Stranger Things meets The Wire, Dungeons & Dragons and No Logo, amidst the Yugoslav Wars. Apologies if you stumbled over the title, but with its vulgar ring, Barbi Marković sets the scene as this book, despite its playful and nostalgic cover, depicts the brutal world of 1990s Belgrade, reflected in its harsh language and tirades of swear words. In fact, ‘Schwanz’ (‘dick’) is one of the characters’ favourite words, no matter what age or social class they are. But don’t be put off: the language is as brutal as it is playful, with dialogues often purposefully sounding like verbatim translations from Serbian, and perfectly captures the protagonists’ reality within the macrocosm of the final years of Yugoslavia, as well as the nuances of surviving your teenage years by wearing the right brands.
And you, dear reader, better take all of these problems seriously, as you are in the fracas: the novel comes with a role-play booklet in the style of Dungeons & Dragons, inviting readers to assume a role within the story and choose their own adventure. The story is told from the point of view of young teen Vanja Dimić, in the second person singular, so that ‘you’ are one of the protagonists, and invited to make decisions based on her point of view.
The events begin in 1995, when Vanja, Marko and Kasandra, your ‘normal’ Belgrade teenagers, neglected and/or abused by their parents, find themselves in a fight with the estate’s gang leaders and are forced to steal famous singer Gana Savić’s gold crocodile medallion. As they are about to enter the house, there is a sudden maelstrom of light and colour and everything goes blank.
As it turns out, Gana Savić’s husband Miomir has built a time machine to escape the dreadful 1990s but it backfired and now everyone is stuck in the ‘all-90s’, uncontrollably jumping back and forth in time. To fix the machine, the gang needs to bring him two key objects: a red Porsche and the crocodile medallion. In their quest, hampered by throwbacks and jumps to different years in the 90s, these unlikely adventurers are having to resort to the main states of being of their time: violence and waiting, the latter a somewhat unusual plot device for an adventure novel. Yet, the story – which is persuasively realistic, despite its fantastical elements – is an exciting page-turner, driven by language: sentences and dialogues often veer off in unexpected directions, portraying the author’s keen eye for the minutiae of everyday life in Yugoslavia, its TV programmes, food shortages, a critique of the rise of capitalism and popular brands, and an increase in drug use, as well as its racism, at a time when the school subject ‘Serbo-Croat’ becomes ‘Serbian’ and nationalism brutally splits Yugoslavia into its constituent nations.
Barbi Marković has been honoured by the juries of the prestigious Adelbert von Chamisso Prize and the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize and is certainly one to watch when it comes to post-Yugoslav literature written in German, and Austrian literature more generally.
Reviewed by Rebecca DeWald
DIE VERSCHISSENE ZEIT
(‘The Dick-ish Time’)
by Barbi Marković
Published by Residenz Verlag (2022)
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Rebecca DeWald is a bilingual translator for English, German, French and Spanish. She coordinates the Emerging Translator Mentorships Programme at the National Centre for Writing, runs the Translators’ Stammtisch and Translation Theory Lab at the Goethe-Institut Glasgow, and serves as co-chair of the Translators Association.