‘I’m writing to you from Belgrade’ by Svetlana Slapšak, translated by Will Firth

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