase.
Combination seems to be the name of the game in the Balkans. Musicians there draw on Slavic, Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Germanic, and especially Romany influences, and all of those can be heard in the brassy funk of Inspector Gadje. Its members come from all over, but they’re based on the American West Coast (hence the use of the Romany word gadje, meaning “outsider,” in their name).
Don’t worry if you can’t get down to California to catch their act, because even closer to home there’s Balkan Night Northwest, an annual music festival in Seattle. The next event is supposed to be held on March 5th and 6th of 2016.
Southeastern Europe has another, more permanent outpost in the Pacific Northwest in the form of Kultur Shock, a band led by singer and songwriter Gino Srdjan Yevdjevich, a former Yugoslav pop star turned anarchist who escaped the wars of the early ’90s and emigrated to the United States with the sponsorship of Joan Baez, of all people. The group was first formed as an electro-folk quartet, but with some pushing from the likes of Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic (himself the child of Croatian immigrants), Yevdjevich reformed the band as a rock outfit. Seattle is their base, but they tour extensively throughout Europe with their ear-bleeding (in a good way) Balkans-meet-Black Sabbath blend. One of their most recent songs suggests that it doesn’t matter where you come from or where you are, “Home” is as much a state of mind as anything. In other words, the Balkans are all around us.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. He spends a lot of time floating (virtually) down the Danube to the sea.
3 responses to “Taste: Balkans”
Love how you run with the Taste segment, James!
Hvala lijepo, Brian.
Still, if you want to try the real Ajvar you go to Macedonia not Serbia 😉