When I started to compile a personal anthology, I tried to find a theme to wrap my choices around. But as I worked up a few possibilities, nothing came together convincingly and I ended up including things that I thought ought to be there rather than those I really liked.
So I decided just to bring some stories together, many of them recently published, which I’ve enjoyed the most and have shown me something new and interesting. In the process, coherence of a sort emerged – first geographical, then thematic. The writers who stood out for me come from Ireland and the Balkan countries, and many of these stories deal with exile, displacement and loss of home and family. It wasn’t a theme I had looked for, but the history of those places makes it unsurprising and I doubt there is a more pertinent and affecting subject for story-telling today.
Night in Tunisia was the first book of short stories I bought, forty years ago. I had seen Neil Jordan’s film Angel twice in a week when it was released, and the book had been in the news when it won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979. After years of studying Shakespeare and fat Victorian novels, it was exciting to discover that stories which were so powerful and memorable could be told in short form. ‘A Love’ is the final story in the collection and the one that has stayed with me the longest. A young man and older woman meet again in Dublin after his long absence in London, on the day of de Valera’s funeral, then drive across country as they rake through the last embers of a relationship which started when he was a teenager and she a holiday landlady. It’s an elegiac and ruminative Oedipal story, which lingers in images like the “peculiar yearning” he felt when he found her father’s civil-war pistol and she took it from him and hid it between her breasts under her blouse: “you called it love, I remember. And it must have been”.
Collected in Night in Tunisia, The Irish Writers Co-operative, 1976, and Chatto and Windus, 1983
I suspect all Wendy Erskine’s stories will eventually be included in these personal anthologies, and some, like ‘Cell’, more than once. It’s hard to choose a favourite from her collections, but this one includes all her strengths as a writer: depth of characterisation, subtle layering of place and time, humanity, empathy, and – even in a story as dark as this one – humour. It shows us Caro – Caroline – an isolated and vulnerable Irish student adrift in London who is “adopted” into a small and inept political group, and is then effectively held captive for almost twenty-five years. It doesn’t feel like a political story, rather one of sad personal tragedy, but it contains real insight into how people in cults behave. There is a terrible incident early on, when Caroline meets Bridget, the leader, for the first time and she effectively has her name stripped from her by the other woman who insists on calling her Caro. And Caro she remains from that point onwards, belittled and diminished. As a glimpse of how a ruthlessly cruel person can undermine the identity of a potential victim by renaming and misnaming her, it’s profound and subtle and so fleeting you’d almost miss it.
Collected in Dance Move, Stinging Fly, 2022
I don’t know if the word “delightful” is a good enough word to describe something you love, but when I first read this story I grinned like a fool from beginning to end. I’ve just read it again and I’m still smiling. Seamus isn’t the exile in this story, but Katherine is – a young woman from Poland working in a cafe in Carrick. They are both lonely and a bit lost, but they work through their awkwardness to accommodate each other’s failings – his weak chin and her lumpy knees – and find a way to make reality live with their ideals. Much of the humour of the story is in the language and the telling, and that’s enough to make it irresistible. But it also plays some very clever games with the conventions of romance, undercutting them at every stage with the rituals of everyday life – shopping in Lidl, stalking an Instagram account. They lose each other of course, and after a modern version of a romantic quest, by google maps and a cheap flight to Wroclaw, Seamus finds her again. When he walks into the last internet cafe in Europe where Katherine is the only customer, she sees him and says, “Oh, thanks be to fuck”, and you know they’ll be alright.
First published in The New Yorker, October 2018, and available to read and listen to here. Collected in That Old Country Music, Canongate, 2020
‘Dead Dog’ is one of the most uncomfortable stories here because of its intense physicality but also because the margins of hope are so narrow. The protagonist is a failing Irish writer living in Bucharest with no money, in a run-down apartment block, trying to look after his young daughter after her mother has left them. He has written a “dead-end book” which has been refused by his publisher and his editor has abandoned him. But he is a man who can’t help taking on responsibilities he can barely meet, like arranging to remove the corpse of an old neighbour’s dog from the basement because people are complaining about the smell. Literally scratching around, collecting bits of scrap metal to raise money to pay the disposal company, every move he makes is draining and painful in the sweltering Romanian summer. The reader feels it too – the heat, the smells, the sheer effort of doing anything at times, are relentless. But there is some hope in the end, in the writer’s attempts to do the right things in the hardest circumstances, and particularly in his relationship with his daughter:
“When the child was born and he first held her, he felt he was good enough to protect her and do only what was right. That was love, and nothing else held the foolish precarious world together.”
Collected in Trouble, Stinging Fly Press, 2021
I’m not sure that Marie McQuade qualifies as an Irish writer, but this is very much an Irish story – lyrical, funny and sad. The narrator is a single English woman with a young son who grieves for the loss of her Irish father and feels a “mad longing” for another Irish man to take his place. She finds one only too quickly:
“I did not know there were men who attended wakes for the free egg sandwiches, excess of daytime drinking and the lust that death evoked in women.”
