Compiled and translated from BCMS (Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian – the new name for Serbo-Croatian) by Will Firth

Following my recent foray into the Balkan peninsular for #ReadIndies, I decided to stay there a little while longer. Turns out I chose a book with a contentious cover and title. Now while I’m itching to address the objections of those who feel that the title is both sexist and dishonest, I’m not going there. Those that are interested can see a summary of the arguments for and against here. For the record, I stand with the publisher’s tweet.

The title is ironic in reference to bombshells / Balkan is a compliment /The cover shows an old bomb recycled as a dress mannequin / The authors are all female / The editor is female / The translator is one of the biggest supporters of Balkan literature there is / PLEASE read the stories!

This anthology showcases 17 female voices from Serbia and Montenegro, at varying stages of their careers, all translated into English for the first time, and delivering my expectation of “bombshell”, i.e powerful narratives that pack a punch or something stronger. 2 stories are 13 pages long, most are around the 7-8 page mark. The shortest is just 3 pages long. There is no room for wasted words. Just story and impact. Not all are stand alone shorts. There are a couple of excerpts from novels. These I skimmed as is my habit. I’m not fond of excerpts, particularly when the whole work if not available in English for me to read. But I understand the importance of including them – it might just spark interest and release funds to enable further translation.

Which I think is the ultimate purpose of the anthology as a whole, is it not? To bring these authors to the anglophone world and open up a world of opportunity.

More importantly for readers how does this anthology read? Very quickly and very well. Male/female relationships from all angles: many in a world were disappointment is the only reality. The ironic title of the opening story by Bojana Babić says it all: A man worth waiting for. Though I find myself hoping that the irony is misplaced and the marriage doesn’t descend into one where he was so tedious that I stopped listening to him; I reduced him to a bout of tinnitus and waited for another noise to overlap him and drown him out. (Ana Miloš, Peace). As for the grievances of the trapped husband in Olja Knežević’s Trapped, they ensure that his home-making, child-rearing wife no longer understands him; she only sees and understands the mosquito that clings to the smooth skin of his cheek, where it tries to suck his blood … but can’t get out a single drop.

Which is not to say that this collection lacks problematical females. I think I’m supposed to have a little more sympathy for the female protagonist of Marijana’s Čanak’s Awakened, but I find myself alienated. She’s twisted. The wickedness of the unnamed female in Jelena Lengold’s Do you remember me? made me laugh, but also made me feel sincerely sorry for her poor victim …

This wouldn’t be a representative anthology from the Balkans without addressing the Balkan war of the 1990’s. Svetlana’s Slapšak’s I’m writing to you from Belgrade addresses the Serbian reaction to the death of Slobodan Milošević while Milica Rašić’s Smell is the most poignant examination of pragmatism required for female refugees to survive the brutalities of war and its aftermath. Like the protagonist years after the trauma, I was unexpectedly waylaid by tears.

Finally, a surprise for bookworms like myself in Tijana Zivaljević’s Home Libraries. But don’t expect a cosy read in the library by a warm fire. It’s food for thought. Just what will happen to our precious collections when we are no more? A bombshell thought, if ever I had one.

Balkan Bombshells is published today, 20.02.2023, by Istros Books which was set up in 2011 to publish and promote literature in translation from Central and SE Europe. It’s the first book I’ve read from them. It won’t be the last!