You know you are in for a ride when the introduction to the book starts with “Laza Lazarević is often called the Serbian Turgeniev,” and you think “That’s well and good, and who is Turgeniev?”
Laza Lazarević is the author of a collection of short stories. I read the first six, written between 1879 and 1886. Since I couldn’t find an English translation of the names of the title, I’ll use my own English translation from my Norwegian book.
The Cardplayer (Prvi put s otsem na jutrenje): Is about a boy telling the story about his father. His father is described as having changed a lot lately and how this influences the whole house. First and foremost his mother. I thought this was wonderfully told. He really managed to capture the voice of a boy trying to be a man, so he can understand the world of grown ups.
School icon (Sjkolska ikona): While Lazarević was educated as a doctor, a lot of his stories take place among the farming community. One of the things I enjoyed so much with his writings in general is that these stories are so realistic. They are brutal, yet they have a pragmatic way of dealing with this. The stories aren’t brutal because we like brutality, they are brutal because the world is brutal. In this story the beloved priest in a small farming community has a child at a very old age, losing his very old wife in the process. Due to this the little girl is doted on and even sent to school, despite that not being something girls did. When the bishop discovers she is gifted (or is just so taken aback with a girl being able to read, the story doesn’t really elaborate on it) she is sent into town to continue her education. In this story Lazarević through the priest discusses the need for education, even in small farming communities and for all genders. This is a fresh take on it, since most stories I’ve read from this time very often paint the farming community as something quaint that the gentry from the city don’t want to change. He even managed to have the school icon of Saint Sava not just be some saint, but also the saint of the Enlightenment (Read up on Saint Sava, he was really interesting).
Bandits (U dobri čas hajduci): All his stories are in first person, yet very often the story doesn’t really include the narrator. He often talks about stories he has heard, or he is present as a silent witness. In this story the main part is presented as a conversation between a brother and a sister that the “I” overhears. Through this technique we as readers are presented with the values and world view guiding the people I read about and should empathise with. In this story we are present to a conversation about who is considered Serbian or not, and therefore whom is considered one of us. Well that’s the subtext at least. The pretext is the brother talking down someone with a Serbian father and German mother. The sister is taking the conversation in stride, not explaining that she is in love with this Serbian/German man. The word of the day is realism.
At the well (Na bunaru): Here you see the technique of not not inserting yourself in the story one step further. Here we are presented with a story told to us from the narrator about a family he knows. We are introduced to the concept of zádruga. Zádruga is extended family that live together, and the zádruga in the story has over 70 members. So it’s a sort of a small colony. The pretext here is a story of a young boy who marries a spoiled girl who don’t want to do any chores. This doesn’t really fit in with a farming community family where everyone is expected to work and do their part. The subtext is a show of family and community and how important it is for everyone to do their part. In addition it presents who has the power and how this power should be used. I think this and School Icon were my favourites.
The nation will gild it (Sve the to narod poslatitit!): This was probably my least favourite. The reason was that is was so slow moving, which is kind of the point. The story is about two people waiting at a dock for the boat so they can see their loved one again. That’s it. While these stories do touch upon big topics, they are surprisingly small stories. Only small glimpses into a lifetime filled with day to day experiences. These aren’t the stories of people saving the world or changing history. They are people who try to survive. Nothing more nothing less, and it doesn’t need to be more or less. Some days are filled with waiting.
Wind (Vetar): This story had me to the brink of tears, or at least to the brink of what ever is before brink of tears. A young man living with his mother is visiting his friend, the doctor, and find his father’s old friend in the hospital. While the story seemed to be a reflection of mortality and friendship, the ending came both out of nowhere and yet was present from the very beginning. Just like a good twist should be. I won’t give any more details due to the risk of ruining it.
Lazarević’s simple realistic way of writing hooked me from the beginning and didn’t let go. I don’t know if I’m being drawn to Eastern-European writing in general, or have just been really lucky with what I have read so far. No matter what, I do have to check out Turgeniev now.
– But, do you know the rituals and rules of mass?
– Honoured bishop, I have to say as the old priest Stoko: Nobody I’ve baptised has converted to Islam, nobody I have wed have divorced and nobody I have buried have risen from the grave. School Icon.