He charms her, they marry, and then he flits, leaving his own old father for her to care for. There’s a quiet desperation in some of the things that follow, but she shows resilience and humour too. She ends up bonding with the old man over hash cakes and Cowboy Junkies songs and the story ends in laughter. It’s a slight tale, only six pages long, but it’s one that will leave you smiling. It’s also a lovely example of the good work coming from local writing groups and small publishers like thi wurd and all the more precious for it.
Collected in Alternating Current: an anthology of fiction, poetry and experimental writing, thi wurd, 2022
I knew I had to buy Midfield Dynamo when I saw the contents page was laid out in the formation of a football team, with each story occupying its own position on the field. ‘We Too Have Wind-Blown Plazas’ is the No 9, one of two strikers, the target man. Foster is an engineer working in Abu Dhabi, who has left Ireland as much to escape the scorn of his father as the country to which he promised himself he would never return. He wants to “perish in the desert”, isolating himself in his work, but he comes under the influence of his employer, another father figure, who introduces him to class A drugs and seems determined to lead him into complete dissolution. His sense of reality becomes increasingly disordered and when he witnesses the grotesque death of a migrant worker it’s never clear if it’s an actual event, a drug-induced hallucination, or purely a metaphor. This is a short and shocking story of alienation and loss of self, flatly and precisely told. It starts with Foster’s rage at his father and ends in his deportation back to Ireland and its “people and their rage, or something that sounds like rage, but rage that has been continuously doused and beaten and broken, until it is barely rage at all.” There’s not much in the way of hope here, even less than in Ó Ceallaigh’s ‘Dead Dog’, but it’s a fascinating and compelling piece of writing.
Collected in Midfield Dynamo, The Lilliput Press, 2021
Aleksandar Hemon was the first writer from Bosnia I came across a few years ago, and he helped me find my way to other excellent writers from the Balkans. Everything he has published is worth reading but I think his short stories are where his quality really shines. They have a style, poise and elegance that are a pure pleasure to read. ‘The Conductor’ is in some ways a characteristic Hemon story in that it contains autobiographical elements (the young Bosnian writer who is stuck in the USA throughout the siege of his home city of Sarajevo), but also fantastical characters and events, and a large space between where you just don’t know where the real and the fictional collide. Along with the narrator, the other main character is Muhamed D., a older poet also known as Dedo:
“My story is boring: I was not in Sarajevo when the war began; I felt helplessness and guilt as I watched the destruction of my hometown on tv; I lived in America. Dedo, of course, stayed for the siege – if you are the greatest living Bosnian poet, if you wrote a poem called “Sarajevo”, then it is your duty to stay.”
The narrator dislikes Dedo from the time they first meet in Sarajevo before the war. He resents the obvious disdain the older man has for him. He resents his poetry and his fame, and the way he uses them to attract young women. Then, when he pretends that Dedo’s poetry is his own in order to seduce an American woman at an MLA conference, he resents him even more. His feelings about the old man become inseparable from his own self-loathing. Eventually they meet again when Dedo moves to the USA and the younger man becomes reconciled to him during a night of horribly comic mishaps as they get drunk together and suffer a series of degradations and humiliations. In the end he learns to love the old man and to embrace him in his decrepitude, and perhaps he learns to accept the lost and guilty part of himself as well.
First published in The New Yorker, Feb 28, 2005, and available to read here. Collected in Love and Obstacles, Picador, 2009. Also included in The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, Penguin, 2021
Adnan Mahmutović left Bosnia as a refugee in 1993 and now lives and works in Stockholm. ‘First Day of Night’ is the story of Almasa, another refugee from his country, a young Muslim woman who arrives in Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, on Christmas Eve. It’s a place she has chosen to settle, “as far as she could go without losing contact with the world. The safest place on earth”. In the course of the story we learn that she has suffered terribly in the past, having lost her family and been raped by Serb soldiers, but it’s her courage and resilience which shine through. There’s a wildness in her behaviour, and bitter humour too, as she imitates Robert de Niro in his “You talking to me?” routine, takes up with three old drunks in the street (a bizarre parody of three wise men), and gets a carful of young Swedes to give her beer when she “flips open her coat, and flashes her flat tits” at them. At times the story has a surreal quality, but it is grounded in the harsh reality of the cold and discomfort that Alamsa experiences in this alien place. But in the end it’s an optimistic tale. Despite everything she has experienced she is a survivor. You want her to carry on surviving and you’re reassured that she will in the final lines as she “smiles, laughs, guffaws and goes back to her room thinking, I’m in the right place”.
First published in Stand Magazine in 2010, and collected in How to Fair Well and Stay Fair, Salt Publishing, 2012
Last year I put a note on Twitter asking people to recommend writers from the Balkans I should look out for, and the Macedonian writer Rumena Bužarovska’s name was mentioned more than once. Her collection My Husband contains a series of stories about the bullying, hypocrisy, and other abuses that take place in families in a male-dominated society. Some of them are brutal, some funny, but ‘Lily’ is probably the most painful of them all. The narrator’s husband, Jovan, won’t let her visit her sick mother in her rural home “because she reminded him of poverty and illness” and a past that he both fears and resents. Even when their daughter Lily is born, he refuses to let her take the young child to see her grandmother. So she waits and frets and lies, and eventually makes the journey without him knowing. The tragedy that follows is mundane and awful, and this is reflected in the way the story is told, without irony or elaboration. In the aftermath, the lives of all the characters are hollowed out, relationships fragment, and old friendships are lost. In the end there’s no solace to be found here or lessons learned, but there is, perhaps, the terrible truth that grief can make people selfish and cruel.
