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‘The Five Wonders of the Danube’ by Zoran Živković

To all those of you who are well versed in translated fiction, Zoran Živković might be a familiar name, as he is one of the most translated and acclaimed contemporary Serbian authors. If you have never heard his name or read any of his works before (let’s not really talk about all the underrepresented non-English speaking authors now…), let me talk to you about one of his books that was my personal introduction to his oeuvre, and which also made it to the list of my Most Memorable Books of 2019.

43706056._SY475_Translated into English by Alice Copple-Tošić and published by Cadmus Press, The Five Wonders of Danube consists of five chapters, each one taking place in or around a different bridge of the Danube river.

Although each story has a different set of characters and appears separate from all the others, they all very cleverly come together at the end. All five stories have surreal and often absurd elements that make Živković’s prose so interesting and unique. Apart from an academic, the author is also an art enthusiast, something which is apparent in all of the stories.

For example, in the first story, titled ‘First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg’, an enormous painting mysteriously and unexplainably appears on the Black Bridge, causing a big uproar since the passersby and the police alike are trying to solve the mystery of how it got hung up there without anyone noticing a thing. In ‘Second Wonder: Yellow Bridge, Vienna’, the longest story of the bunch, five unconnected people are going their own ways on the bridge, when they happen to stop short on their tracks at exactly the same time. Two artistic homeless people are the stars of the ‘Third Wonder: Red Bridge, Bratislava’, my personal favourite of the stories. One of them is an avid Dostoyevski reader and an aspiring writer himself, while the other one adeptly carves figures out of wood, when the fire of their inspiration turns into an actual fire that engulfs their minimal belongings.

In ‘Fourth Wonder: White Bridge, Budapest’, a famous composer looks back on the incidents that have led him to write his most acclaimed masterpieces, and very shockingly realises that death eerily plays a big part in his creative process (not in the way that you might think, though). Lastly, the ‘Fifth Wonder: Blue Bridge, Novi Sad’, is perhaps the strangest and most surreal out of all the stories, but it ties some loose ends together and sort of makes a full circle back to the first story.

While Živković might deal with some rather heavy themes such as suicide, homelessness and death, his writing style is infused with such wit and clever humour that it becomes a fun and whimsical reading experience that truly makes the reader ponder.

The surreal elements might sometimes get a bit overwhelming for those who are not very familiar with reading such stories steeped in the absurd, as many things do not make much sense until later on in the book. What I personally loved was how the bridges turned into a (sometimes metaphorical) portal of some sort, where things (the painting in the first story) and even people (the characters in the second story) are transported almost magically. Unexplained and absurd things take place on those bridges, turning Danube and its banks into a liminal space of wonder where everything is possible although eerily unexplainable.

My first contact with Živković’s work was definitely a very pleasant one and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing more of his works. In my opinion, The Five Wonders of Danube is a great introduction to his whimsical writing, and I do hope more people get to discover the magic quality of his pen.

Have you read any books by Zoran Živković before? If yes, what did you think of them and which one is your favourite? Feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below 🙂

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.

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‘A Biography of a Chance Miracle’ by Tanja Maljartschuk ****

40800042Some books come into your life unexpectedly, without any warning, and only after you have engaged with them for a little while you realise they were exactly what you have been looking for, even though you never even knew they existed in the first place. One of those books is A Biography of a Chance Miracle, written by the Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk, translated into English by Zenia Tompkins and published by Cadmus Press.

After spending quite a long time away from the blog, what better way to return than with a review of a beautiful and thought-provoking book such as this. A Biography of a Chance Miracle is a book that came into my life by utter and complete chance and I am so thankful that it did.

The story of this novel follows Lena, a young girl who is born and grows up in a Western Ukrainian city which she calls San Francisco. We follow Lena from her childhood years to her adolescence and early adulthood as she tries to figure out the world around her, a world she never seems to be able to fit into. A rebellious but sensitive soul, Lena refuses to conform to any kind of rule set upon her even as a child, and she always speaks up when she sees injustice and maltreatment, although that rarely ends up in her favour.

Vividly depicting the political and cultural climate of Ukraine at the time, the author brings issues of cultural dispute with Russia, the inability of the government to take care of its people and the vast, chaotic mess that is bureaucracy to the forefront. Although everyone in her country is taught to hate Russia, Lena seems to feel a peculiar affinity and likeness towards this country and its language, for which she is repeatedly punished. She also seems to be drawn to the ‘forlorn creatures’ as she calls them, those people who also don’t seem to fit in and are different from the norm, like her classmate and childhood friend who she nicknames Dog or her university roommate Vasylyna, a burly athlete with an unexpectedly soft side.

Lena’s aspiration in life is to not lead a stupid and meaningless life like most of the people around her do. In order to achieve that, she takes on the role of the saviour and tries to help the people that need her the most through a series of small ‘miracles’. From an activist fighting for stray dogs’ rights to fighting against bureacracy just to earn a wheelchair for her crippled friend, Lena is an advocate of justice that no one really seems to appreciate, as most of her endeavours end up in failure. Her spirit and determination always shine through, though, something which culminates in the rather ambiguous ending. The presence of magical realism makes the ending rather unclear and leaves the reader wondering if what is described is really what happened or if it’s all just part of Lena’s machinations, but I guess, such an ending would be the only fitting one for a character as whimsical as Lena.

I loved Maljartschuk’s prose and writing style because it is poignant yet subtle and humorous at the same time. She manages to satirise the state of Ukraine at that time by balancing reality and serious topics with wit, surrealism and the right dose of humour. It is precisely the kind of sociopolitical critique that I utterly enjoy reading. The translation also needs to be commended, since the prose flowed effortlessly and all the cultural references were presented in a friendly way to those who may not be familiar with the Ukrainian culture.

One of the main reasons why this novel came so close to my heart is because reading about the state of post-war Ukraine and the way bureaucracy and the system keep on failing their people sadly reminded me so much of the current situation in Greece. And that’s a sad, sad truth to realise.

To finish off, I would like to say a few words about Cadmus Press, a fairly new publishing house committed to bringing the most outstanding literature from Europe, focusing on Eastern and Southeastern European countries, in English translation. I think their undertaking is really impressive and I’m always in for some of the most notable lesser-known literary voices of Europe, especially if they are as impressive as A Biography of a Chance Miracle.

I strongly, strongly recommend you pick up this book. No matter what your reading preferences may be, this book will definitely tug at your heartstrings and play the sweetest melody in your soul. I enjoyed every single second I spent reading this book and I really hope more of the author’s books become available in English in the very near future, as I see her quickly climbing up the list of my favourite authors.

A copy of this wonderful book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.