Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Destination: Eastern Europe

A few years ago, I was traveling with my sister and her husband in Serbia. We spent a day visiting a cluster of monasteries situated at the heart of the Balkans and spent a night camping on top of a wind and rain swept mountain. We woke the following morning shivering and damp, and quickly drove down the mountain to a small village, in search of some hot coffee.

It was difficult to find. All that was served in the marketplace that morning was rakia, Serbia's famous plumb brandy. My brother-in-law laughed at my desperate expression in the rear view mirror. "It's like the Serbs are saying, 'To hell with the Turks and their coffee.'" The three of us downed the burning liquor without complaint and climbed back into the car. Sufficiently warmed, I curled up in the backseat and pulled out Ivo Andric's Bridge on the Drina. In its pages, I found our breakfast explained:

"It was a cold day in late autumn and there was no coffee maker on the kapia, nor had the town Turks come there to sit and drink coffee. Therefore the people of Okoliste sat down as if they were at home, opened their bags of food and began a fresh flask of plum brandy."

That brandy breakfast convinced me of the necessity of story in understanding cultural experiences other than my own. Andric's book is a marvelous introduction to the stories that shaped the cultures of Eastern Europe. As epic as the bridge itself in dimension, this book spans centuries, yet never looses the reader in time, encapsulating each era in unique story.

Andric spent his childhood in his mother's village of Visegrad, on the banks of the Drina. Growing up at play on the kapia of the bridge he made famous, the legends surrounding the bridge were imbedded in his memory. Bridge on the Drina begins with the children of Visegrad and the colorful myths they were told about the bridge's origins. Andric's book draws on such stories to paint a complex portrait of a region whose history remains an enigma to many of us in the West.

Not far from where Andric's book sits on the Eastern Europe shelf of our Destination Literature section, you will find several titles from writer Dubravka Ugresic. This week Ugresic will be reading from her new book Karaoke Culture on Friday at 7pm in our events space at Booksmith. Ugresic was born in Yugoslavia, but left Croatia in 1993 and often writes about the plight of Yugoslav exiles. This story is particularily well-told in her novel The Ministry of Pain, in which a professor of literature in Amsterdam encourages her students to write essays indulging their nostalgia for their homeland and exploring their experiences in exile.

I first came across Ugresic's work in her essay collection Thank You For Not Reading, in which she applies her sharp wit and critical eye to publishing and book culture around the world. It may be a bit of a stretch to apply the term "exile" to those of us who still cling to the book as a work of art, but I couldn't help thinking, while reading these essays, that Ugresic's ability to identify with a downtrodden or forgotten culture makes her the perfect champion for the cause of the book.

And what better way to preserve a culture than to keep its myths alive. Ugresic's novel Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, does just that, by transforming the ancient Slavic myth of Baba Yaga into a postmodern narrative that follows four contemporary women around Eastern Europe. While Baba Yaga is commonly thought of as an evil old crone, Ugresic's work goes back to earlier oral traditions in order to restore beauty and dignity to the modern women of Eastern Europe. Not unlike Andric's achievement, this tale captures readers of any culture, bringing a far off part of the world right to your breakfast table, whether you are serving coffee, or plum brandy.

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