Collected in My Husband, Dalkey Archive Press, 2019; also included in Contemporary Macedonian Fiction, Dalkey Archive Press, 2019
‘Snowflake’ is the third and final part of a book which describes itself as a novel, but consists of three distinct stories about the author’s and his family’s life in the USA after they have left Bosnia. Each story is one of exile, a state of being in which memory helps to preserve identity and gives solace to their painful experiences. When Mehmedinović’s wife, Sanja, suffers a stroke she loses both her short term memory and long periods of her past. He nurses her and reminds her daily of where they are, how long they have lived there, and all that has happened between now and their previous life in Sarajevo. The storytelling becomes an aid to her recovery, and is in itself an act of love:
“She’s well aware that she doesn’t remember, and asks questions that are crucial to her, she turns to me out of her forgetfulness with full emotional participation. This is one question that she repeats every day:
“How’s your mother?”
“She died in December, four months ago,” I say.
She starts to cry. “I didn’t know … I’m sorry.”
She repeats the question “How’s your mother?” every day. And every day she
receives the news with the same intensity, always hearing it for the first time. My Heartisn’t a sentimental book, and even the story ‘Snowflake’ seems appropriately cold at times. But there is no bitterness, only genuine compassion. On the final page Mehmedinović describes himself and his wife walking along a street in Alexandria, Virginia, when they are passed by a Google car photographing the area for Street View. You expect at least a trace of them to be preserved, but I’ve walked up and down that street online several times and I can’t see them. It feels like their experience of life as exiles is always in danger of disappearing into nothing.
Part Three of My Heart: a novel, Catapult, 2021
Elvis Bego’s story is a recollection of his experience as a twelve-year-old from Bosnia in a refugee camp in the Czech Republic. He’s there with his father and an “entertaining” assortment of other refugees, having been separated from his mother and sister when they left their home country. Neither part of the family knows if the other is alive. In this strange new place he shows all the bravado of a young adolescent, acting cool with his friends and eager to impress an older girl, Ema:
“My hair was a little longer, my tongue looser, worldlier, and more daring than the other guys had to offer. I was as wise as Socrates and cool as Johnny Depp. One of the first things Ema said to me was that I looked like the actor. I wasn’t impressed, or I didn’t show it.”
But they’re all still kids really, playing at war in the forest, whooping like ghosts in corridors when the power fails, excited but scared by sex. The story is a headlong encounter with new experiences, but with a backdrop of grim reality that is always waiting to trip the youngsters up. As the narrator says, “Memories are minefields”. Memories like this:
“Nobody talked about what they had seen in the war. Or rather, the less you’d seen the more you talked about it. I said nothing about the man in the cherry tree, who’d been shot by a sniper and hung like a scarecrow, his body blackening in the sun.”
There is good news in the end, but it’s tempered by the writer’s knowledge of how much he and everyone else has been changed by their experiences, even in the short span of the narrative. I read this story online when Elvis Bego tweeted about it a few months ago, and I was immediately drawn in by one of the most engrossing descriptions of life in exile I’ve ever read. It’s funny and painful and real in a way that gets right under your skin.
Published in Agni No 81, 2015, and available to read here
I started this anthology with the first book of short stories I bought. This is the most recent. Balkan Bombshellsis a collection of contemporary women writers from Serbia and Montenegro, recently published in the UK by Istros Books. It contains a wealth of excellent writing, with some of the authors translated into English for the first time. Svetlana Slapšak’s contribution is a cleverly framed story, where the displacement of the narrator Milica (living comfortably with her husband and daughter in Toronto) provides a counterpoint to events in her former homeland. She receives an email from an old boyfriend, Slobo, who travelled back to Belgrade at the time of the death of the former leader Milošević while he was being tried for war crimes in the Hague. He describes the people who gather to honour him:
“These were his most faithful minions: not farmers or youth, but simple folk from deep, small-town Serbia – places where army coffins were sent, but not money, and no one cared or helped. They were mostly elderly, and many were cripples. A funeral audience, you might say, but they didn’t even have Sunday best to wear to a funeral. Did they come because they got a meal on the way? Most likely.”
Slobo’s long narrative takes the story in an overtly political, almost polemical, direction. But the subtle juxtaposition of perspectives reveals a painful ambiguity. After he describes in harsh terms all that he sees and despises in post-war Belgrade, we hear that Milica’s mother still lives there in her old home, drafting projects for NGOs, translating manuals and even selling her daughter’s translations. She is the one with “real staying power”, while Milica is in Toronto with her books and her cats and her “indeterminable sense of guilt”.
Collected in Balkan Bombshells, Istros Books, 2023