Balkan spirit

Croatian Nights: a festival of alternative literature

Edited by Borivoj Radakovic, Matt Thorne and

Anthologies of fiction are invariably hit-and-miss affairs - even those with worthy and intriguing themes. So it is with this collection of short stories by Croatian and British writers. The book is the result of prolonged creative collaboration between the Croatian Festival of Alternative Literature, a group whose members "reject both postmodern irony and nationalism", and Britain's New Puritan crowd, including Matt Thorne, Nicholas Blincoe and Toby Litt.

The 18 short stories form a collage of Croatia viewed from inside and out, a picture of a young nation from the perspective of inhabitants and visitors. This approach gives the anthology a definite freshness, even if sandwiching fiction in translation with writing in the original creates some odd stylistic jumps. Perhaps unavoidably, the stories vary in quality, but they are bound by common threads.

Among the Croatian contributors, there is a strong tendency to experiment - Jelena Carija's aggressive "Junk Food Kills, Doesn't It?" is part film script and Zoran Feric's "Theological Proof" is segmented into six sections - which explains the affinity with the stripped-down style of the New Puritans. Many of the Croatians display a fondness for the brutal and the absurd; their writing has a rawness, creating a sense of tension and barely submerged violence. Several of them touch on attitudes to homosexuality, and death and desperation taint some of the narratives.

The British contributions are some-what lighter, though there is occasionally a sense of forced exoticism. As Tibor Fischer writes in his introduction, this is a book "born out of a shared fondness for hard drinking", and references to various spirits - clear, cruel loza; bitter, liquorice-tinted pelinkovac - permeate the writing, as does a haze of cigarette smoke. Many of their stories seem to offer more in- sight into the travelling habits of the British than into Croatia as a destination. A good illustration of this is "Storm" by Ben Richards, whose crabby protagonist gradually warms, despite the prevalence of pebble beaches, to the country his girlfriend has persuaded him to visit.

Other writers are more adventurous. Litt's "The Tourist" is an endearingly surreal story of roaming internal organs (perhaps a metaphor for the fragmentation of Yugoslavia), and Salena Saliva Godden's "A Piece of the Moon" briefly captures a bit of Balkan magic. Niall Griffiths's story of a young man "drunk and alone in Split" blends elements of travelogue with a dash of something more frantic and bizarre. Thorne's contribution, "Photo Opportunity", is pretty anonymous in comparison, and although Anna Davis's "Distance" (about a troubled Welsh MP) and John Williams's "The Ballad of Mott the Hoople" (about an ageing punk) are both poignant, they could really have been set anywhere.

A deep affection for Croatia is evident in all these stories, but one can't help feeling there should be more to them than that. It is perfectly possible to write about the country without tackling the region's turbulent political past or its emergent cultural identity, but not to do so seems a cop-out. The strongest stories in the anthology tap into the complex, and not always positive, contrasts of Croatia, a new country burdened with a difficult history. Borivoj Radakovic's odd and unsettling "Relief" is perhaps the best example, clearly conveying that although the fighting has stopped, the war, for many people, is far from over.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear charm offensive