English Publisher Presents Serbian Classic: Hamam Balkania

Hamam BalkaniaWith so much choice in the world today, the role of a trusted guide to seek out and present the best of what is available from a range of original sources should not be underestimated.

In literature, there are exciting worlds to be discovered beyond the realm of the cut-price supermarket reads that are more readily promoted for our attention.

With a little effort on our part and the experienced hand of sensitive publishers who are willing to seek out and share modern works from beyond borders, it is possible to enjoy and be enriched by some fascinating books.

Istros Books is a leading publisher of literature in translation. In a relatively short time, this London-based book house has become a reliable source of contemporary authors and modern classics from South Eastern Europe, and opened an English-speaking audience to a wealth of Balkan literature, poetry and political commentary.

Trusted and Dependable Guide to Quality European Literature

Under the knowledgable hand of director Susan CurtisIstros Books has become a trusted and dependable guide for lovers of quality modern European literature that might otherwise be lost to many of us.

There latest release is Hamam Balkania, which has been described as one of the most exciting and poetic novels in modern Serbian literature. Having won the Balkanika, Golden Hit and Isidora Sekulic awards and been translated into ten languages, this book from leading contemporary Serbian author Vladislav Bajac is a rarity among Serbian novels in that it is already widely available internationally.

Using powerful prose that touches on issues of philosophy, nationhood and the human condition, Hamam Balkania is a meticulously structured tale of friendship and redemption, where Bajac considers linkages between issues of personal, individual and national identity in the shadow of dramatic historical events.  It also raises the question of how much faith can be placed in history, as written by the victors, or remembrance of events that can be tainted by the prejudices of our own interpretations.

Bajac adopts a literary device of two parallel stories – one from the sixteenth century, one in modern day – blending the overlapping fates of real-life characters from both periods: Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent from the 16th century and, from the modern day, author Orhan Pamuk and eminent Yugoslav Buddhist Čedomil Veljačić.  Two additional characters that feature strongly are the cities of Istanbul and Belgrade.

History, Philosophy and Nationhood

The artfully constructed novel opens with descriptions of young men born into one nation being taken from their families to serve under an unfamiliar regime and religion in Istanbul.   Watching one man from Višegrad and sharing his concerns and friendships, we see him grow to become Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, all the time revelling in the connections between personal dramas and the dramatic events of history.

The opposing strand of the fictional author’s narrative lays bare the writing process and research in diary form, including (imaginary) discussions with actual cultural figures.

In its original Serbian format, the alternating stories were divided between the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets to further highlight the differences – thankfully, for me but maybe not the author, no such device is possible in the English translation.

I found the use of comments attributed to Orhan PamukJames Joyce and Allen Ginsberg, and others to be a little disconcerting, encouraging me to check the validity of the quotes. The same could not be said for the historical figures, who were both full bodied and believable.  The descriptions of their lives appear authentic, allowing this parallel strand of the story to read better for me.

By using a two-stringed technique, Hamam Balkania poses questions of duality, perception and the search for identity – a primary focus of the book.  The pace and depth of the storyline ensures that my enthusiasm for the historical element did not sag under the weight of the  writing style.  Indeed, I found that the author’s narrative and conversational asides added greater context and appreciation of the many colours of this Ottoman tale.

With evocative descriptions of life in the twin cities of the Ottoman Empire, Bajac conjures images and situations that encourage readers to question and consider human values and relations.  Fans of Orhan Pamuk should appreciate this novel, while those wishing to indulge in an originally crafted historical tale with modern resonance should be rewarded with an original and stimulating read.

Hamam Balkania is available from Istros Books, here.



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