Hamam Balkania: A Book Review

Hamam Balkania from Vladislav Bajac, leading contemporary Serbian author and founder of the Geopoetika publishing house, is 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, it is rare among Serbian novels in that it is so widely available internationally.

Using powerful prose, 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 even events 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.

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.>

Vladislav Bajac.  Used for promotion only

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.>
>While I sometimes found the use of real names to be a little disconcerting, as I questioned the validity of comments attributed to Orhan Pamuk, James Joyce or Allen Ginsberg, for example, the historical figures did not have such an effect on me.  I took the descriptions of their lives as authentic and, maybe for that reason, this parallel strand of the story 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 unusual writing style.  Indeed, I found that the author’s narrative and conversational asides added greater context and appreciation to the Ottoman tale.

I greatly enjoyed this book, learning a little of life in the Ottoman Empire through the pictures painted by Bajac in his descriptions of life in the twin cities.  Readers who enjoy the works of Orhan Pamuk should appreciate this novel, while others wishing to indulge in an originally crafted historical tale with modern resonance will be rewarded with a stimulating read.
Hamam Balkania joins two other books from Geopoetika on the long list for the International IMPAC Dublin Literature Awards.  With the short list to be announced in April, this Serbian publishing house must be in with a chance of taking home another award.

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