Our list of essential contemporary literature. From Baku-based sagas to Ukrainian tragicomedy via tales of Yugoslavian exile, this shelf provides a rich and diverse perspective on life in the region, detailing the numerous shifts that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Dive into this dystopian novel from Alisa Ganieva set in a realistically near-future Dagestan. Follow the footsteps of Shamil, a local reporter in Makhachkala, amidst rumours that the Russian government, intent on ostracising Muslim communities of the Caucasus, is building a wall along the region’s border, closing it off from the rest of the country.
Kadare’s poignant texts tell the story of how legends of betrayal and defeat that pervaded European civilisation for centuries in the wake of the defining 1389 Battle of Kosovo culminated in the agony of one tiny population at the end of the 20th century.
Spanning three generations from the 1940s to the 1990s, Ibragimbekov’s saga tells the tale of a group of friends who grew up in the same courtyard in Baku, amidst the country’s struggle to define itself beyond its entrenched Soviet identity. Filled with nuanced insight and absurd humour, Ibragimbekov’s prose reveals the complexities of being human, recalling writers such as Bulgakov and Kundera.
Set in Azerbaijan in the late 1970s, The Orphan Sky follows the young piano prodigy Leila Badalbeili as she is forced to spy on a music shop by her manipulative Communist mentor. After she falls in love with the shop’s owner, a rebellious young painter, Leila begins to interrogate the Communist ideals that have defined her existence, and her place in a rapidly changing world.
Touching upon the complex themes of homelessness and exile, Ugrešić’s tale explores the dangerously intimate relationship between Tanja, a teacher at the University of Amsterdam, and her student Igor, set against the backdrop of Yugoslavia’s violent collapse.
Described as “Trainspotting set against a grim post-Soviet backdrop,” Zhadan’s powerful prose captures the bleak atmosphere of now war-torn eastern Ukraine, in this mysterious road novel set in Luhansk. Zhadan, the most famous poet in the country, has become a literary beacon of Ukraine’s “Euro-Maidan” movement.
In a remote Hungarian town, a once thriving Communist utopia has been brought to a standstill until Irimias, thought to be dead, returns to the commune. As he soon attains a messianic aura, a series of brutal events unfold in this tale of human faith and fallibility.
In this exquisite dark comedy, Kurkov tells the story of Viktor, an aspiring writer, and his depressed pet penguin Misha, who earns a living composing obituaries for a local newspaper. With his deadpan tone and intransigent commitment to realism, Kurkov’s tale embodies the old saying, that truth is often stranger than fiction.
Originally from Bosnia, Hemon published his first short story in English only three years after moving to the United States. The Lazarus Project both showcases his linguistic mastery and poignantly explores the themes of nostalgia, displacement and temporality, as two friends becomes obsessed about the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by Chicago’s Chief of Police.