Whilst little known in the United Kingdom (as far as I am aware, anyway), Aleksandar Prokopiev is Macedonia’s most famous writer and musician. Many of the haunting tales in his Homunculus: Fairy Tales From the Left Pocket are based upon traditional fairytales, and some are rooted within Macedonian folk tales, but all without fail contain ‘very adult themes’. The winner of the Balkanika Prize in 2012, Homunculus has been translated by Will Firth.
Before I begin to discuss the book, it is worth detouring for a paragraph to demonstrate the wonderful things which Istros Books are bringing to the book market in the UK. An independent London-based publisher, their aim (much like that of Peirene Press) is to ‘specialise in English translations of extraordinary writing from unfamiliar places’. Rather than focus upon Europe as a whole, Eastern Europe is where the generally unheard of gems which Istros lovingly translate were originally published.
In Homunculus, Prokopiev ‘concocts a potent mix of the erotic and the tragic, of guilt and of longing – and of existential alienation’. The blurb states: ‘The author has largely retained the classical fairy tale structure with its elements of surprise and the constant intertwining of the real and unreal, but he transcends the sugar-sweet endings that are so familiar to us’. In her foreword to the volume, poet Fiona Sampson writes the following: ‘These shape-shifting stories remain adamantly, radically open for us to interpret. They challenge us to accept, even to embrace, our own confusion… To read them is to glimpse the wildness at the heart of Europe’. She goes on to intone that his ‘fiction resembles very little that will be familiar to English readers. It has the fantastical darkness of folk material but, like the novels of Angela Carter, it inflects this matter with high cultural allusions’.
The variety of settings and plots within Homunculus are described as ‘exciting and kaleidoscopic’. The styles here show the sheer creativity which Prokopiev brings to his fiction. ‘Tom Thumb’ is a monologue spoken to the narrator’s mother, and there are also varied third person narratives, and fableistic tales. Whilst not for the faint-hearted due to its graphic scenes and content, Homunculus is a fascinating short story collection, and the more sinister edge of the fairytale theme which is woven throughout is what gives the whole coherence. Places and moods are so well captured, and all of the above ensures that Homunculus is an engaging piece in consequence.