Writer: Biljana Jovanović (tr. by John K. Cox)
Publishing House: Istros Books
Date of Publication: November 5th 2018 (first published 1980)
Rating: 4 stars
‘’Dogs always believe that they belong to Others (whom they consider to be, for unknown reasons enduring right up to our day, better than they are). The Others are not always convinced that they are not themselves Dogs. Still, though, Dogs are Others and Others are Dogs. The one thing that actually distinguishes them from each other, now and again (and something that justifies singling them out for participants in this story), is the level of their (as numerous personages are wont to say, and learned ones at that) social adaptation.
What nonsense! What’s this sort of thing supposed to mean to Dogs? Or especially to Others?
Whatever – both the one group and the other suffocate in the same typical stinking mess that is life.’’
Yugoslavia, 1970. In seemingly disjointed snippets, we enter the world of Lidia and her highly dysfunctional family in a block of flats inhabited by peculiar individuals that live in the margin of society, in Belgrade. Lidia tries to cope with a cruel mother who has left to live her own life, an ailing grandmother, and a brother whose mental and psychological issues create a suffocating maelstrom.
This book is a never-ending earthquake. The sheer madness and despair cannot be concealed by the satire and the childhood anecdotes. Told in a frenzy through torrential stream-of-consciousness chapters, Lidia comments on so many issues and the answer is always a choice between absolute havoc and an echoing void. Experiences and dreams are intertwined and we don’t know what is real and what is fabricated. How can a problematic but strong bond between siblings make up for the absence of a positive maternal influence? How can you escape a vicious circle of sexual harassment, doubts and unapologetic self-destruction?
I’ve always believed that a country’s literature is an accurate mirror of the soul of its people. Serbian Literature is bold, brave, and fearless. I wish my Serbian was good enough so that I could read the original. Because the translation felt horribly out of place. My partner is Serbian. Belgrade is my second home, I travel in the White City at least twice every year and have done so for the past 5 – 6 years. I know it like the back of my hand. It is with absolute certainty that I tell you the translator doesn’t have a clue. None at all. He uses expressions and colloquialisms that no Serbian (or Greek) would ever use. ‘’You drive me bonkers’’? No. Or the use of ‘’like’’ in every other sentence as if they were fifteen-year-old students in a Nickelodeon show. Absolutely not. It pains me to say that the translator’s ignorance almost ruined the novel. Hence, the 4 stars. It would be unfair of me to grant it 3 stars because of one’s horrifying incompetence and absolute lack of any sense of culture.
In any case, writers like Jovanović, provocative, heretic, risky, deliciously insolent are what modern Literature is made of. They galvanise us, helping us build the character of an equally risky, brave reader. If one can’t face it, well… Šteta je!